Hot Topic NBR Focus: GMO
Hot Topic NBR Focus: GMO
9 mins to read

Reality check on Jacindamania

NZ Politics Daily: It's wall-to-wall Jacinda Ardern in the news, with a level of hype that suggests she's already turned the Labour Party's fortunes around, and National is now on the back-foot.

Thu, 03 Aug 2017

Among the fanfare, there are voices sounding a note of caution. Below are the most interesting reality checks on Jacindamania.

1) Veteran political journalist John Armstrong is not inclined to go along with hype, and today he gives the strongest reality check about the meteoric rise of the new Labour leader, saying what “Labour could do with is a lot more caution before casting its new leader as the Wonder Woman of New Zealand politics” – see: Ardern gives Labour a chance but she has hard choices to make.

Mr Armstrong says the “prevailing wisdom” is that Ardern will win back all those former Labour voters but there is “little evidence as yet to make such an assumption.” Here’s his main point: “You could have been excused for thinking Labour had just won the general election, rather than indulging in a last-minute exercise in survival. Amidst such euphoria, it is easy to forget the scale of the leap required to bridge the gap between leader and deputy leader. In her prior capacity as deputy, Ardern had run up all of four months’ experience in a senior management position in the party. She has never stamped a particular personal vision on the policies that have emerged from the shadow portfolios she has held during her nine years as an MP. Neither has she shown that she possesses the finely-tuned political instincts of a John Key, a Richard Prebble or, crucially in her case, a Bill English.

Perhaps most important of all, she has never landed a sustained hit which really rattled Labour’s old foe.”

2) Mike Hosking doubts that Ardern is a saviour for Labour, raising questions about her lack of experience, and saying “I am not sure how relatable she is to middle New Zealand – see: Jacinda Ardern would have been better to wait. Hosking also wonders how different she will really be to Little: “She's promising new policy but it will have to be dramatically different from what they've already rolled out and, judging by her opening comments in her first press conference, it was the same old stuff: closing gaps, more money, an inclusive society.” See also his video: Jacinda Ardern has a credibility issue.

4) National Party blogger David Farrar makes a positive assessment of Ardern, concluding that “Overall the pros clearly outweigh the cons. I think she will do better than Andrew Little” – see: The pros and cons of Jacinda. But Farrar points to some important drawbacks: “Is she ready to be PM? NZ has never elected someone PM who has been a party leader for just eight weeks. She is untested as a leader. Does the public think she can run the country? Running a country is vastly different to running a club of youth wings.” And on economic issues, he asks: “Will the public think she and Grant Robertson will be better economic managers than Bill English and Steven Joyce?” Her electoral track record is also brought up: “She is popular and liked but she did fail to win Auckland Central (a previously safe seat for Labour) in both 2011 and 2014.”

5) Also on the right, Matthew Hooton has long been the most vocal commentator forecasting Ms Ardern would take over from Andrew Little and lead Labour into the election, but he wasted no time in declaring her not up to the task: “I think she'll fail. I think she's an absolute flake but obviously Labour Party caucus knows her better than I do and feels she's the right person to fill the shoes of Savage and Fraser and Lange and Clark” – see the Herald’s Matthew Hooton: Jacinda Ardern "will fail, I think she's a flake."

6) While we might expect right-wing commentators to express strong reservations about Ms Ardern’s ability to turn her party’s fortunes around, one of the most challenging responses has come from Gordon Campbell, who actually thinks Labour’s situation could worsen under Ms Ardern: “It isn’t entirely beyond the realm of possibility that this episode could mark the end of the Labour Party as a major political force” – see: The Labour leadership change.

Mr Campbell’s main point is that Ms Ardern appears to be just another in a long list of ideologically-centrist leaders who aren’t willing to make radical changes to the party: “All of them tried and all failed to sell the public on a political brand that consisted of loudly bewailing the social outcomes of the market while quietly embracing its core precepts about how a modern economy should be run. Since Labour appears to lack any appetite for fundamental change (much less any idea of what that might entail) Labour’s political messaging has been almost entirely negative. On the doorstep, Labour candidates have been left promoting a culture of complaint. In this void, Gareth Morgan – so help us –is now seen as the visionary alternative. Even the social spending on health and education that Labour is offering at election 2017 is almost entirely dependent on the surpluses that National’s economic policies have generated. Point being, a lot more than a change of leader is required, longer term. That will have to wait until next year, and beyond. No one will be blaming Jacinda Ardern if she fails to win this election; her immediate job is to lessen the scale of the defeat.

7) There are plenty of others who might be seen as sympathetic to Labour’s reinvigoration, also pausing before declaring Ardern a “game changer”. For example, University of Otago’s Andrew Geddis has been reported as believing “Ardern must prove she has substance, as at present her new deputy has more credibility” – see Eileen Goodwin’s Leader needs to prove herself: prof. Geddis says: “One of the things about Jacinda that will be raised is what she's actually achieved … With Kelvin Davis, you can point to a lot of stuff that he's done … He's got a lot more gravitas than I think perhaps Jacinda could claim at this moment.”

Furthermore, he says questions about Ms Ardern’s lack of achievement have a '”fair basis in reality.'’ The article reports “She had not steered a member's bill through Parliament, and neither had she been a leading figure in public debate.” Prof Geddis says: “It's hard to think of many issues on which she's been a leading figure to engage the public conversation.”

8) The Dominion Post also says today that Ms Ardern needs to show she has some substance: “She will have to prove her worth. Relying on personal popularity and connecting with younger voters is a start but it won't be enough. She has to foot it with English on policy detail that will somehow resonate with the kind of voters her party has not been able to capture at the past three general elections” – see: Talent, temperament and tenacity paramount to leading the country. The editorial adds: “Ardern may have more charisma and a boost in momentum, but there's more to being prime minister than a feelgood honeymoon period and the platitudes of the past couple of days.”

9) Veteran left-wing activist John Minto says he’s also sceptical whether “Ardern can breathe some life into Labour’s neo-liberal corpse” and argues her “election, alongside that of Kelvin Davis as deputy, represents a shuffle further to the right” – see: Labour’s last throw of the neo-liberal dice. He worries that Labour is simply making cosmetic changes at the expense of getting the party in sync with today’s more radical mood: “Labour believes it has a perception problem so it keeps changing the packaging. But the packaging isn’t the problem. It’s the content of the package that leaves them in a political backwater. Unlike the UK for example where Jeremy Corbyn has performed well as UK Labour leader, Labour in New Zealand has no bold, progressive policies.”

10) Ardern seems to be backtracking on her self-described “democratic socialist” label, with the emphasis now on being a “pragmatic idealist”, and this is concerning left-wing blogger Steven Cowan, who says this term “could mean anything. And this should raise alarm bells given her long held admiration for a 'Third Way' exponent like Helen Clark. If Ardern's intention is to simply ‘cherry pick’ which policies that Labour should emphasise while leaving the logic of market capitalism unchallenged, then this will not be the ‘bold’ Labour she says that she wants. It will not shift Labour from its failed centrist path and present the electorate with a clear political and economic alternative” – see: Jacinda Ardern: Will she swing Labour to the left?

11) Ardern is no Jeremy Corbyn, according to Finlay Macdonald, who says British Labour has undergone quite a different transformation to Ardern’s Labour Party: “Labour in New Zealand has had no such genuine reckoning. Here, beneath the squabbling over policy and scandal, lies a cosy bipartisan pact never to frighten the horses with talk of higher taxes and full employment” – see: Ardern's new role: 'People's Princess versus Dreary of Dipton’. Even under Ardern, “despite crises in housing, health and the environment, Labour is not perceived as the rightful champion of the dispossessed and disenchanted. Changing that at this late stage will take a fresh approach indeed.”

12) Jane Patterson makes some similar points: “Ms Ardern is now the sixth leader of the Labour Party in nine years and, while she may provide a 'fresh face', the party's problems run deeper. They need to define what they stand for and present a clear vision of what New Zealand would look like under a Labour government, as opposed to the current administration” – see: Ardern a 'fresh face', but Labour's problems run deeper.

13) Jacinda Ardern will be announcing a number of policy changes over the next day or so, and this will be the test for Chris Trotter, who points forward a number of must-do policies to adopt if Labour is to succeed – see: Labour Can Win If … Defining Jacinda’s Political Mission. He is pushing her to be truly radical and authentic: “Labour can win if … Jacinda resists any and all attempts to make her the promoter of policies which clash with her self-definition as a “pragmatic idealist”. If Labour’s so-called “strategists” dismiss the “idealist” half of her descriptive pairing and load Jacinda up with the same highly pragmatic (but utterly uninspiring) policy baggage that drove its poll ratings below 25%, then the candle of hope she has ignited will be snuffed out."

14) Labour appears to be adopting a new campaign slogan of “Let’s do this!” – see Anna Bracewell-Worall’s 'Let's Do This': Labour's new campaign slogan? But is its sales pitch going to be successful? Political marketing expert Jennifer Lees-Marshment has some doubts: “In political marketing terms, Labour is more in touch with voters’ concerns than National. They have raised all the right issues and focus on the problems facing ordinary New Zealanders. But their problem is political management. They have not demonstrated that they can do anything about the problems they raise. They have spent too much time talking about National, and too little about their own solutions” – see: Labour’s problem with political management.

And changing leaders could be making this worse: “A change of leadership at this stage shows disunity and lack of political management, and these are all things Labour was weak on already. They needed to plug a hole in their delivery capability, not blow it wide open.”

15) “Beware cries of a Labour miracle” says Tim Watkin, because “While Jacinda Ardern is ‘a young proposition’, she's not just been pulled from the bullrushes, and while the past 36 hours have seen a remarkable 'Jacinda Effect', she's not the saviour” – see: How the Jacinda Effect changes everything & nothing. Also, rather than moving to the left, Watkin says Ardern needs to take Labour toward the centre: “Labour isn't suddenly no longer a bit of a mess. The change of leadership has made some things possible again but it's far from a slam dunk. The next week and whatever new policy Ardern announces to make her mark is vital. It must appeal to the centre, not the left, of her party.”

Finally, for more cartoons on the new Labour leader, see my new blog post, A History of Jacinda Ardern through cartoons.

RELATED VIDEO: Jacinda Ardern is announced the new Labour leader (Aug 1)
© All content copyright NBR. Do not reproduce in any form without permission, even if you have a paid subscription.
Reality check on Jacindamania