The Delta outbreak turned Labour’s annual conference into a truncated affair – but there was still a chance for Jacinda Ardern to look to a world beyond lockdowns, and Labour to a world beyond her, Sam Sachdeva writes

What a difference a year can make.

At last year’s Labour Party conference, a crowd of hundreds waved placards and roared at Te Papa in Wellington as Jacinda Ardern addressed them, and the country revelled in its world-leading Covid-19 response.

On Saturday, the only people in the room for her leader’s address were a handful of staffers, tech guides and camera operators, with New Zealand’s largest city in a third month of lockdown and the entire motu on high alert for community transmission.

Just after Ardern began her speech came the unwelcome news of a new daily record of 206 community cases – a figure that may fit within modelling for the spread of the virus, but which nonetheless serves as a reminder that the national elimination approach is long gone.

“New Zealand’s saviour”, as one speaker labelled the Prime Minister at the 2020 conference, has, with the rest of Aotearoa been forced back to earth by the highly infectious Delta variant and the lagging vaccination rates in some parts of the country.

That change in sentiment was hardly lost on Ardern, who opened her remarks with a tribute to Aucklanders who had for weeks “carried a burden on behalf of the country”.

“I know at times that will have been an extraordinarily lonely place to be. But please never doubt that what you have done has had a profound impact on New Zealand.”

There was a somewhat pointed, but reasonable reminder that Aotearoa’s Covid-19 response overall remains something to be proud of, leading the OECD in terms of overall cases, hospitalisations and deaths.

While it is easy to feel envious of those in North America and Europe enjoying relatively open borders, one quick glance at countries’ historical and current death tolls should be all it takes to confirm we shouldn’t trade places.

While Ardern promised the traffic light system would bring more certainty for businesses, the ongoing confusion about how exactly Aucklanders will be able to leave the city come Christmas is a reminder that the Government is to a degree still building the plane as it flies.

But that does not give the Government a free pass for the pain some Kiwis are now suffering, and Ardern sounded a note of optimism about the tough transition into a new phase of the pandemic response.

As vaccination numbers increased, the country could transition into the so-called ‘traffic light system’, away from a world of constant lockdowns and (slowly) towards an opening of borders and a return to something more closely resembling normality.

But while Ardern promised the new system would bring more certainty for businesses, the ongoing confusion about how exactly Aucklanders will be able to leave the city come Christmas is a reminder that the Government is, to a degree, still building the plane as it flies.

“The certainty that I can provide is that we do want people to be able to move for summer,” Ardern said when asked on Saturday, demurring when asked to specify exactly what options were on the table.

The centrepiece of her speech, a $272 million increase to tax credits for families, was a reminder that financial support for vulnerable Kiwis also remains a vital issue – although swift criticism of the $5 a week change by poverty groups suggests the Government remains some way short of expectations.

Some party politics did manage to peek through proceedings – fascinatingly, looking at a world for Labour beyond Ardern.

Labour Party general secretary Rob Salmond confirmed the party membership had voted to allow an override of the electoral college system for choosing its leaders.

If two-thirds of the Labour caucus vote in favour of a new leader within a week of a vacancy arising, it can avoid the protracted election process with weighted voting from members, MPs and affiliated unions.

Going out on top, or taken down by Delta?

The electoral college was first set up in 2012, with Labour firmly in the doldrums of opposition and keen to win whatever publicity it could, but now with the party holding office the fear has seemed to be that a weeks-long roadshow could instead become a sideshow.

Then there is the awkward fact that the two Labour leaders chosen through the system, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little, both won the role despite the caucus preferring another candidate. In both cases their pick was Grant Robertson, who as deputy prime minister seems the frontrunner to succeed Ardern whenever she does step aside (perhaps the new clause could be dubbed the Robbo Rule?)

Ardern herself was only able to assume the leadership through a simple caucus vote due to the last-minute nature of Little’s resignation, just weeks out from the 2017 election; it is impossible to know whether ‘Jacindamania’ would have sparked into life had she been forced to go through the electoral college.

The margin of victory for the rules change, with 444 delegates in favour and 158 against, is commanding but far from unanimous, showing unease among a reasonable proportion of members about diluting their influence.

But with the party still riding high after its unprecedented success in 2020, the benefits of a seamless transition seem to have outweighed the centralisation of power back in the hands of the caucus.

Despite wishful thinking from some in the National Party, Ardern’s departure from the political scene hardly seems imminent.

There is a sense however that she may eventually follow in the footsteps of John Key and bow out on top, rather than be forced out after an election defeat or a leadership challenge.

On Newshub’s The Nation programme on Saturday morning she was asked if she still wanted to go on as PM: “I still consider this to be the greatest privilege of my life and because we are in the biggest health crisis in a generation… and a significant economic crisis, and yet to be the person who is able to steward New Zealand through that time, despite the difficulties it presents, I still consider that an honour.”

And then a definitive answer: “I’m not stopping. I need to carry us through. It’s my job.”

In any case, going out victorious will require wrangling the Delta outbreak as well as possible, before it can spread into unvaccinated pockets of the country and wreak havoc – and there is much more work to be done on that front.

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

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