New Labour leader Jacinda Ardern says she’ll spend 72 hours taking stock on the party’s policies and plans for the September 23 election. What will be top of her mind, and what changes could we see in the coming weeks? Sam Sachdeva and Shane Cowlishaw report.

In her first press conference as Labour leader, Jacinda Ardern mixed smiles and steel.

Jokes about accepting “the worst job in politics” combined with terse dismissals of questions about her own capabilities.

Labour is undoubtedly taking a risk with Ardern, but a worthwhile one given the party’s dreadful position in the polls and former leader Andrew Little’s decision to so publicly air his own self-doubt.

The 37-year-old radiates charisma in a way Little never seemed capable of, and presents a more stark contrast to National leader and Prime Minister Bill English.

A “Jacinda bounce” in Labour’s polling seems highly likely: after David Cunliffe replaced David Shearer atop the party in 2013, it jumped a couple of points in the polls, and Labour strategists may hope Ardern can win back some of the female voters targeted by former PM John Key.

Cunliffe’s rise subsided, and then some, by election day a year later, but Ardern only has to sustain it for less than two months to put Labour in a far better position.

In Kelvin Davis, Ardern has a hard-nosed deputy who is an influential member of the Māori caucus and someone towards the right of Labour.

Davis has been one of Labour’s more successful performers, tackling the Government over issues like Mt Eden Prison and the treatment of Kiwi detainees in Australia, and the hope may be that he can win back some of the Labour voters that have leached to NZ First in recent months.

He is also close to Winston Peters and Shane Jones, which could help when it comes time for coalition negotiations.

The memorandum of understanding with the Greens is set to stay, despite unease from some of the right of the party about its effect on Labour’s vote – most vocally expressed by Stuart Nash to Newstalk ZB.

Among those hoping for a change of tack from Labour is the Māori Party. Party president Tuku Morgan called on Ardern and Davis to work with the party “for our people’s sake” after Little previously described them as the last cab off the rank.

Any immediate warming of relations seems unlikely: Davis said the Māori Party had to “up their game” before Labour could work with them, a pronouncement not welcomed by the party’s co-leader Te Ururoa Flavell.

“Fix your own house up before you start talking about anyone else’s house,” Flavell responded.

Ardern will also need to spend some time cultivating Labour’s relationship with NZ First: she suggested the pair would get on well “because I like single malts”, but Winston Peters, as always, was giving nothing away.

Taking on Ardern

National is well aware of the threat Ardern presents.

Shortly after Ardern’s election as deputy leader, National’s Nikki Kaye – Ardern’s sparring partner in the battle for Auckland Central in 2011 and 2014 – dismissed the “superficial cosmetic facelift” and painted her as someone who had been missing in action on the big issues facing young New Zealanders.

“Yes, she will be across every billboard, but she absolutely failed our generation on her first day on the job.”

The tactic was simple: paint Ardern as vacuous, lacking in substance and promoted above her abilities.

That it backfired was evident in the relatively subdued reaction of National MPs as she assumed the top job on Tuesday.

English spoke of his respect for the role of leader of the opposition, turning down a free hit to outline Ardern’s weaknesses and instead focusing on Labour as a whole.

“The real problem for her is the Labour Party and their lack of progress over nine years in opposition. In the end, that’s what put the pressure on Andrew Little – he did his best, but those are issues for her to deal with.”

Those attacks could be renewed after a waiting period, but National will tread carefully.

Even the polls that spelled Little’s demise put Labour in a mathematical position to form government with the Greens and NZ First – something English is clearly aware of in his attempts to gee up National supporters.

“This is someone who in a matter of months could be prime minister, and in the context of the current election campaign we need to lift our levels of support to win an election with Jacinda Ardern as opposition leader.”

Speaking to media in her first appearance as leader, Ardern said she and her team needed 72 hours to “take stock” of the party’s campaign plans and what change needed to be made.

There is of course the issue of taking down the freshly elected hoardings dotted around the country, promising “a fresh approach” with a photo of yesterday’s man.

Some rejigging of Labour’s list may be necessary: Davis went off the list along with the other Māori electorate MPs to focus on winning Te Tai Tokerau, but the party’s constitution appears to require that he assumes the second list spot.

Policy changes?

More significantly, Ardern and her team will have to consider what changes, if any, to make to the party’s election policies.

She told media she would continue to focus on issues of fairness and tackling inequality, and there could be more concrete changes to come.

So what new policies could we see from an Ardern/Davis-led Labour team?

The media buzz has been deafening, but the party has already announced many of its big policies and will have little wiggle room in terms of education and housing.

Ardern has been a passionate children’s spokeswoman and a big supporter of students.

Pledges such as increasing paid parental leave and a baby bonus are already out there, but while the party has said it will review student allowances, don’t be surprised to see a sweetener for those struggling to study and pay the rent.

Could tax hit the headlines?

It’s unlikely, before the election anyway.

In previous campaigns Labour pushed a capital gains tax, along with raising the retirement age, as a harsh but necessary step to reducing inequality.

The move was disastrous, receiving a massive thumbs-down from the public.

Little quickly moved to scrap the policies when he became leader in 2015, saying it was too hard on blue-collar workers to stay on the clock until 67.

National will raise the pension age to 67 by 2040, but although the idea is received more positively by younger voters it’s something Labour’s core manual worker voters hate.

The party won’t want to risk anything damaging the momentum won by shedding yet another leader and installing a fresh face, and will not campaign on either issue.

But if Labour do pull off a come-from-behind victory and form the next government, you can expect both the ideas to be back on the table.

Charter schools and prisons

During his time in Parliament, Davis has been unafraid to buck against Labour’s politics.

Last month he threw a grenade into the party’s own education manifesto announcement by telling media that he would resign before the two charter schools in his Northland electorate of Te Tai Tokerau were closed.

Labour has long campaigned against the idea of charter schools and there was no mention of any change in policy in the manifesto.

Responding to the comments, education spokesman Chris Hipkins told Stuff “tweaks” would be made to ensure there were no unnecessary barriers for new special character schools and under changes Labour would make it was possible the schools in Davis’s electorate would meet the criteria to transition.

With Davis now in a real position of power, there will likely be pressure on Hipkins and the party to protect those schools that are operating adequately.

As a staunch campaigner for prison reform, he has publicly admitted that political parties, including Labour, have dropped the ball in the past about incarceration rates, scared to look soft on crime to voters despite a rising prison population.

Continuing the theme, Davis floated an idea earlier this year that was definitely not Labour policy.

With Māori making up a large percentage of prisoners, he said if the party won the election an existing prison could be converted into one run on tikanga Māori values.

“A prison based on Māori values, not exclusively for Māori but for anybody, but they’ll know that the values that the prison will be run under will be based along Māori lines,” he told Newshub.

“Why don’t we just try, have the courage to try one of those 18 prisons and run it along kaupapa Māori lines.”

The idea was dampened down by Little, but it could be revitalised by Davis under Ardern.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

Leave a comment