With a year left in this term, the Government seems trapped by controversy, economic bad news and poor polling. Tim Murphy asks what Labour’s strategists could possibly do to turn it around.

Analysis: Entering its sixth year in office, the Ardern Labour Government seems snookered.

It faces an unplayable combination of issues – some in its control, others forced upon it – as it looks for re-election in 12 short months. All options seem undesirable.

As Labour election strategists sit whiteboarding options to rescue a polling position which has Labour with the Greens behind National and ACT, they must see few avenues forward to stop that gap getting worse. The MMP system and its usual split result could yet offer hope if Te Pāti Māori can maintain an electorate and a couple of percent in the polls at least.

But what could Labour do to change its own, difficult, electoral equation?

A bold new policy that makes people better off, or a calculated casting-off of existing policies that are dragging it down. 

Anywhere they, or voters, look, the governing party seems stuck. Certainly for many of the months between now and a late 2023 election. There’s not much time to rescue a perception that its time is up.

Governments lose elections, the old maxim has it, rather than oppositions winning them.

And the Government now must deal with: Inflation and the cost of living. Three Waters. Health. Child safety and welfare. Worker shortages and immigration. Carbon and methane emissions. Street crime and personal safety. Construction shortages. Falling house prices. Te Pukenga (the giant polytech merger), Emergency housing. Co-governance. 

Labour has taken on big, audacious policy proposals, for good or bad depending on your ideology. But mixed in with deep reforms are other emotive and populist bushfires that prevent any government from keeping the programme in a straight line.

The Labour strategist with the whiteboard marker pen would struggle to find much hope in any of these sprawling, multi-cause problems. Some might be intractable, inevitably handed on unsolved to a successor government, whenever that might be.

Ardern herself must look with something verging on despair at the travesty of motel emergency housing, which she and others condemned while in Opposition, and the evidence of stubborn child poverty levels, truancy and high-profile youth crime as examples of issues that five years ago in the thrill of victory she must have been confident of Labour turning around.

Over Labour Weekend, its MPs and party workers would have been hard-pressed around the barbecues and cafes to find non-aligned voters with much good to say about the economic situation or outlook. Even the miracle of record low unemployment seems to escape unprompted praise.

Labour can no longer credibly blame its National predecessor’s ‘nine years of neglect’ as the source of these problems. The statute of limitations on that political tactic is reached by the five-year mark in government. Some of the solutions now dragging away at the Government’s capacity and popularity are of Labour’s own making – Three Waters, the health merger, immigration policy, Te Pukenga and so on.

Accentuating Labour’s problem is that in the eighth or ninth year of a government’s three terms in power, New Zealanders tend to get sick of the sight of administrations, sick of the individual politicians’ faces on TV, their voices on the radio. 

Circumstances have seen Labour achieve this unwanted status in its fifth year, in a second term. The pandemic and cost of living crisis have compressed political norms and accelerated the electorate’s impatience. Labour and its leaders have had to be in voters’ faces so much since 2020, telling people what to do,  imposing necessary and correct controls on lives, borders and businesses, that its over-exposure was probably inevitable.

The global scourge of inflation, high fuel prices, interest rate hikes, supply chain disruption, global trade upheaval and the war in Ukraine are all beyond the control of a cabinet room in Wellington.

But all have high political risk. Things will get worse globally in 2023, the finance minister Grant Robertson reported this week on his return from the International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington DC. Households here will be hit harder next year than this.

While right-wing wishful thinking speculates that Jacinda Ardern will do a John Key and walk away from the prime ministership, that is not a positive option for her political party. No one has anything like her residual political pull – undermined as it might be by years of tedious name-calling and personal denigration by the witless and shameless.

So what could Jacinda Ardern and her advisers do? Around that whiteboard they could motivate each other in political cliches: Nothing is inevitable, a week is a long time in politics and 52 of them is an eternity, knowledge is power and holding the Treasury’s purse strings gives Labour spending options so far uncontemplated.

Those are all true. Labour could, for example, find money to cancel some proportion of student debt as President Joe Biden is attempting to do in the US. It could package up additional pay rises for teachers and nurses, come up with more free hours of childcare or subsidise more doctors’ visits for more people, continue fuel subsidies, expand and redouble winter energy payments for the 2023 pre-election months. These all have a fiscal impact, not without risk.

In the silence of their political hearts, however, the Labour strategists will know they have to discard some negative policies as well and get a lot better at executing those that remain. And the earlier, the better.

But what to throw overboard? There is an electoral risk in being seen to be running scared. 

It can’t back down – as National did before it – on finding a way of pricing farm emissions to cut our national carbon footprint. Climate change demands even more, but this Government has sculpted out a minimum response and must hope the farming industry’s involvement in shaping that can temper political blowback. Not that there are many votes for Labour on the land in any case.

It could delay or withdraw aspects of Three Waters, although the parliamentary legislative pipelines are already active. The national water health authority already exists, offering an answer to the most basic of arguments for the change – safe drinking water. The need for tens of billions of dollars of spending on physical water infrastructure will not go away. But is it possible the shape of the entities that might take on that task could be radically re-thought to rid Labour of the electoral backlash against ‘stealing’ local infrastructure and representation?

Or, as Newsroom political editor Jo Moir speculated earlier this month, does Labour hold fast and adopt a John Key approach of ripping off the band-aid this year hoping the pain will have eased by the election. The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.

Labour needs to think twice about taking that risk. The Three Waters response beyond the beltway and Queen St valley is strident and possibly unforgiving.

Co-governance – the issue around the country’s response to its obligations under the United Nations charter for the rights of indigenous peoples – could also soon loom as a hot issue, with a report due to the Cabinet on how New Zealand should meet the conditions National signed up to in 2010.

Or perhaps, given it has taken so long to get this far, any definitive policy response is left on the backburner through 2023 as more consultation is conducted, more refinement found and electoral controversy avoided. Labour would struggle with sidestepping aspects of co-governance and its big Māori caucus would rightly ask ‘if not now, when’? Why should progress on indigenous rights be sidelined?

There are other, more specific policies that the Government could ditch. One is the planned merger of RNZ and TVNZ into one public broadcasting entity. It suffers from a lack of obvious purpose, no defined financial or journalistic benefit and a multi hundred million dollar cost to boot. Given the desire by some to paint the Public Interest Journalism Fund as a means of political control of the media, the much bigger, poorly communicated broadcasting merger could well be used to accuse Labour of skewing public broadcasting in its favour.

It is hardly a great vote winner, and delaying or abandoning it might not win much direct support either, but if Labour is looking for bushfires it can put out in advance, this one is flaming obvious.

Labour’s options remain tight. When snookered, it’s all about picking the right angles, taking a risk and hoping to leave your opponent nothing easy to put away. 

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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