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The “transformation” was remarkable. Labour, under Andrew Little, was languishing in the polls about 24% only months before the 2017 election. And only seven months ago, National was still polling between 40% and 45%, even with unpopular Simon Bridges in charge.
The rise of celebrity communicator Ms Ardern has been phenomenal. Her responses to the mosque killings are acknowledged as exemplary and her Covid leadership was outstanding. She continued in a similar style on Saturday night.
Now, of course, comes the challenge of the next three years. Ms Ardern and Labour are vulnerable to accusations of sweet talk and little action, of non-“delivery”. Housing issues have magnified, child poverty is worse and the mental health crisis is as bad as ever.
Ms Ardern three years ago talked of “transformative” government.
Already, even before the Left’s euphoria dampens, rumblings surface that Labour needs to show starch, be decisive and use its political capital to make a real difference.
These expectations, however, will need to be tempered because this is not the Ardern way.
On Saturday night Ms Ardern reached out to those who did not vote for Labour as well as those who did so for the first time. We must listen to the point of view of others, she said. She warned of the polarisation that is plaguing much of the West. We were told that change “that sticks” is the way ahead.
In other words, Ms Ardern — and she sets the tone as the undisputed queen of Labour who led it from the wilderness and reigned over this triumph — will not be radical. She avoided such talk in her carefully framed speech. Ms Ardern is no revolutionary at heart.
She was true to her nature in those remarks. While strong, she comes across as compassionate and conciliatory, and who can doubt that.
Even if the image of the “kind”, benevolent, thoughtful monarch is in part an act by the mistress of empathic communications, that persona feeds back on itself. Ms Ardern has staked out a distinctive style.
Naturally, Ms Ardern is aware of the criticism of her nice-talking, do-little government. Hence, also, the emphasis on “cracking on” with policy.
Labour will be able to insist on cameras on fishing boats, to proceed with more of its employment relations plans and move on various fronts without the New Zealand First “handbrake”.
Although their personalities differ, Ms Ardern will endeavour to drive change in the Helen Clark “incremental” manner. While the occasional jolt will shift the dial left, progressive agendas will be enacted progressively, step by step.
Soon, such change accumulates and makes a difference — for better or worse depending on the perspective. And only if such changes “stick”, will their legacy last.
Winston Peters helped keep the last government anchored close to the middle of politics. Labour benefited from that as it swept across the country and assuaged the fears of swaths of potential support. Labour could, for example, blame New Zealand First for the ditching of the capital gains tax.
The convenient excuse is gone because Labour has the numbers. Ms Ardern and the party can take responsibility for both its actions and inactions.
Politicians like to pronounce, as they win, that they will govern for all people. But this ideal will be nearly impossible to fulfil even for Ms Ardern. There are winners and losers and conflicting interests when the pressure of policy, politics and spending priorities are applied. Even with the best intentions, Ms Ardern’s road ahead will be bumpy with lots of rocks and potholes.