The first Jacinda-Winston-James anniversary is almost here. Will there be a fourth anniversary?
Jacinda Ardern is 38, James Shaw 45, Grant Robertson 46. They have much to look ahead to. Winston Peters is 73. He has much to look back on and an respectable retirement to look out for.
Shaw’s Greens are to Ardern’s left. Peters’ New Zealand First is to her (populist) right. Each has heft — Labour is much the biggest but it needs the votes of both to outgun National.
New Zealand First has to walk atop a narrow fence: be distinctive and visibly influential to stay above 5% in 2020 (if there is no rescue through an electorate seat deal) but not so distinctive as to fuel commentary (as in August-September) that Peters is driving the bus — off the road. Disunity kills governments.
The Greens look more sure of 5% but are on a boardwalk through a wetland: between compromise and purity, between governmental grown-up-ness (limited wins) and political adolescence (keeping ideals — and impotence — intact).
Green MPs have mostly opted for grown-up-ness, not least by swallowing Peters’ putrid waka jumping rat. But Marama Davidson’s election as co-leader indicates most party members lean to adolescence.
At least as testing for Ardern are drop-the-ball Labour ministers — Clare Curran, Meka Whaitiri — and fumblers.
Kelvin Davis (reminder: Labour’s deputy leader) has to get post-settlement Crown-Maori relations right if there is not to be another Maori party. On marae he is said to have won over opponents to new thinking. But in general forums he is often fuzzy.
David Clark has the intellect and inner strength to repair the health system when through his multiple reviews but so far often sounds more the preacher he trained to be than on-top manager.
Add in public differences, mainly between New Zealand First (think Shane Jones) and Labour ministers — examples: three-strikes abolition, workplace law. By August-September the authority a government claims and needs was looking ragged. Political management was wobbly. Ardern felt a need to do two major “reset” speeches.
A different Clark (Helen) — whose out-of-place lofty observations on how to govern have infuriated some in the Beehive — would have set chief of staff and enforcer Heather Simpson to work with and on them. Ardern chief of staff Mike Munro is not a stick-wielder.
But Clark (Helen) didn’t have to ride Ardern’s three-headed beast. Detail needs to be cleared through cabinet. Answers to questions on issues not yet cleared can look, in feverish media reporting, like fissures when they are work in progress.
There are tensions, miscues and mistakes. But there are within parties, as Simon Bridges (yet to live up to his potential) could tell you. The issue is how well and consistently tensions are resolved.
Fixing political management took Sir John Key and chief of staff Wayne Eagleson a year or so.
Can Ardern? She and Peters have mutual respect, even liking, despite wide divergences in age, mentality and policy disposition. Shaw is cooperative.
And Ardern can be firm (as Neve will find in her terrible twos). One hardened MP told me a ticking off from her during last year’s campaign outdid any from Clark (Helen). Meka Whaitiri can be in no doubt.
Ardern’s approval ratings are still stratospheric — not (so far at least) showing symptoms of a Justin Trudeau/Emmanuel Macron change-leader-gone-sour plunge. The right-track/wrong-track reading is still very positive. And there is a half-dozen of strong ministers.
But words are not deeds. She needs in her second year to turn the myriad reviews and consultations (examples: climate change, mental health, tax) into actions people can see, feel and want.
Mostly so far the government has been filling potholes Sir John left. Forward-pointing actions are appearing but there is not yet real momentum. And to be convincing in 2020 the government needs a wraparound theme.
For that go to Ardern mate Robertson, her real deputy. He is getting on top of finance, the recent Mood of the Boardroom survey recognised and some officials say. He has (so far) faced down striking nurses and teachers (who seem, puzzlingly, to want National austerity back in 2020).
More important is his attempt to reframe government action as promoting much wider “wellbeing” than material stuff and as relevant for the 2020s. His speeches, including recently on the arts’ contribution to wellbeing, do that well.
Climate change, on which there is a fair chance of cross-party agreement from regular meetings between Shaw and National’s Todd Muller, fits. So does much of the social programme.
But “wellbeing” is a hard story to get across to the media, let alone voters. To bed it in — with testable numbers — Ardern needs a second term. And for that she needs a strong story, especially if there is a global financial or other catastrophe. She hopes to have that story by early 2020.
Will she? Will there be a fourth anniversary? Answer that in 23 months.