For the first time in a decade, the Labour Party is holding an annual conference while clutching the baubles of office. Sam Sachdeva reports from Dunedin on Jacinda Ardern’s “future-focused” plans – and a few present problems dogging her party.

In politics, a guinea pig can quickly become a sacrificial lamb – so it was with some trepidation that David Clark became a “volunteer” at his leader’s request.

The Health Minister and Dunedin North MP was put on the spot during Jacinda Ardern’s Friday visit to Dunedin life sciences company AD Instruments, becoming the test subject for a device designed to take a person’s blood pressure and other vital statistics in a less invasive manner.

The good news: the patient had a pulse. The bad news: he seemed a little stressed (although Clark’s “borderline” blood pressure reading can’t have been helped by his boss and a gaggle of media watching on with anticipation).

On balance, the Labour Party will consider itself in healthy condition despite a year where it has been put under pressure.

There are certainly signs of life, with the party faithful in a celebratory mood at their first conference out of the political wilderness since 2008 – a striking ascent from even a year ago when Ardern was only a freshly appointed deputy to Andrew Little as he struggled to lead Labour out of its prolonged slump.

“I didn’t expect the last time I was in front of a Labour conference to be in  the position I’m in, so it will be a bit of a chance for reflection,” she told media.

Ardern’s star continues to shine with the membership and the wider public – she was rapturously received at the conference opening after MP-cum-MC David Parker rattled off glowing praise about the Prime Minister from (largely international) media. And other ministers are beginning to hit their stride.

Party members will find more to praise than oppose from Labour’s last 12 months given the chance to start pushing law and policy changes through after so much time away from the levers of power. At the official conference opening on Friday night, Ardern rattled off a laundry list of accomplishments, albeit with occasional references to “starting”, rather than finishing, a few initiatives.

Ministerial stumbles

Yet the Prime Minister’s own blood pressure can’t be helped by the uncomfortably frequent stumbles of the ministers around her.

The Jami-Lee Ross saga took the spotlight off Labour, but Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway’s evident discomfort over the Karel Sroubek residency saga is a reminder it wasn’t so long ago that both Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri were removed from the executive.

Add in the summer camp scandal, the aftermath of which is still going through the courts, and it’s unsurprising that Ardern says the party will be looking ahead as much as reflecting on the year so far.

“We will be future-focused, talking about all of the opportunities we have to change things for future generations,” she told media.

She was coy on whether to expect major announcements, but she’s sure to have something up her sleeve for her speech to members on Sunday, with her deputy leader Kelvin Davis and senior MP Grant Robertson speaking on Saturday.

“Membership have always been very free-speaking – we constantly push each other to make sure we’re using the time in office wisely.”

It must be hard to encourage a free and frank exchange of ideas given the necessity of presenting a united front against opposition sniping (although Labour is helped by its unfortunate decision to shut media out of policy discussions, something which stands in contrast to the approaches of National and New Zealand First among others).

Ardern dismissed the suggestion that members could be afraid to speak their mind, saying her experience from previous conferences suggested that wouldn’t be a problem.

“I’ve been involved in the Labour Party for a number of years, and I remember conferences and congresses when we were in government and membership have always been very free-speaking – we constantly push each other to make sure we’re using the time in office wisely.”

Then there is the difficult politics of coalition management, with Winston Peters showing already he is not averse to putting his foot down when he feels Labour ministers have gone too far.

Both New Zealand First and the Greens will need to be given a heads up to avoid any unpleasant surprises, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see politicians from either party make a cameo.

Overall though, Ardern and her team will be fairly comfortable with their condition: even a few borderline health issues is a step up from the nine-year coma Labour awoke from last October.

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

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