Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has used an invitation-only political rally involving all three government parties to reassert both her leadership and to re-establish the government’s political agenda after a fractious few weeks in relations between coalition partners Labour and New Zealand First.
While the framework for organising government policy-making had been in development since March, Ardern used the speech to subtly assert her primacy, describing herself as being “in the driving seat” for the metaphorical car ride the government is taking the country on amid recent indications that NZ First leader and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters is seeking a more equal footing with her and between the two parties, despite NZ First having nine seats in Parliament to Labour’s 46.
But Ardern also sought to assert shared values between Peters and herself, describing a video of the moment during Peters’ Oct. 20 coalition partner announcement when she realised NZ First would choose to form a government with Labour.
“It’s not the moment where the government is announced, it’s before that,” she told an audience that included NZ First and Green party leaders and MPs. “It’s the moment Winston talks about the things that I believe in too. I smile, and realise that we are going to have the chance to change everything.”
In recent weeks, Peters has either succeeded in altering government policy or raised doubts about NZ First’s support for a series of flagship Labour policies, including ending the ‘3 strikes’ law and order policy, doubling the annual refugee intake, labour relations law reform and quibbling over the detail of the new Crown-Maori relations portfolio. He also bristled last week at the description of the government as “Labour-led” and conceded NZ First had chosen the more difficult path in making a three-party government in coalition with Labour, supported by the eight-MP Green Party.
Offering a laundry list of policy achievements ranging from the $5 billion families package to the offshore oil and gas exploration ban and phasing out single-use plastic bags, Ardern said the government had achieved “a huge amount” in its first 11 months, “as the most pure form of MMP government New Zealand has ever had”.
“Perhaps it’s because we have never had a government quite like ours that we cause a little bit of chat. It should come as no surprise though, that as three distinct parties, we will have different opinions and ideas. Those didn’t begin and nor did they end at the negotiating table.
“But ultimately, we make those differences work as much as we make our consensus drive us forward.
“That in itself is pretty unique. Other MMP governments have had coalition agreements and confidence and supply agreements that set out specific policies they will progress. But rarely does that capture the big picture. It’s a bit like a road trip that tells you who’s in the car, where you’ll be stopping, but doesn’t tell you where you’re going.
“I can tell you, that as the person driving that car, that wasn’t enough for me,” Ardern said.
She laid out a jointly agreed government agenda “blueprint”, hammered out in Cabinet and its committees since March and agreed by all the government parties, comprising three broad themes and 12 main priorities.
Ardern said today’s announcements were “not just something I’ve generated for a speech”.
“This is our Cabinet mandated, Coalition Government work plan.”
However, the timing effectively allowed Ardern to reset expectations and address a growing chorus of negative commentary about her administration.
“We have come in with a commitment to deliver transparent, transformative, and compassionate government,” she said.
New Zealand was “not immune to the challenges that other economies and countries are facing, but nor are we destined to face them in the same way”, she said, nominating digital transformation, the future of work, climate change, social isolation and the long-term impacts of poverty as key themes for a government that was responding to an “undercurrent” in the electorate for a different approach to political leadership and policy.
“Perhaps I picked it up from the next generation of voters, or perhaps it was just the vibe of the thing. We decided that there was a place in government for concepts like compassion and kindness; that being active and intervening from time to time was a good thing; and that if there was ever a time to be bold and to use our voice on the world stage, it was now.”
She recommitted the government to running budget surpluses and debt control while pursuing a fairer wealth distribution, introducing a new range of new ways to measure economic success, and promising to “bring back some authenticity to our clean green image”.
New Zealand would also continue to make an independent contribution to world affairs.
“We want an international reputation New Zealanders can be proud of. And while we are navigating a level of global uncertainty not seen for some time, I believe in the importance of New Zealand’s place in the world. We want to be the country that we are already pretty proud of. The one that is clean and green, that is fair-minded and looks after one another, that is innovative and gives just about anything a go. Including a coalition blueprint.”
The three core themes of the government’s blueprint bring order but no new detail to policies already announced.