Incumbency is the super power every politician craves, yet this oddly muted new Labour-led government doesn't seem to have figured out how to use it yet. This week's mini-Budget is now crucial if it wants to position itself as a truly transformational government

It's such a quiet and prosaic tranformation. An undistinguished revolution.  

Labour's nigh-impossible election victor, with its ushering in of New Zealand's first post-baby boomer government and its distinctly loose three-way coalition agreement should still feel like a political earthquake, with the after-shocks still rattling the body politics. Yet – the occasional parliamentary embarrassment aside – it has rather quickly settled into a very work-a-day government. Which is odd, given the revolution it represents, and should be of no comfort to Ardern and Co.

That has been confirmed by the first post-election poll of polls from RNZ and the first Colmar Brunton poll from TVNZ. While the Colmar Brunton gave National an unusual post-election bounce for a losing team, the poll of polls (which includes a UMR and a Roy Morgan poll) has National down two points on election night and Labour up just over two. 

Not surprisingly for a swing party that has to let down a chunk of its voters whichever way it goes, New Zealand First is down in all three polls. 

Yet the mood I take from all three polls is a 'watch and wait' approach from New Zealanders. They reinforce the either/or result voters delivered in Election 17, which suggest a rather sanguine attitude to the two main parties. Voters are mostly relaxed about the government they've ended up with, but are far from convinced either.

Look back at the changes of government in my lifetime, and this sense of 'meh' is unusual. Muldoon stormed into power in 1975 on the backs of dancing cossacks and in a dramatic change of tone for the country. After three terms hunkered down under National, the 1984 revolution upended New Zealand like nothing since 1935.

The fourth Labour government survived two terms before imploding in 1990, ushering in Jim Bolger, his own crisis (the BNZ) and the Ruth Richardson era. After MMP's arrival, a coup and a torn and worn coalition government, Helen Clark powered into her three terms, only to be toppled as the world faced the worst global economic collapse since the Great Depression.

In other words, governments have typically changed in dramatic circumstances; yet this one kind of... slipped in. Maybe it was because John Key had already stood aside. Maybe Winston Peters as Goldilocks took just the right length of time to choose his coalition partner. Maybe it's just the lack of a singular crisis or economic threat. But the early days of this Labour-led government seem like, if not quite accidental then, an optional government.

Voters aren't inspired by the new or relieved to be free from the old. So it's just 'watch and wait'.

What many voters seem to be leaning on now is a faith in Jacinda Ardern. The power of incumbency has settled on her quickly and simply, as the Clmar Brunton has her pulling ahead of Bill English in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, 37 percent to 28. 

Yet there's a big 'but' that comes with that.

That 37 percent is little more than John Key was on just before he pulled the plug after eight years in power. Look back around the 2008 and 2011 elections and you'll see Key over 50 percent. Ardern will know that voters are still getting to know her, so there's nothing to panic about in these numbers, but that has to change. 

The greater concern though will be the party figures, where Labour is stuck in second even with the super power that is incumbency. I'm in no means questioning the government's legitimacy, but it's surely uncontroversial to say that incumbency should ensure a poll bump and if Labour stays in second over the medium term, it will raise questions about the party's staying power, not least from its coalition partners.

That's where Labour's front bench needs to get its act together, and quickly. If its first impression remains uninspiring – even clumsy, as National is trying to paint it – it could become a reputation that's hard to shake off. While it's acted effectively on Pike River, Tertiary education, paid parental leave and more, its failed to generate a sense of excitement or national pride. 

The biggest buzz has been around regional development and tree planting, and that owes much to the showmanship of Shane Jones and his (mostly well-calibrated) barney with Ardern and Labour about 'work for the dole'. 

That's why Thursday's mini-Budget is suddenly vital for this government and its attempts to capture the imagination of New Zealanders; especially those who didn't vote for it. This is the time to show some flair and razzmatazz, to maximise the headlines and paint policy in a light that hits people where they live. 

This is the chance for Labour to use its incumbency to bring out the dancing elephants and really impress with a sense of – dare I say it – vision and heart. 

In 1990, Ruth Richardson's mini-Budget set the tone for much of that decade. It was the essence of what she and her party stood for. It led to the Mother of all Budgets and much that Labour finds repulsive. Indeed, much of what this government is looking to try to undo.

But can they summon the same sense of commitment to their cause and the same zeal for a programme of generational change? Perhaps not for Grant Robertson a pastel tracksuit and some jogging, but he needs to come to sell a sense of mission.

That's what's needed to move the polls and light a fire under the new coalition. This mini-Budget needs to blow on the embers to get this government's boilers burning.

Comments (14)

by James Green on December 11, 2017
James Green

I don't know, the Clark to Key change seemed pretty enevitable and unsurprising to me at the time, and remember Key didn't change much in his first term beyond GST. His biggest impact was probably failing to fix any problems as they arose (housing, inequality, carbon, etc), rather than sweeping changes.

Why does the government need to energise the public with politics now? Now is the perfect time to just get on with governing; worrying about public opinion should be two years away.

I think you are falling into the talking heads trap, I advise you to find something important to blog about instead.

by on December 11, 2017

This anti politics meme just needs to be addressed. People who choose not to vote allow for the rise of stupid like John Car Keys and Trumpet. 


Take Car Keys foreign policy shift to allow troops back into Iraq. Exactly what have we gotten out of it except for hart ache.


Or the Loonies Foreign policy shift to recognising Jerusalem is Isreals capital. Its kicked off a new wave of interfada and we can expect a new wave after fucking wave of suicide bombings.


this is what anti politics does.

by Charlie on December 12, 2017

That was a good analysis Tim. Thanks.

I particularly support your point about Winston's drop in the polls. I suspect there are a lot of centre-right voters regretting voting for him now, and this will cost NZF dearly in three years time.

As James mentioned above, most of us voters don't want 'inspirational' at this stage: We just want to see some competency and stability. Business As Usual works for me because when all the electioneering rhetoric is over, there's not much air between National and Labour when it comes to actual policies.

I suspect the incoming government was as surprised as the rest of us that they 'won' the election (or were gifted it by Winston?). I also suspect that many of their policies statements were not seriously intended for actual implementation. Instead they were just slogans to be used for the next three years in opposition. Anyone expecting a billion trees or 100,000 houses has a rude awakening coming...




by Kat on December 12, 2017

"Voters aren't inspired by the new or relieved to be free from the old. So it's just 'watch and wait'.............

Lets just do that shall we Tim, and in the meantime have a read of Ian Shirley's post and you may get a few insights.

by on December 12, 2017

The people who were most surprised were the people poll watching. Increasing New Zealanders weaken there minds by watching polls and become out of touch with what's really going on.

by MJ on December 12, 2017

Well that's one take. 

The other is that there has been an enormous amount of right wing hysteria and patronising in the press from Soper, Williams et al. For example this week apparently the public service is terrible, though it wasn't on the radar while the Nats were in government. A comedian makes a joke about the US president and that becomes an interrogation for our Prime Minister.

I think getting on with the job is all they can do. 

Paid parental leave. Bam! done. (Despite National now, apparently always having been the party for that.)

Homes. On the way. 

Bullshit meth inspections. Gone!

Child poverty meaures. Begun.

First year of tertiary study free. Dusted. Locked in.

Paid Tena Pora what he was damn well owed. yep. 

A lot of these things won't affect the target market of newspapers or perhaps even news shows. What does it matter to people who weren't wrongly imprisoned that they are paid the proper compensation? What kind of a government makes such a mistake, admits to it and skimps on the redress? But the people affected know what is happening. 

We've seen an opposition fairly much still running an election campaign, some of it rather dubious or cynical if you listen to any of their talk about water, housing or say the Waikato DHB and a new government getting down to business.

And to be fair, Shane Jones is good at making a lot about noise, the media loves the Jones boy more than perhaps the voters, but of late his track record is somewhat checkered when it comes to results. Though he's certainly set himself some targets this time round. We'll see.

I'd rather have results.

I don't want a government announcing what will happen 30 years in the future, based on faith in developments. I want them tackling our problems now. 

There hasn't in any significant sense been a media honeymoon- in fact in many cases there has been spite. 

The vision and heart is the actions addressing neglected people and institutions. 

For example- the most recent contracting out business in Auckland transport. Penalising companies for being late, trying to drive down costs which will mean driving down wages and conditions for the drivers. It's something which is ideological, but perhaps isn't focused on the problem of encouraging a quality public transport system with the enormous benefits that brings. We don't want a public transport system that suppliers can't operate in. AT shouldn't be the equivalent of the big Aussie supermarkets!

It's a government that has come to power despite a formidable National party machine. 

One question to ask is- what stopped the Jacinda-mania rise? Was it tax? Was it- as Danyl Mclauchlan theorised- about showing strong leadership (She did at first, but responded weakly to the tax attacks)?Was it something else? Can that momentum be regained and do the polls matter that much a few weeks after the main one?

And will the next rise be about Jacinda or about a general relaxing of worry and satisfaction with the goverment's work?

by on December 12, 2017

Ah yes. The web of capital charges for those who believe so hard! That a government budget runs like a family budget. I pity conservitives who believe religiously in away. 

I mean seeking market prices for stuff the markets don't actually buy is lunacy. So who would actually pay a billion dollars for used frigates or roads.


Sleep well misty hobbits 

by Ross on December 13, 2017

Labour has failed to generate excitement or national pride? To be fair they've been in government for five minutes; National had 9 years in government and failed to generate either. Speaking of National, they are desperately looking for a support partner. No doubt that will be the subject of your next opinion piece, Tim.

by Katharine Moody on December 14, 2017
Katharine Moody

I'm with MJ - and to his list I'd add:

National Standards. Gone!

Urgent measures to address teacher shortages, particularly in Auckland - Done! 

'Voluntary' school donations. Gone!

Discounts on electricity for low income households.  Done!

Banning foreigners from purchasing residential RE.  Underway!

Require landlords to provide a reasonable standard of accommodation. Underway!

Viva la revolución



by MJ on December 14, 2017

Ah- and here is stuff's report on lifting an amazing number out of poverty, with an auto-play video of David Farrar as the first thing you see. 


Hard not to think much of the media are petty.

by Charlie on December 17, 2017

MJ: Right Wing Media????

Please! Get a grip.

I haven't seen any jackbooted SA walking around town lately, have you?

And the media in NZ? Mostly chardonnay socialists


by Tim Watkin on December 19, 2017
Tim Watkin

Because James, you only get one shot at a first impression. And our electoral cycles are short. And it’s got an Opposition Party as the biggest party in parliament .

by Tim Watkin on December 19, 2017
Tim Watkin

Kat, surely after all your years of visiting Pundit you have figured out that this is an analysis site, not a news site. Part of protecting journalism as Ian wants is people understanding the different roles of different media and knowing that ‘media’ is not one thing.

by Kat on December 19, 2017

Tim, thats a fine line you are treading between analysis and media then. But, perhaps I am confused as to what you are really analysing. My point was that Ian succinctly exposed the media's complicity, through a plethora of biased opinioned editorials, in creating a state of uninspired and unrelieved voters.

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