Grant Robertson concedes economic conditions can seem ‘scary’ but warns voters a return to National next year could be ‘dangerous’. Tim Murphy reports
The Labour Party’s conference venue in Manukau is plastered with signs listing 100 things the party has achieved this year in Government, a variation on its five years of successes video issued on the administration’s anniversary last week.
It is a back-slapping, morale-boosting display to reassure the hundreds of delegates that, despite its fallen poll ratings and difficult prospects of being re-elected in a year’s time, Labour has much (in its eyes) to be rewarded for electorally.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson was Saturday’s main speaker at the limited sessions open to the media.
As an astute follower of financial markets he will understand that a risk for his party in relying on its long lists of achievements is that the one market that really matters, the political voting market, may have already factored in Labour’s ‘good works’ and moved on.
Voters have noted all those changes and policy fulfilments and priced that into Labour’s current, second-placed poll rating – the 34 percent-or-so support it has now includes the public’s reaction to those 100 achievements, those five years of big red ticks.
New Zealand voters can be a difficult audience: ‘Great, thanks. Now, what else have you got?’
Robertson didn’t exactly have an answer in his speech. While he noted some of those Labour achievements, and promised further policies in keeping with the party’s values, there was no new initiative as such.
Instead, he spent arguably too much time ‘comparing and contrasting’ Labour’s approach with what a National government might impose. His written speech had 18 mentions of National and nine of its leader Christopher Luxon.
The impression was that the prospect of a change of government, of Luxon and Nicola Willis and of “dangerous” policy reversals, is living rent-free in Robertson’s head this far out from the poll.
“2023 is an election in which the progress we have made as a Labour Government is at risk, if National gets in,” he told reporters. “As the Prime Minister said, 2023 is going to be like a normal MMP election. The blocs are close.
“There’s been a cost of living crisis, and right now people are feeling it. What’s important is to think about the direction you want, to keep making progress on the areas I mentioned in the speech today or do we go backwards?”
It’s likely Labour has left it to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to announce something – anything – new to put the party on the front foot. Questioned after his speech, Robertson was happy to humour queries over whether Ardern would deliver relief on some aspect of, say, the cost of living crisis in her speech on Sunday afternoon.
“We always keep looking for opportunities,” he said, noting any further assistance would be targeted and the Government would be conscious of averting inflationary effects.
“I think they’ll enjoy the Prime Minister’s speech.”
In his own address, Robertson didn’t duck the extent of the financial pressures, globally and domestically, that will impact households.
“As Finance Minister I can understand that the world looks like a scary place. I wake up every day thinking about the challenging times in which we are living, and the buffeting our economy and our people are receiving from these forces.
“But there is something I know to be true. As a Labour government we are supporting Kiwis through this time, just as we have during Covid.”
It’s not often you hear a finance minister conceding that financial and cost of living conditions can be seen as ‘scary.’
But when he ran through the reasons New Zealand was still well-placed to withstand that scary outlook, including low unemployment and growing numbers in work, he wanted the conference and voters to know the upside was partly Labour’s doing.
“Delegates this did not happen by accident,” he said, adding “We have other reasons to feel optimistic – our level of public debt is among the lowest in the OECD, our economy is nearly 5 percent bigger than it was before Covid, our export performance has held up. The world still wants to buy what we are selling. New Zealand is in demand. Our economy is strong.”
Labour has a challenge of producing new initiatives, with ministers beginning work on budget 2023 measures already. And it has a challenge of removing political risks, a de-mining operation ahead of next year’s campaign.
In both his speech and the media questioning, Robertson said it would not be responsible governing to put controversial policies such as Three Waters into the “too-hard basket”.
He singled out his friend Nanaia Mahuta, the local government minister shepherding that legislation, for praise to the conference and said anyone who thought there could be changes to the country’s water management without involving iwi was “dreaming.”
But he emphasised the Government could yet listen to submitters on the Three Waters plan, taking heed of “communities”.
“We’re listening to that. We’re seeing what we can do.”
Whether that could mean a recasting of the number and shape of the four large entities to run water nationwide, or their ownership model or governance, is unclear.
Expect concessions, minor or major, dressed as responsiveness to community (voter) feedback.
Robertson repeatedly mentioned the need for “balance” in the government’s wider economic response next year – to support households without adding to inflation.
He said Labour would tell voters in advance how it would pay for any new spending initiatives and challenged National to be up-front as well.
On tax, he said the conference began the process for setting Labour’s tax policy and all he could say was there would not be tax cuts for the rich.
At the end of his speech, Robertson expanded the old Covid-era kindness mantra to: “Be bold, be kind, be strong.”
And signed off: “We’ve got this.”
Labour’s incoming party president, former Wellington councillor and deputy mayor Jill Day, said National’s past sell-off of public housing had triggered her entry into politics when she was a school teacher.
The country faced a choice next year between Labour’s progressive agenda and “one that’s going backwards,” between a focus on the many and one for the few, on the dignity of work vs low wages.
“A government more focused on the smoko room than the Koru lounge,” she said, conceding she enjoyed an airport lounge as much as anyone, but her words were symbolic for National’s “whole ideology” to favour the well-off.
Her predecessor, Clair Szabo, warned candidates and parties in 2023 would face “attacks, vandalism, harassment, unlawful behaviour and invidious trolling.”
She said the party council had a committee on health, welfare, safety and protection and would organise training, including Red Cross techniques, on how candidates could deal with face-to-face critics using bystander training and de-escalation techniques.
“It has never been more timely for us to upskill ourselves in this area … for whatever politics throws at us, possibly literally.”
A few moments later, Manurewa MP Arena Williams as MC had an older school exhortation for next year’s campaign: “We will fight bare knuckle in 2023.”