Jacinda Ardern and Labour have time on their side for a change. It may allow New Zealanders to think it's their 'turn', but only if they can avoid distractions like, oh, trans-Tasman squabbles

Timing is just so important in politics, as in so much of life. Plenty of able people don't have the luck – or planning – to be in the right place at the right time. But right now, timing may be Jacinda Ardern's greatest gift.

Ardern has been an MP for nearly a decade, and around parliament for longer than that. She seemed to genuinely be happy working her way, one day, to being a minister. The hope she might be Prime Minister seemed distant; only possible if she played the long game. Instead, Labour has been forced to gamble on her now and, unlike her predecessors, she has the good fortune of good timing.

Before her, Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little have struggled with the weight of Opposition and each, in his way, has been found wanting. Timing has hurt them all.

After nine years out of power and with a popular Prime Minister at the helm, it was always going to be next to impossible for Goff to win. It would have needed a colossal error by National or a hugely unpopular Mother of all Budgets-like policy to have given Labour a shot at victory in 2011.

Labour then, arguably, got its leaders in the wrong order. The ABCs (Anyone But Cunliffe) rallied behind Shearer when it was too soon for him. Then, when Cunliffe's turn became inevitable – well, there were many reasons why he didn't win – but the damaged state the party and the clear divisions didn't help.

Little actually had the good fortune of a nearly three year run at an election. Plus, he had a party, if not quite united, then at least resigned to letting him have a decent crack. He just wasn't the right person for the times, and the time he had saw Labour stalled, or starting to slide backwards. Hence his resignation.

They all had to wrestle with a hugely popular Prime Minister in John Key and deal with the growth that typically comes after an economic crisis and natural disasters.

But Ardern has been handed the leadership just seven weeks from an election. That changes things and, frankly, is incredibly lucky for her. She comes in at an intense time when emotion, presentation and discipline under fire matter at least as much as policy and consistency.

It's short enough that 'the Jacinda Effect' might not have time to wear off. And short enough that there may not be time to truly test her abilities in the leaders' role. 

From my experience, there's some truth in both the praise and criticism that surrounds Ardern. She is likeable and genuinely cares about the issues she speaks to, is something of a policy wonk and has a good command of detail, but equally she hasn't made much of a public impact in any of what have been quite significant portfolios she has been given.

But that won't be the skill-set demanded over the next month and a half. Indeed, they may not be the skills that make for a strong and able Prime Minister anyway. But her failings or her strengths will get little exposure in the frenetic mood of a campaign. Many voters will decide on a feeling or a short-term impression. People like to vote for someone they like and who's liked by others.

In contrast, timing has been cruel to Bill English when it comes to leadership. First time round, he was asked to do too much, too soon, much like Shearer. This time, seamlessly handed the baton and set up to be a safe guardian in a 'better the bore you know' election, he suddenly finds himself facing a new generation leader. Suddenly, framed against a young and "relentlessly positive" opponent, he looks tired. Even the spaghetti pizza vibe has gone from 'Dad chic' to just a bit lame.

What that means for Labour is that Ardern may be able to ride one of the strongest currents in New Zealand politics. The idea that parties get turns in power.

It seems to run deep in the NZ electoral psyche. New Zealand voters don't like one side having too much time in power and, if the Opposition looks in reasonable shape, like share things around. Those parties – the fourth Labour and National governments aside – have tended to reward that way of thinking by listening pretty hard to their mandate and taking a relatively uncontroversial approach to government.

There's a reason why people talk of a nine-year rule and how hard it is to break. National is realising that anew.

But Labour needs to remember there's still time to fail, as Chris Hipkins has provided them with a great example of the cardinal sin its MPs must avoid at all costs.

Hipkins silly indulgence asking questions for a mate in the Australian parliament took attention off Ardern and forced her to look anything by "relentlessy positive" for a day or two. That doesn't help. It again makes Labour look like it's mucking around, not doing the grown-up work of getting ready to govern.

Labour's mantra for the next six weeks must be: "no mistakes, no distractions". Its MPs must find the discipline they have sometimes lacked in the past three terms. But, again, time is on their side. They only have to stay focused until September 23.


Comments (15)

by Anne on August 16, 2017

<i>It again makes Labour look like it's mucking around, not doing the grown-up work of getting ready to govern.</i>

Certainly the potential was there for a shambles, but I can't agree with you that it has occurred. Did you watch the full standup media interview [and questions] late yesterday? Its on the Stuff website.  It was clear, concise and she owned the occasion. A thoroughly professional performance. If she continues in that vein then she will have fully earned the mantle of prime ministership come September 23.

by Anne on August 16, 2017

Not sure whether it will work but here is a cut and paste of the Ardern press conference from yesterday:



by Nick Gibbs on August 16, 2017
Nick Gibbs

I think Labour have deferred a lot of policy detail until later in August. It will be interesting to see what they have to say about tax after Treasury open the books. This will be a real test for Ardern.

by Tim Watkin on August 16, 2017
Tim Watkin

Anne, it's a fair point. I wrote that last night and I still think it shows a senior party member with his eye off the ball. But it's interesting that the consensus seems to be how well Ardern has handled this. 

She also got in a crack at an Australian foreign minister who has done little that is good or kind for Kiwis, so yep she seems to be navigating her way through a potential shambles pretty well.

Although quite how big a shambles is hard to say. I don't think this is going to be a big thing either way... it's a bit numpty, but nothing that serious in your average Kiwis' life.

by Anne on August 16, 2017

 "I still think it shows a senior party member with his eye off the ball."

Agreed. Words like stupid, thoughtless - and a few other words which would be best left unprinted - come to mind re- the senior party member in question. 



by Chris Morris on August 16, 2017
Chris Morris

As the internet never forgets, I think the words Jacinda wrote about Australians 18 months ago might come back to haunt her. http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/76626738/david-v-jacinda-spread...


by Charlie on August 18, 2017

I think She has done quite well so far - certainly way better than her unlikeable predecessor!

Heading into the election her next test will be to survive the debates. The media have given her an easy ride so far but she has the problem without viable, costed policies and a cabinet severely short on talent.



by Anne on August 18, 2017

Don't worry Charlie. I know nine years is going to be a long time to wait but you'll get through it. (just a razz)

by Charlie on August 19, 2017

Nice one Anne!   :-)

In my view Jacinda needs to play the long game. If by chance she did win this election (anything is possible with MMP!) she would be presiding over a cobbled together circus of fringe parties. It would last one term, at the most, and ruin her career in the long term.

She certainly has potential: Labour's hit on Metiria certainly shows she understands realpolitik more than her predecessor!

by Kat on August 19, 2017

Jacinda Ardern won't be "presiding over a cobbled together circus of fringe parties" rather in coalition either with Greens or NZF. The current National govt circus that includes Nat/Act/United Future/Maori P is looking highly likely to be shown the exit door.

What is putting the frightners into National is that all the media light that used to be focused on the top performing National circus clown over the past eight years is now focussed on Labours queen bee. And that media is saying quite clearly and loudly that National is in trouble.


by Alan Johnstone on August 19, 2017
Alan Johnstone

The right don't seem to know how to handle her.

The problem with John Keys success is that he dominated his party and the country for a decade. He deprived his own party of oxygen. In normal circumstances a leader would hand over to the the next generation, the talent wasn't there, hence Bill get's another go

Andrew Little? Yeah, they could run Bill English against him easy enough, but Jacinda is harder to lay a glove on. The camera loves her, she's authentic and people who don't like Labour like her.

It's 2008 all over again, we were all told that Helen Clarks proven record and gravatis would win out against the upstart John Key. Didn't work out then, suspect the same will happen again. English isn't particularly good at retail politics, I suspect he doesn't really like it. I get a bit of a Theresa May vibe from him.

by Charlie on August 20, 2017

You're right Alan.

A significant portion of women will vote for her just because she a woman. The Left leaning media will back her to the hilt for obvious reasons (Did you notice the photos on the front page of the Herald a couple of weeks ago? Jacinda front and centre other leaders ever so slightly greyed out and in the background. We'll see much more of this propaganda in the weeks to come)

National's other problem is, just as you say, "dealing with her". In debate English is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. A half competent debater could take her apart because she is clearly not 'across' the details of policy (her efforts in Parliament to date have been little more than brain farts) but that could too easily make English look like the the classic nasty, male chauvinist. God forbid he should be caught 'mansplaining' !

Either way it is most entertaining with several more episodes yet to go. Enjoy!

by Ross on August 20, 2017

Even Rodney Hide thinks the Chris Hopkins story was a beat up. It's a weird day when Tim Watkin is more extreme than ACT. :)


by Ross on August 20, 2017


by Tim Watkin on August 22, 2017
Tim Watkin

Not sure what you were reading Ross, but I was saying that Hipkins was dumb to do anything that took attention away from the 'relentlessly positive' message. And that asking questions for a mate in Australia is not being focused on the core business of winning an election in this country.

Given Ardern slapped him down for his move and called it "unacceptable", I'm not sure where I'm being extreme in suggesting he might want to pay attention to things this side of the ditch. I certainly had no extremist intent, but we all read things differently, depending on where we stand.

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