As the Prime Minister decides how – and with whom – she wants to govern, she will need to determine exactly why voters backed her party in droves and what they expect in return, Sam Sachdeva writes
Labour, and Jacinda Ardern, have received an overwhelming mandate from New Zealand voters.
That much is clear – but what exactly for?
Was the country endorsing the Prime Minister who promised a “government of transformation” in the 2017 Speech from the Throne, or the leader who most recently borrowed the refrain of conservative politicians John Key and Theresa May for “strong and stable government”?
NGOs and various interest groups were quick to stake their claim to what the election meant.
The Government had a mandate to end the caging of hens, said animal rights organisation SAFE; there were “no more excuses” for inaction on the climate and environment, Greenpeace added; the Council for Trade Unions expected more and faster change to end poverty and inequality, while the New Zealand Māori Council wanted more ministerial positions for Labour’s Māori caucus.
They may get some of what they want, but Ardern made it clear on Sunday that while the handbrake of New Zealand First may have been released, she does not plan to go from zero to 100.
“We do need to look at what was the message that New Zealanders, particularly those New Zealanders who may have voted for Labour, who haven’t done so before, what were they both endorsing and asking for?
“I think they were endorsing the work we’ve done on Covid already, and I do think they were endorsing the plan we have to go forward.”
Talk of “cracking on” with changes to the small business loan scheme and a flexi-wage programme seemed to fit in the category of dull but worthy initiatives, rather than a transformational approach.
Reach too far and the voters who have flooded to Labour for the first time in a long time – if ever – may just as quickly head back to their previous homes. But move too slowly, and the party’s base could grow disaffected and look towards leftward rivals.
It is easy to understand why Ardern has taken that tack: she has often spoken of growing up in the 1980s, witnessing the economic carnage wrought by a Labour government which went well beyond what voters had endorsed at the ballot box.
She has claimed an extraordinary victory, but these are extraordinary times: Labour’s parliamentary majority was won on the back of astute crisis management rather than the success of the Government’s proactive agenda.
Reach too far and the voters who have flooded to Labour for the first time in a long time – if ever – may just as quickly head back to their previous homes.
But move too slowly, and the party’s base could grow disaffected and look towards leftward rivals.
That adds additional weight to Ardern’s decision about whether or not to bring the Green Party into the fold, even though she doesn’t need to.
She was giving little away on Sunday, noting a clear mandate for Labour’s campaign manifesto but in the same tradition mentioning her preference for building consensus.
To go Green or not to go?
Going with the Greens in some form would allow Ardern to make use of the likes of James Shaw and Julie Anne Genter, who have largely proven themselves to be capable ministers and whose portfolios Labour could struggle to fill given the mixed results of its 2017 cohort.
It could also allow Labour to insulate itself against claims of drifting too far towards the centre, taking credit for the more Green-hued policies while also having the opportunity to dismiss the party’s proposals on occasion and show its moderate bona fides to swing voters.
Keep the Greens on the outer and they could position themselves to claim a chunk of Labour’s more left-wing support in 2023 if the party shows its struggles to progress a progressive agenda were not solely due to Winston Peters.
On the other hand, Ardern has already spent three years dealing with what she euphemistically called a “pure MMP” government; does she really want to spend time negotiating in coalition with another party when she doesn’t need to?
There is also the risk that National may be able to tie Labour to the Greens’ more radical policies in the minds of the electorate, a tactic that was unsuccessful this time around but perhaps due to the Opposition’s dysfunction as much as the attack line itself.
This is what Labour minister David Parker referred to as “a high-quality problem”, given the party’s biggest problem is just how generous it wants to be while its National opposition licks its wounds and prepares for more in-fighting and yet another leadership contest sooner or later.
But how the Government starts its second term, the point of greatest political capital, will determine how much it can – or wants to – achieve in the coming years.