Let’s win this.

It is clear now that Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party are daring to believe they can replace the word “do” in their campaign slogan with “win”.  

The word was not mentioned in Ardern’s speech at the party’s campaign launch at the Auckland Town Hall yesterday but the event, and her words and actions, associated the new leader with the party’s greats. It wasn’t quite ‘losers get off the stage” as former leader Andrew Little was embraced warmly by the party and hugged at the end by Ardern.

Three-time winner Helen Clark sat in seat 1A like a revered former US President at a party convention. Each time she stood or moved the hall sparked into applause.

At one point in the speech Ardern ran through Labour’s bold and brave leaders past. She listed Michael Joseph Savage, Peter Fraser, Norman Kirk, David Lange and Clark.

Then she added herself, her own driving purpose.

There was no mention of those who didn’t win or lost nobly: Rowling, Palmer, and Moore, nor the immediate past trio of Goff, Shearer and Cunliffe.

Labour’s momentum in opinion polls and in spirit since Ardern ascended to the leadership three weeks ago has made winning, actually winning by matching or outdoing the National Party vote on September 23, a possibility. 

And Ardern is carrying herself like a winner. Her pulling power was evident in the crowd which spilled out yesterday from the Town Hall’s main chamber into the smaller Concert Chamber and then just up the road to the foyer of the Q Theatre. The queue before the hall’s doors opened extended well down past Aotea Square on Queen St, a priceless visual sign of political demand.

Like the Democrats in the United States, Labour is the party of artists and entertainers and like the Democrats it can put on a production, when it senses victory, that puts the other guys in the shade. From a solo waiata, the singer spotlighted in the gods above a darkened room, to the peerless MC Michele A’Court, guest speaker and singer Don McGlashan and the vibe of soul singer Hollie Smith, the show in itself was worth the queuing.

Ardern spoke in front of a small grandstand of carefully selected faces and races, Pacific headresses, turban, headscarves and a smart lightshow which had red love hearts rising.

All this momentum and success is rubbing off. She pulled off the twin sided autocue seamlessly, reeled off the self-deprecation and the anecdotes of regional New Zealand. “I have described myself as relentlessly positive. That’s probably because I was born in Hamilton where everyone is always optimistic that the fog will lift. Literally.”

She leaned heavily on the great, unfinished, might-have-been success of Norman Kirk, the one who ended four – four – terms of National government in 1972. The one who turned over a relatively new leader in John Marshall after that party’s winner, Keith Holyoake had stepped down. The parallels with John Key, Bill English and their three-term tenure were palpable.

A clipping of Kirk standing with her grandmother hangs on Ardern’s wall.  “That clipping is a reminder to me. A reminder that MPs come and go, leaders come and go and all we can do is make sure we leave something good behind.

“That means taking on the hard issues. Thinking not just about the next three years but the next 10. It means being bold and being brave.”

And it was here she listed the winning titans of Labour history.

Daring to talk not just of taking this election and putting Labour into power for a decade seemed unthinkable a month ago. A coalition cobbled together from weakness, riven with the curse of instability that has been New Zealand First, was probably the best hope. 

But Ardern realises the voters can go only so far on the lure of her winner’s aura. When she allowed herself to round off the achievements of the Labour greats, her goal was: “For me it’s simple: I want to build a country where every child grows up free from poverty and is filled with hope and opportunity.”

Jacinda Ardern embraces former Labour leader Andrew Little during the party’s campaign launch. Photo: Getty Images

Here, she showed she knows fine words can’t be enough. “But that, of course, requires me and Labour to be elected. And for some people, there are some unanswered questions which simply boil down to one, simple thing. Now what?”

With inequality, homelessness, overstretched infrastructure, what does Labour do now?

“Well now we stand up. We do what we have done before. We refuse to accept the status quo, the idea that things can’t be improved and that we have no choice. We have a choice and we can do better.”

She announced Labour would change the Public Finance Act to require governments to report not only GDP growth, deficits and surpluses in the annual Budget but to declare how many children have been helped out of poverty in the preceding 12 months. And “we will do the same when it comes to showing our progress on challenges we have postponed for too long – and yes that includes the environment and climate change.

“Because when we hold ourselves to account, you can hold us to account. And we will only do better when we are honest about where we are starting.”

It wasn’t quite Lange’s ‘opening of the books’ pledge but it is all about the pitching forward, the promise of accountability. Trust. Hope.

Climate change would be her generation’s “nuclear-free moment” – and “I am determined we will tackle it head on”.  “We will take climate change seriously because my government will be driven by principle, not expediency. And opportunity, not fear.”

Using those two words – My Government – for the first time must be a weird experience. 

She set herself to be the leader who addresses the big, entrenched problems with our rivers, mental health and education, with the issues of regional economies.

As a vision speech, as a campaign launch show, it was at the high end of good. Nothing new on policy. What was new was confidence. 

When it was over, after hugs for Helen and Andrew and a heroine’s walkabout in Aotea Square, the faithful were certainly energised. A central Auckland, friendly audience thronged and selfied in a manner similar to her debut rally down at the Viaduct three weeks earlier. Old hands in the media tried to identify past images to match the feeling; one reached back to the famed Muldoon rallies.

She is hot, right now. Her reception in advance of a campaign and election was akin to Key’s first election night victory rally in 2008. A cross between that and the America’s Cup parade of a few weeks ago.

In both those instances the victors had had their victory. She has got to do it yet: Win. Then she’ll justify her name following that Labour list of grandees.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

Leave a comment