The Government held an evangelical gathering yesterday to explain what it is and what it hopes to do.
It wasn’t exactly clear why a relatively new administration holding up relatively well in the opinion polls needed to explain itself, but explain it did.
It wasn’t on a particularly auspicious day, being just 11 months since its formation rather than the usual, celebratory one-year mark.
It was an invite only affair, in a university lecture theatre darkened to permit viewing of a skite-video of the first, well, 11 months and featuring a scrolling, too-fast-to-read list of the achievements of this Labour-led Government. Or the Labour-New Zealand First Coalition. Or the Labour-New Zealand First Coaltion with support on confidence and supply from the Green Party.
New Zealand First got to speak first, with the old-school leader Winston Peters doing old-school podium and script reading politics.
Then Labour’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stepped out to a podium-less stage, adorned only with a remote in her hand and a smart Persian rug to measure her steps left and right as she gave what immediately became labelled a political Ted Talk.
Reading – peering – from screens high up in the lecture theatre, Ardern announced the Government’s path forward. Thirty years forward.
As with all 30-year plans it was virtuous and nebulous. Everything to agree with, nothing to oppose. And it was un-detailed and unspecific and unformed and unknown.
Imagine if Peters had done a 30 year plan 30 years ago when: he was in the National Party, happy to be the Member for Tauranga, yet to be sacked and stood down from various ministries – and so far from being an international statesman he couldn’t recall whether he’d met the former US President Ronald Reagan or not.
The atmosphere in the room was warm, but a furnace away from the sort of heat Ardern produced a year ago on the election campaign trail. She stayed resolutely to the screens’ script and raised a few muted laughs at moments of self-deprecation. At the final line: “We are going to keep doing this” – a flatline mutation of the zeitgeist “Let’s Do This” of 2017 – there was an obligatory standing ovation. First up was Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway.
What was this unusual political event?
Ardern declared it a historic moment. Self-declared history seldom is.
Asking herself to sum up this agenda, she said: “We want to be the country that we are already pretty proud of.” Which is not quite Sir Robert Muldoon’s “leave the country no worse than I found it” but hardly a searing political ambition.
But this was the three parties of the Government of New Zealand trying to cut through the political ‘chat’ and, in their earnest hopes, get their story out there. It comes after weeks of the low-level bushfires that governments encounter and weeks of New Zealand First doing what it does – contrarian, stand-apart, look-at-meism.
Ardern’s speech featured themes and priorities. There were three themes: the economy, wellbeing, and leadership.
Each of the themes had priorities. For example for the economy, the first was to grow and share prosperity, the second was to support the regions, the third was transitioning to a green carbon neutral country, and the fourth was broadening the ‘measure of success’. (Unusually, that fourth one was third in the A to D listing in the documentation produced with the event’s media pack).
In any case, there were four for wellbeing and four more for leadership.
National probably could have signed up to all of them – other than a commitment to warm, dry homes and the indulgence of expanding Peters’ Super Gold Card for superannuitants.
To achieve these abstract targets the Government has split its cabinet committees to have responsibility for each theme – or priority. It wasn’t clear.
There is to be much on these themes and priorities on the Government’s website – and Ardern pledged voters would be able to mark the administration against its “lofty goals” over time.
So, three themes, 12 priorities and one big message – we (the three of us) care and the other guys didn’t. (See Newsroom political editor Sam Sachdeva’s news report from yesterday here.)
Ardern presented well, as is her way. The question and answer panel with the PM, the Finance Minister Grant Robertson, NZ First minister Tracey Martin and, yes he got a cameo, Greens leader James Shaw, was too contrived to convince anyone outside the room. Questions were sourced from known attendees in advance, and from vetted offerings via Facebook.
It was almost as if the event wasn’t for the media or the public, the voters, but for the three parties themselves. It was a kind-of-tripartite party conference. Labour, NZ First and Green members in the same room being sprinkled with coalition unity.
Certainly the Cabinet turned up. Fourteen by my count, including the associate transport minister Julie Anne Genter, who is on maternity leave. And happily for them – and not for Simon Bridges – they seemed to have shared the Crown limousines to the venue at Auckland University of Technology with just these four plus the Prime Minister’s car parked outside during the formalities.
Numerous MPs provided ballast. As did invitees including business figures such as Michael Stiassny of Vector, Michael Boggs of NZME, tech entrepreneur Selwyn Pellett and Air New Zealand’s newly appointed government relations guy Andrew Kirton who seemed busy ushering folks for his old party, Labour.
However contrived such events try to be, politicians in the raw can also be revealing. To a question on what she would consider a good political legacy, Ardern was humble and hopeful.
“Our time in Parliament is briefer than we often think it is. Before we know it we are not there any more. Our names might not last in the history books, they might not matter. But the things we do might. Some of the things we are doing could… we are doing it by majority government and I hope that means we can form some consensus… on climate change… on child proverty. When we go it is still there.
“If we can leave politics and the things that we do are still there then I think all of us can be satisfied with our time.”
When facing media questions on stage immediately after the event, Ardern blanched when Shaw’s absence from the speaking roster was raised, saying that was a “bit of a dig”. Shaw made the right noises about Peters being deputy Prime Minister and there not being a whole lot of time.
The ‘public facing plan’ had been worked on since February, Ardern said, and was not rustled up to make a good speech at a difficult time.
She did not accept Newshub‘s political editor Tova O’Brien’s view that there were genuine cracks in the coalition. The list that played in the event’s video presentation showed how extensive the government’s initiatives had been and it was something of which they could be “incredibly proud and shows how much consensus we’ve built over that time”.
Peters, perhaps forgetting he was at a political show said: “Don’t simplify it and think that it’s all about upfront and showtime. It’s not. This is not dysfunction junction like the previous administration. We know what we’re doing okay?”
He did address the allegation that his party was the tail wagging Labour’s dog.
“You say that and you’re wrong. I’m not the tail. None of us is a tail. We don’t demean people with that sort of expression.”
None of them is the tail. It is not a dog. Instead it is a living organism with two ends, each with a head…. a lot like Doctor Dolittle’s famous Pushmi Pullyu two-headed llama which struggled to decide which way to move and who would take the lead.
A PushMe – PullYou coalition. About to take its “Next Steps”.