It’s time for the Prime Minister to invest her political capital wisely and bravely, says Rod Oram

Jacinda Ardern has won the greatest Labour victory in 82 years. She did so by convincing an unusually diverse range of voters of her competence, integrity and leadership. These she proved in a massacre, a natural disaster, a pandemic and other tests in her first term as Prime Minister.

But history tells us Ardern’s chances of winning the next election are slim. The concerns of that breadth of supporters are too disparate. The needs of the poor and the wealthy, of employers and employees, and of rural and urban people so often seem contradictory. If one wins, another loses. Disappointing many voters, she will fail to retain broad support.

Two of my fellow Newsroom columnists have written insightfully on this in recent days – Peter Dunne on the politics and Anne Salmond on the zeitgeist.

Indeed, these are no ordinary times. Covid-19 is teaching us we have to respond decisively, collectively and comprehensively. To do so, we have to prioritise, communicate and support each other. Then we can learn as we go in this fast, all-encompassing crisis.

These things we have done well as a society, showing great purpose, innovation and resilience during the pandemic.

Now we have to apply those lessons to solving our pre-existing and interdependent social, economic and ecological challenges. It is perfectly possible and utterly essential to, for example:

– build new or upgrade existing homes so they are warmer, better and more affordable, which will in turn will improve the lives of people and their communities;

– develop our urban and rural businesses so they are more sophisticated, contribute more to the local and global economy, and thus better reward staff and owners;

– reform our environmental laws in ways that help us use our urban, rural and wild natural resources and built environments more productively and sustainably, while restoring the ecosystems of all of them;

– improve our education, health, community services and political systems so we strengthen our cultures and society.

Those massively complex goals are linked in many ways. If we get to the heart of those links, we will find ways to work effectively together on them. We will achieve true sustainability in all senses of the word – human, social, economic and ecological.

While those are goals for us as a nation, each of us is personally responsible for being as honest, helpful and encouraging to each other as we can as we work together.

Having a Prime Minister who’s good at that is vital, given the power and complexity of the Government’s role in our lives today. But helping the Government and citizens to respond effectively to Covid-19 was a relatively simple task compared with helping us create our sustainable future.

Ardern will have to broaden and deepen her political skills. She must choose long-term goals wisely, commit to them, build buy-in for them in government and society, demand innovation from civil servants and citizens to drive them, and set realistic short-term goals by which voters can judge her and her Government at the next election. Reasonable voters want progress. They aren’t demanding quick delivery of long-term goals.

Ardern has the requisite personal integrity and the political capital to rise to those challenges. Both are essential assets for furthering political progress. Both are also liabilities. Candour can upset people if it is delivered thoughtlessly. Political capital is seen as a non-renewal resource to be spent sparingly to prolong leadership rather than to increase impact.

John Key is “the classic Kiwi example of assurance over candour” and his legacy diminishes by the day. But Ardern is someone who manages to deliver candour constructively, says Rod Oram. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

John Key is the classic Kiwi example of assurance over candour. That kept many happy, helping him accumulate his political capital. But he spent so little of his capital to move the country on. As a result, his legacy diminishes by the day.

But some people manage to deliver candour constructively. Ardern is one. Now she needs to shows us a new use for political capital. By investing her political skills she can explain long-term transformations such as the ones listed above, ensure they benefit everyone, build public and political support for them, encourage engagement on them, and help recognise progress on them over the short-term.

The resulting gains over the next three years will be modest, given the complex nature of the long-term work. But if it is equitable, heading in the right direction and accelerating, it would satisfy the “unparalleled broad coalition of interests, urban and rural, young and old, Māori and Pakeha, and rich and poor” that Dunne identifies as the key reason for her election victory last weekend.

It would guarantee Ardern a third term, proving that political capital invested well is a renewable, growing resource capable of delivering transformative progress.

While her first term was short on major achievements beyond the crises, her Government laid a lot of groundwork which it can rapidly develop in its second term. This includes:

– the Climate Change Commission and other mechanisms under the zero carbon Act; and an Emissions Trading Scheme which is finally functional 12 years after it was first enacted;

– the Randerson Report on the replacement of the RMA, and new frameworks for freshwater and biodiversity;

– a pathway for farmer-government progress on measuring, managing and pricing agricultural emissions; and the Primary Sector Council’s new mission and strategy, which the Government has committed to;

– some modest progress under the business-union-government Future of Work Tripartite Forum; and

– the raft of recommendations from the welfare and tax working groups, many of which deserve to be implemented.

Above all, next year will be a pivotal one. The Climate Commission will propose in May three, five-year carbon budgets and the pathways to meet them. The first will be lower than our emissions now and the subsequent ones successively lower.

Legislation requires the Government to decide by December whether to accept or modify the budgets and pathways which are meant to set us firmly on the path to net zero emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050.

Making the right decisions on those, and supporting them with effective policies and sufficient investment, will begin our journey to equitable social, economic, environmental sustainability and climate resilience.

The journey necessitates new policies and political relationships. The Greens lead all other parties on both. They demonstrated the first with the breadth, depth and innovation in their election platform.

They demonstrated the second in the effective relationships they developed with some voters campaigning nationally but particularly in Auckland central; and with Labour in the past term of government.

James Shaw, the Greens co-leader, says their confidence and supply agreement with Labour last term covered only 1 per cent of what was undertaken. The other 99 per cent arose during the course of the Government.

It was all about mutually beneficial relationships. That’s the essence of the new politics for all of us.

Rod Oram is a weekly columnist who covers climate, economics and politics.

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