The Labour Party conference glories in new Government investment for childcare for families – only to experience a major buzzkill hours later with a dire poll result

At the end of Jacinda Ardern’s big speech at the Labour Party conference, she was joined on stage by almost all her 63 caucus colleagues.

“Labour,” she proclaimed, with her arms outstretched to show off the historically large crowd of politicians gathered behind and around her at the first in-person conference for three years.

When she and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson walked off stage and down the main aisle of the auditorium at the Manukau Events Centre with handshakes, hugs and selfies for Labour supporters, the long tail of MPs filed down behind them, some breaking into dance as they walked through the long party ovation.

Ardern was almost at the far exit as the caucus conga line stretched the length of the main aisle and out towards the side door.

If you had freeze-framed that image, and dropped a barrier two-thirds of the way down the line of MPs, after roughly the first 40 had passed, the remaining 24 or so would represent those whom a new poll delivered less than four hours later on Newshub says would no longer have a place in Parliament in just a year’s time.

That is the brutal reality of Labour’s position. The Newshub poll inconveniently rained on the MPs’ and party’s parade by recording Labour at 32.3 (down 5.9) with National at 40.7 (up 0.2), ACT on 10 (up 3.6) and the Greens on 9.5 (up 1.1). A 1 News poll last month had Labour on 34. In either case, many of Labour’s representatives in Parliament would lose their jobs.

And the party would lose power after two terms. Right now, the tide has gone out, with the Labour figure in the Newshub poll its lowest in five years.

Even Ardern’s personal popularity took a hit, dropping 6.4 points to 29.9 in the preferred Prime Minister count, to National leader Chris Luxon’s 21.5, down 2.4. It is her lowest rating since the first month she became Labour leader, before the 2017 election.

Things are unlikely to get easier in a hurry. Ardern told the conference 2023 was likely to be even more difficult than this year, later attributing this to global economic pressures and problems facing trading partners like China.

Labour held this conference knowing it is falling behind in public support and patience, and caught by global economic problems. Speakers, including Ardern and Robertson, were at pains to say they govern first, think of polls and their own futures second. It became a second tier theme of the two-and-a-half-day gathering.

When a governing party is falling behind opposition parties and when domestic and global events seem to conspire against it, with an election looming, it can respond in one of two ways:

– hold the high road and govern according to its values for as long as it can, and often lose; or

– become fiercely pragmatic and recognise that acting at a level of self and party interest could turn around its fortunes and preserve the chance to get back to values and the high road, after holding on at an election. 

On the rhetoric of this conference weekend, Labour seems intent on adopting the first option, looking after its people, pushing through its projects of principle and hoping against the omens.

There’s a certain honour in being prepared to go down with the ship, and those Labour MPs in the final third of the conga line might yet wear that badge. They may come to accept they should just get stuff done, while they can. 

Ardern later addressed the risk to MPs being voted out in large numbers by saying all MPs went to Parliament prepared for both the expected and unexpected in their futures. “Regardless of the party vote that you have when you come into government, there is always change … But I would say our caucus remains entirely optimistic and confident because of the plan we have for 2023.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talking to media at the end of the conference. Photo: Newsroom

Labour is talking up holding the line on reforms and policies it has set in train.

Robertson spoke against kicking the can down the road on difficult policies.

Deputy Labour leader Kelvin Davis cited a saying from Ngāpuhi chief Te Ruki Kawiti that, translated, means “I would be a poor carving indeed if I flinched at the tap of a chisel.” Davis modernised that to mean “We cannot yield to the challenges that confront us.”

In its big reveal in Ardern’s speech on Sunday, the party promised expanded childcare subsidies and lifts to some family welfare payments.

It was a smart, targeted but not overly large investment – at $190m over four years – for a part of the voting base likely struggling in the cost-of-living crisis. Just over half New Zealand families with kids would now qualify for subsidised childcare.

Ardern revealed it had been “pulled out and sped up” from a review of childcare measures under consideration by the Cabinet, because of the cost-of-living crisis.

The $190m would expand eligibility for the Childcare Subsidy (for pre-schoolers) and OSCAR Subsidy (for school-aged children).

It aimed to help low and middle-income families with childcare costs and lower financial barriers for parents wanting to work or enter training.

Details of exact amounts available would be made early in 2023, but Labour issued case studies showing, for example, a household with two adults earning $26 an hour for a 40-hour week and with two children, would get around $252 a week.

The announcement was warmly applauded by the party members present. The Prime Minister labelled it significant, reaching between 93 and 97 percent of sole parent families, an additional 10,000 children, and far outstripping support such families might get from a future National administration’s tax cuts.

(Luxon damned the childcare initiative with faint praise, calling it “fine” but also “band-aid economics” which did not address the big issue of what was driving inflation).

The policy falls squarely within Labour’s values, and while a temporary headline maker, it will likely have lasting benefits for thousands. But can it shift the dial?

The Government is still thinking about what to do with the temporary cut to fuel taxes when the second period reaches its scheduled expiry in January. 

Ardern said it would watch oil prices and leave any decision as late as possible – no doubt hoping global prices fall at a convenient time to lessen any burden from reinstatement of the full fuel tax.

Extending the subsidy by keeping the tax lower has risks through the extra Crown spending required, and implications for climate change policies. And it has the added risk of needing to be reviewed again even closer to the election at year’s end. Every extension would make it harder, politically, to remove.

The Government always has options. Ministers are already working up the 2023 Budget likely in May, and Labour’s campaign team will no doubt go again to the well that produced the $190m for expanded childcare subsidies.

Yet the negative focus throughout the conference on National – in Robertson, Davis and Ardern’s speeches and comments – carries its own comment about Labour’s confidence one year out from polling day.

Ardern believes it is the Government’s job to present the public with the contrast of its policies against those from National. She was unconcerned by Robertson labelling the National leader “Liz Luxon” after failed UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and saw no conflict with promises early in her tenure of “relentless positivity”.

“I stand by the way we have done politics over the past five years and I do believe we have modelled doing politics differently.”

Labour has the biggest caucus of the MMP era, governing alone with a comfortable majority. Yet it knows it cannot win as big in 2023 as in 2020 – with the leadership openly predicting a tight result next time – and that means that caucus will be (a lot) smaller.

Just how many MPs can be saved, to hope to work with partner parties for a third term, depends on Ardern and the party’s ability to flex, adapt and appeal to a currently jaundiced electorate.

Otherwise the happy, never-ending conga line of 2022 and the power it delivers to enact Labour’s values will have shrunken into history.

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

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