Labour’s low-key conference

Jacinda Ardern during the Labour Party conference. Photo: Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern during the Labour Party conference. Photo: Getty Images
Ironically, given that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is superb at reacting to a crisis, she heartily dislikes it when things do not go according to plan.

Last week was full of things not going as the Government intended, from quarantined Covid-19 patients decamping from where they should have been to a senior minister who should have known better openly musing about enormously unpopular proposals to potentially mandate when Aucklanders could, or could not, go on holiday.

It was an extremely scrappy lead-up to Labour’s annual conference, held virtually over the weekend in deference to Covid-19 gathering and travel restrictions.

The online forum necessitated a more low-key approach than usual — it’s hard to factor in pauses for rapturous applause and have balloons and streamers go off after the leader’s speech in this context.

Labour might have welcomed the lower level of scrutiny than usual though, as last week’s untidiness simply continued what has been a messy few weeks for the Government.

To be fair, it is engaged in a task of no small difficulty, trying to navigate the country from pandemic Covid-19 to endemic Covid without mass casualties or mass insurrection — something underlined by the Ministry of Health announcing New Zealand’s first day with 200+ cases while Ms Ardern was in full flow.

Managing Covid-19’s Delta variant is proving an almost impossible task, and despite Saturday’s sobering reminder of the still very real threat posed by the virus, a growing number of people in the team of 2.3 million (those in varying degrees of lockdown in Northland, Auckland and Waikato), let alone the team of 5 million, are starting to tire of restrictions imposed for sound public health reasons.

Economic uncertainty abounds and the lustre of Labour’s biggest asset, Ms Ardern, seems to be waning if the evidence of her being shouted down by protesters not once but twice last week is anything to go by.

It is easy for Labour to dismiss the loud or the permanently malcontent, but if it does so it may well be missing a more widespread and potentially politically damaging malaise.

A famed Australian punter once said that if your binoculars weren’t shaking you did not have enough on.

Right now Ms Ardern is watching a race unfold between vaccination levels and the looming Christmas holidays, having staked plenty that jabs will cross her self-imposed 90%+ finishing line before the looming run of New Zealanders wanting to head to the beach.

After the detection of Covid-19 in waste water samples in Taranaki, Napier and Gisborne in recent days, which carries with it the threat of more widespread community transmission than health officials were aware of, the field glasses will have started to noticeably tremble.

Saturday was certainly a time for Ms Ardern to issue a rallying cry, but her conference speech started off in a downbeat, almost apologetic tone, as she thanked Aucklanders for their lockdown efforts and almost begged them to stay the course.

She then ran through a range of key policies initiatives before striking her first defiant note, staunchly defending the widely unpopular Three Waters reforms and emissions reduction targets.

Most leaders’ conference speeches contain some kind of big bang announcement and Ms Ardern’s was a range of initiatives to further target child poverty.

While laudable, it will have been of concern to her that even organisations dealing with the underprivileged were lukewarm about the proposals, especially as reduction of child poverty is a task close to the Prime Minister’s heart and one she has taken on herself.

This most unusual of party conferences was carefully planned and went as well as could be expected, even though Covid-19 tried its best to further disrupt proceedings.

But with Labour seemingly stalled in an end of year fug, Ms Ardern arguably needed to do more to re-energise both her party and the country as a whole.

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