When Jacinda Ardern walked out on the stage of Whanganui’s 120-year-old Opera House on Sunday she thanked the audience for the “warm welcome”.

This was a understatement. The response was thundering and sustained; a young man near the back of the building actually jumped up and down.

The infectious energy could have been due to the fact the party was in government after nine long and difficult years; maybe it was seeing the charismatic leader in the flesh; and maybe it signalled the party’s transition to a younger, more vibrant organisation – what one member referred to as a changing of the guard.

Ardern was introduced on Sunday by Kiwi comedian Rhys Mathewson. Selecting a 27-year-old vegetarian hype man could only be seen as another signal of the direction the party was headed.

This fresh face was personified by Ardern, but also newly-elected party president Claire Szabó.

Szabó played down the importance of having two fresh female faces leading Labour.

Newly-elected party president Claire Szabó adds to the ranks of “young-ish” female leaders. Photo: William Booth/Getty Images 

“I think young women have played roles in the Labour Party traditionally; I don’t think that’s particularly new. The fact two young-ish women are playing leadership roles in the party is actually unremarkable,” she said, adding that it wasn’t unprecedented.

But there was an unmistakable emphasis on the young in Whanganui this weekend.

In her speech, Ardern singled out Jan Tinetti, Willow-Jean Prime and Kieran McAnulty – all first-term MPs.

There was a strong Young Labour contingent, and another large group of 20 and 30-somethings, who had travelled to Whanganui to bask in the party’s relative success in government and get motivated for next year’s campaign.

‘Changing of the guard’

But looking around the party faithful, there were many older faces – those who have stuck with Labour through thick and thin.

And Labour knew it also needed to think about that hardcore, longtime base.

“I’m going to speak frankly. We wouldn’t be here without you,” Ardern told the packed room.

She singled out soon-to-retire MP Ruth Dyson – someone Ardern said had given the better part of her life to the party, including during the “trauma” of Labour politics in the ’80s.

One person who knows all about the trauma of the 1980s is Mark Patrick.

“It’s like a changing of the guard.”

Patrick, a relative local from Feilding, originally joined the party in 1976, but he left in 1989 in the wake of Rogernomics. He wasn’t the only one.

Now he’s back, at his first conference after 30 years.

Like others, he said the mood was high. People were catching up with old friends and many were just pleased to be in government.

“It’s a release of emotion. That’s how I’d describe it.”

Patrick commented on the make-up of the party membership and delegates, saying while there were some he knew from the old days, there was a new wave coming through.

“It’s like a changing of the guard.”

Delivering for the base

While some things had changed, others stayed the same.

Patrick pulled out a book of remits from Labour’s 1984 conference: “We’re just getting to some of these policies now.”

Despite the changing face, at its heart, Labour was the same party, with the same core priorities.

Grant Robertson and Ardern made this point over and over again during their keynote speeches.

“Labour in government builds New Zealand,” Robertson said, while announcing the Government had agreed to bring forward a significant infrastructure investment package – something many, including the Reserve Bank Governor Adrian Orr and Newsroom’s Bernard Hickey, had been calling for.

“This isn’t just about schools – it’s about jobs. And especially trades jobs. We want schools to engage local builders, plumbers, carpenters, roofers, landscapers – this is an opportunity for work at a local level in every town and city in the country.”

He spoke of the party’s history – social welfare and state housing – and of this Government’s record when it came to building schools, building houses, building up social welfare and building jobs.

“But looking forward, we believe now is the right time to build on Labour’s legacy, and build on the record of this coalition Government,” he said in reference to the multi-billion dollar surplus and borrowing rates of just 1.3 percent.

The following day, Ardern teased the announcement further, telling those in Whanganui the first spend from that package would be $400m to go to school maintenance – that’s $693 per student.

Every school would get at least $50,000 and up to $400,000 as a one-off cash injection to do things like fix roofs, guttering and drainage, toilet blocks, resurfacing of courts and paved areas, and classroom upgrades. It has to be spent in two years. And it is in addition to the $1.2 billion 10-year education infrastructure announcement in Budget 2019.

Conference attendees were energised and invigorated – generously handing out standing ovations to leaders and MPs. Photo: William Booth/Getty Images

Ardern stressed the impact this spending would have on communities.

“This isn’t just about schools – it’s about jobs. And especially trades jobs.

“We want schools to engage local builders, plumbers, carpenters, roofers, landscapers – this is an opportunity for work at a local level in every town and city in the country.”

National leader Simon Bridges called the spending “business as usual”, and while Ardern refuted this, his argument was valid – to a point.

It might be the biggest capital injection into school maintenance in at least 25 years, but it was also symbolic of what Labour stood for, and had always stood for.

It was about schools, and students, and jobs – particularly trade jobs. It was the party’s bread and butter.

Certainty in an uncertain world

Ardern spoke about an uncertain world, fuelled by tribal politics.

“In this increasingly fractured world, as I look at the likes of Chile and others, I’m reminded of the impact of inequality on not just our people, but also on the strength of our democracy.”

New Zealand wasn’t immune to potentially devastating populist politics, and the upsets they could cause – particularly when a party was built around a single personality, as the Labour Party currently risked.

“The second chapter of the story is still being written.”

New, fresh faces were a good thing; an injection of energy could only help.

But the last thing a party with a 103-year history wanted was too much change.

The new and exciting needed to be balanced with the tried and true as the party aimed to shore up its base, heading into election year.

As deputy leader Kelvin Davis said at the end of his surprisingly hilarious speech: the next year would bring twists and turns, where the fate of the characters would be decided.

“The second chapter of the story is still being written.”

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