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John Armstrong's opinion: Ardern's struggle from now on will be to keep her head above the water

Jacinda Ardern. Source: Getty

The glitter of Jacinda Ardern’s crown no longer sparkles or glistens quite so gloriously as it did not that many months ago. The Prime Minister’s political wizardry likewise no longer casts quite the spell over her opponents it once did.

She no longer walks on water. Her struggle from now on will be to keep her head above the water. She's been swamped by the backwash from her mishandling of matters mundane. Her legacy is at risk of being a long list of monuments to failure.

Her political epitaph might turn out to be all about what she did not achieve rather than what she did achieve.

In short, Ardern’s extraordinary stint as Prime Minister looks ever more ordinary by the day.

It is all a far cry from the assumption that she only needs to turn up at next year’s general election in order to win it. It is a far cry from the talk of her picking up the Nobel Peace, something which would place her in the esteemed company of the likes of Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Mother Theresa and Barack Obama.

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The Prime Minister has earned praise from around the world for her response. Source: 1 NEWS

Indeed, Ardern continues to be rated as a star on the international stage. In part that is because she fits the bill in being the kind of leader that many countries wish they had. In particular, she is an antidote to right-wing populism. If she did not exist, someone else would be bestowed with the same qualities as Ardern enjoys.

It is all very fine and good to be a star in the world of diplomacy. But there are no votes to be gained from enjoying that status.

The adulation with which Ardern is treated overseas is in marked contrast to the tougher line taken by journalists back home.

Ardern’s political honeymoon with the comparatively small coterie of local journalists, columnists, opinion-makers and observers who gauge the public mood and score politicians according to their response to it lasted for so long that everyone forgot to point out when it was over.

The last three or four months have witnessed a significant shift in stance on the part of those Ardern-watchers. Not only has the criticism of the government become more severe, Ardern’s performance has received some pretty torrid reviews.

They were prompted by her failure to put the squeeze on New Zealand First and force Labour’s coalition partner to give ground and give its backing to a capital gains tax even in its most limited form.

The “failure of delivery” theme gained further traction in subsequent months, especially in the wake of the fiasco that was KiwiBuild.
The ever harsher verdict on Ardern and some of her Cabinet ministers may be no bad thing, however.

New Zealand’s political history is littered with the corpses of Labour governments which over-estimated the public’s appetite for change and under-estimated the potency of the streak of conservatism which runs deep in New Zealand’s conformist society.

Ardern’s Administration has been notable for being a roller coaster-like ride, one which has seen the throttle set at maximum speed in a mad-cap rush to reform just about anything that comes within its radar — and a whole lot more which does not.

As they say, history repeats. Ardern and her colleagues are at risk of casting themselves in a re-run of an all-too-familiar tale.

It is a standard fate for governments that sooner or later they lose momentum. That prompts critics to accuse the governing party of drifting instead of governing. Its Cabinet ministers are deemed to be out of touch and out of tune with the mood of the electorate.
Once applied, that tag can prove difficult to shed. It is not a label that can be attached to the three-party contraption which currently has hold on the levers of power.

With the next general election little more than a year away, the Prime Minister has to find the right formula which slows the forces driving her Government at break-neck speed, but which does not result in it stalling and further exacerbating the problem of delivery.

In that regard, next Wednesday’s unveiling of the KiwiBuild “reset” is crucial not just in terms of what the Government thinks it can achieve in such a critical portfolio over the next 12 months.

The reset will be a measure of the willingness of Ardern and her senior ministers to curb its wider ambition across the whole of government so that it is in sync with the capacity of the bureaucracy to meet realistic targets.

It is a search for a kind of equilibrium. There is no guarantee, however, that finding such equilibrium will mean everything is going to be hunky-dory from henceforth.

There will be plenty of political banana skins that have yet to reveal themselves upon which Ardern and her colleagues may well slip.That is a simple fact of political life. The next 12 months are not just about doing the hard yards in terms of policy implementation. It will also be as much about the hard grind of her and her ministers constantly keeping their eyes on the political ball.

The next year is all about containing and defusing problems that arise seemingly out of nowhere, and which are not necessarily her Government’s or her party’s fault.

Some problems, like Ihumātao, will have been longtime festering sores which the Prime Minister will have long been aware of but which she has been powerless to resolve until matters have come to a head.

Ardern has copped much criticism for not paying a visit to Ihumātao. That criticism is not justified. The danger is not just that she is seen as taking sides in an argument between Māori and Māori. It is that she risks being seen by non-Māori as favouring Māori ahead of property rights and full and final resolution of Treaty claims.

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The petition is demanding the Prime Minister visit the Ihumātao site in South Auckland Source: 1 NEWS

If Labour’s Māori MPs have managed to persuade Waikato-Tainui to purchase the land in question, all well and good.

If any such deal requires —as has been rumoured— that the state come to the party in the form of a loan to Waikato-Tainui, all will not be so well and good.

There is another good reason for why Ardern has shunned Ihumātao. She might be Prime Minister. But she would be placing herself in a situation over which she would have no control. There would be risk of confrontation.

There are a couple of lessons too for Ardern from this episode.

First, it is a reminder that in a small society, problems which would be sorted at lower levels of government tend to work their way up the chain to the Prime Minister’s office in the Beehive bearing a plea that she “do something” even though no-one has the foggiest what that might or should be.

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A petition with thousands of signatures is to be presented at the Prime Minister’s Mt Albert electorate office on August 22. Source: 1 NEWS

Second, Ihumātao is a vivid demonstration that from here on, the politics get exponentially more tricky. The window that opened following the 2017 election and which enabled Labour and its two support partners to blame National for everything that was going wrong in the Universe has closed.

It is National which is asking the awkward questions. It is Labour which is now failing to supply adequate answers. In that vein, Ardern is vulnerable to the charge that a fair chunk of what she utters is political flannel. She is exceptionally good at making the meaningless sound meaningful.

A classic example was her adoption of the words “disappointed”, “disappointing” and “disappointed” which laced her responses to the breach of security at the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage which happens to be one of her portfolio responsibilities.

Was Ardern merely expressing sadness at the online exposure of copious amounts of personal information? Or was it a declaration of displeasure on her part?

Or — as seems most likely to have been the case —was her claim to have been disappointed by the privacy lapse a means of ducking the obvious question as to whether heads should have rolled in the ministry without her sounding weak?

The Prime Minister might be well advised to avoid such circumlocution before the public wises up to this practice — and the language she resorts to using to dig herself out of political holes only ends up requiring her to excavate herself from even deeper ones.