Labour supporters packed into a Wellington rally to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern deliver a speech looking well beyond election day to the opportunities – and challenges – of the years ahead, as Sam Sachdeva writes

The election may still have a week to run, but Jacinda Ardern is already looking a decade ahead.

Speaking to hundreds of Labour faithful at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre, the Prime Minister asked the crowd to imagine New Zealand in 2030, “a country where children living in poverty has halved, where we’ve ended our housing waitlist, where health inequalities based on race, wealth and geographical location no longer exist”. 

Was Ardern getting ahead of herself – or even bidding to displace Richard Seddon as New Zealand’s longest-serving prime minister?

Not at all, she insisted: “I absolutely will not accept any complacency or taking anything for granted. Now we have another six days, we’re asking all of our volunteers and supporters to use every single day.”

Of her own reign as leader, Ardern said “voters decide that, not me”, suggesting reporters had made too much of a mere rhetorical device.

In her speech Ardern asked the audience to imagine New Zealand in 2030.Photo: Lynn Grieveson

But that soaring rhetoric is itself indicative of the state of the campaign.

Labour holds a commanding lead in both polling and enthusiasm over National, and with estimates of as many as half a million more votes cast over the weekend – a figure that would see early voting for 2020 eclipse the 2017 tally with six days to spare – any hope of a last-minute surge by Judith Collins or another political rival would seem to hold little chance of success.

So it was little surprise the Labour crowd appeared in good spirits as they were entertained by soul singer Deva Mahal, then the Stardust Orchestra “supergroup” which formed for a campaign rally in 2017 after Ardern’s rise to the leadership.

“In order to communicate a global pandemic, its consequences and our response, you need to be razor sharp, not just well briefed but on top of every detail – you need an intellect, a critical mind and a strategic brain that very few people can claim.”

The Labour crowd was entertained by soul singer Deva Mahal. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Ardern’s warm-up act, Finance Minister and Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, asked the audience to look around the packed hall and weigh New Zealand’s freedoms against the parlous state of other nations battling the virus.

“In my view, it’s not luck: we didn’t get here by accident, we got here because we had a plan and stuck to it.”

Robertson lavished praise on his boss, speaking about “friends and family around the world who look on in wonder and jealousy at the quality and strength of our Prime Minister”.

“In order to communicate a global pandemic, its consequences and our response, you need to be razor sharp, not just well-briefed but on top of every detail – you need an intellect, a critical mind and a strategic brain that very few people can claim.”

Calling her “New Zealand’s leading epidemiologist, genomic scientist and contact tracer” was perhaps a bridge too far, albeit tongue in cheek as Robertson made clear when he dubbed her “Dr Ardern Medicine Woman”.

In contrast, he had little kind to say about his National opponents, claiming they had “the consistency of a bored cat” when it came to the border before taking swipes at their fiscal plan (“more holes than a rabbit-run golf course”) and team unity (“a caucus that’s now helpfully open-sourcing their group chat”).

“If I was being kind, and you know that I would never go off-brand in that regard, I would say National is in a rebuilding phase – which is exactly why we can’t afford them in charge of New Zealand’s rebuild.”

Finance Minister Grant Robertson did not shy away from attacking National’s recent dysfunction. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

It was a message reiterated by Ardern, albeit after the aforementioned dose of futurism regarding Labour’s plans.

New Zealanders had a clear choice, she said. On Labour’s side, “stability, unity and a plan”; on National’s, “an opposition party that is focused on itself, that has lost its focus on economic responsibility and produced a plan with an $8 billion hole”.

“Mistakes like that cannot be dismissed easily, they threaten our economic recovery and put health and education at risk.”

While the Prime Minister looked ahead, much of Labour’s campaign strategy has been focused on emphasising the here and now, in particular the Government’s pandemic response.

“We can all campaign on long lists of policies and ideas, but you truly get to know your government when disasters strike,” she said.

The last National government had to face its fair share of crises too: the global financial crisis, the Christchurch earthquakes, Pike River mine.

While it was broadly regarded to have handled those well, one of the chief criticisms of John Key’s rule from some was the lack of an enduring legacy of proactive change rather than reactive responses to tragedy.

Ardern spoke of the other challenges facing New Zealand along with Covid-19. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Can Labour deliver?

It appears to be a fate Ardern is determined to head off, as she spoke about the enduring nature of the challenges Labour promised to address before the pandemic hit our shores.

“Covid didn’t end child poverty. Covid didn’t end the housing crisis. Covid didn’t make climate change disappear. In fact, it has the potential to make each so much worse.

“But thankfully, before the pandemic arrived on our shores, we sowed the seeds of change. Because change was so desperately needed.”

The big question, one that was already on people’s minds before Covid-19, is whether Labour and Ardern can deliver that change.

It was perhaps a sign of the Prime Minister’s confidence that she felt able to reference KiwiBuild – one of the highest-profile failures of delivery – in a list of her Government’s achievements.

Labour had never claimed it could achieve all its goals in three years, she said, but it was on the right track.

“As Ta James Henare said: ‘We have come too far not to go further, we have done too much not to do more.’”

Labour’s time in government is set to go further – whether it can do more, or enough, is the unknown.

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

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