Can Ardern set NZ on crucial path into 2020s?

Labour leader and prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern has fashioned a workable working arrangement. Photo: Getty Images

Yesterday was Labour Day. Actually, it was Labour day last Thursday, courtesy of Winston Peters.

And this is Labour week as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern settles in - well, zips in.

Stale white males from Richard Prebble up are harrumphing that she won't last, that hers will be a fractious or chaotic one-term government at most.

Peters put his finger on one reason the sad sacks might turn out to be right: storm clouds have been gathering over a rock-star economy high on a migrant/tourist/debt drug cocktail, so it might go bad.

Weight is lent to this thesis in growing international commentary worrying about global share prices, private and public debt, loose-money central banks, trade protectionism and imbalances.

Peters doesn't want the blame if the economy goes down with viruses gestated on Bill English's watch.

In 1957, Labour inherited from a third-term National government a sagging dairy market. It lasted one term. The oil crisis of 1973-74 sank in one term the Labour government of 1972.

Spectres, yes. But pointers to the future?

Ardern is young and fresh. The 1957-60 prime minister was septuagenarian Sir Walter Nash. His cabinet was a tired hangover from the 1935-49 one.

Ardern has charisma. In 1974, Labour lost charismatic Norman Kirk and in 1975 television star Sir Robert Muldoon bowled pale Bill Rowling.

No likely 2020 National leader has Sir Robert's populist pull.

Ardern is strong. English petulantly called her ``stardust''. She beat him in the contest for wily septuagenarian Peters' hand not by giving in but through, as one of the inner group puts it, warmth, directness and authenticity, to which can be added firmness and capable intellect.

Ardern has fashioned a workable working arrangement. Alongside, as de facto deputy prime minister, is James Shaw, still learning but now getting some pass marks after an F for the monumental Metiria Turei mistake. He is likely to prove a capable minister and authoritative leader.

So the Greens might begin to transit from a loose collectivity of anarchists - note last week's irresponsible leaks - to a constructive role in a rules-based democracy.

That transition is critical to the Greens' longer-term survival. As Labour and National after the English-Joyce era push into climate change and environmental issues, it will be harder for the Greens to present as cutting edge. In the campaign The Opportunities Party (Top) usurped that role.

The Greens have a rebuild base of far more volunteers and money in this campaign and real MP talent, including two remarkable new young women and the seriously smart Julie-Anne Genter.

But big sister Labour will also be trying to build to get over the 40% mark. And Top or Top-like options are likely to be around.

New Zealand First, too, needs to rebuild. Peters had the option of setting out to build a durable coalition with National, as he used to muse in the 1990s, with assigned electorates. He chose instead ``change'', rejecting a ``modified status quo'', a form of capitalism which he has said for 30 years leaves too many out.

Labour could go for a 4% party vote threshold to enhance its partners' survival prospects. It could arrange a dignified exit for Sir Winston to a diplomatic or other sinecure and encourage his party evolution towards a centrist balancer.

What about Labour? However well Ardern manages her government, if she leaves Labour still weak in the provinces and below potential in south and west Auckland, as did her mentor Helen Clark, a revived National would be able resume its long-term superiority.

The eight new province-based list MPs need to build real presence in their regions. Stuart Nash did that in Napier: ubiquitous presence, including weekly street-corner meetings with feedback into weekly local ads.

In low-turnout south and west Auckland, where the two-party swing was to National or only slightly to Labour, Labour needs to intensively engage alienated Maori and Pasifika to get them enrolled and voting.

President Nigel Haworth and general secretary Andrew Kirton aim to build on the campaign volunteering and donations surge, get membership competitive with National's 30,000-odd and systematise fundraising. Organisational changes are needed.

Ardern's bigger challenge is to emulate English's ``incremental radicalism'': set a direction towards policies attuned to the 2020s and the different needs of the rising generation.

Her government's climate change initiatives head down that track.

She and Grant Robertson know about, and have some policies that reflect, the Treasury's ``wellbeing economics'' work which recalibrates capitalism, about which more here soon.

And there is the tax working group to come: will it bring a genuine ``broad-based, low rate'' system that taxes wealth, including income from capital gain, and ``bads'' such as pollution and resource misuse?

Out in the real world, signposts to the 2020s are appearing. To ``do this'' 2020s stuff, Ardern will need to lay some tracks. That is her test.

Colin James is a leading social and political commentator.



I see norm kirk got a mention clever tactic ......