Bryce Edwards: The increasing speculation about Jacinda Ardern quitting

Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Getty Images
OPINION: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern flies to Antarctica today, and her media spin doctors will be hoping for some good photo opportunities to lift the leader’s popularity. But they will be asking a lot.

Tomorrow it will be five years since Ardern was sworn in as Prime Minister. At that time she was incredibly popular, and her support kept rising, hitting its heights in 2020.

That tide has certainly turned in recent months, and there are signs that Ardern is headed for a very difficult time as Prime Minister in the near future. Economic and social factors may get much worse. And the prospect of Labour’s popularity declining further is possible, especially as difficult reforms throw up problems. Re-election in 2023 has never seemed more in doubt.

Unsurprisingly, there has been an upswing in speculation about how long Ardern will stay on as leader and prime minister. The idea of her stepping down before the next election is gaining traction, despite there being no obvious candidate in the Labour Party who could do a better job than her.

Labour’s difficult decline

Labour’s post-2020 decline has been due to a number of factors that have made governing difficult. Covid, in particular, shifted from a winning issue, to one throwing up problem after problem that the Government has been blamed for. Then the state of the economy is proving highly damaging, with the cost of living being particularly difficult to navigate. Other Labour policies, from Three Waters to Co-governance, have irritated many who gave Ardern’s party the tick in 2020.

Unfortunately for Ardern and Labour, much of this is likely to get worse over the next year. Part of this is simply a “Covid hangover”, with the consequences of many of the Government’s actions during this time, as well as the Reserve Bank’s money printing, now having a detrimental impact.

Socially and economically, there are some severe outcomes that are building up steam. Law and order is growing as a problem, with some analysis suggesting that this is arising out of some of the social and economic dislocation caused by the pandemic and the lockdowns.

The Government also has a work programme that is turning out to be highly contentious. Big reforms in water, health and education are not working out as smoothly as the Government might have envisaged.

Ardern’s own cheerleaders are becoming disillusioned

Ardern will always have her critics. For example, no one will have been surprised that the business community have become deeply disillusioned in Ardern. The latest Herald Mood of the Boardroom survey ranked Ardern as only the 12th best performer in Cabinet. Rating her out of five, the CEOs gave her 2.3. This was down from nearly 4/5 in 2020 – the business community were previously very supportive of her leadership, especially during the Covid period.

However, most crucially, support on the political left for Ardern has also been on the decline. Progressive sectors of society that were highly enthusiastic about Ardern’s leadership early on, seem to have lost faith that she will fulfil her promises about child poverty or climate change.

The narrative of non-delivery hurts Labour and Ardern. Those who might normally tend to be supporters have had to face up to the fact that the Government is very good at talking, but less effective at delivering what has been promised.

Even commentators who might have been relied upon by the Beehive to put forward a positive analysis of Ardern have become much less positive. For example, recently Morgan Godfery wrote about Ardern’s failure to stick to the policies she believes in or even to state what she believes in. He paints a picture of a poll-driven government without a plan.

He’s also spoken about how Ardern is “missing in action” on the core issues that her voters care about, and fails to translate rhetoric into action. He says supporters are frustrated by the lack of change from a Government that promised “transformation”.

Similarly, Shane Te Pou has criticised his government saying: “Jacinda Ardern’s clear, empathetic communication and crisis leadership has been replaced by government announcements drowning in bureaucratese. Ministers seem to be led by agency work programmes, turning the cogs rather than working to a cohesive vision.”

The sort of policies and progress that might have enthused and mobilised Labour’s own natural support base simply haven’t happened. The failure to make advances on economic inequality, housing – remember Kiwibuild, or the state housing wait list – together with slow or ineffective progress on climate change, means that those on the political left are sometimes the biggest critics of Ardern.

Could Ardern step down in the next six months?

On an election night broadcast in 2020 when Ardern won her historic 50 per cent vote on the back of Labour’s successful Covid response that year, I predicted that Ardern wouldn’t see out the whole term as prime minister. She had already been through so much as leader of the country and, like John Key, would want to go out on a high note rather than lose an election.

Ardern has already missed her chance to leave office with her popularity at a high. Labour’s polling has dropped dramatically from that extraordinary 50 per cent, and is now around the low-to-mid 30s in many polls. Ardern’s own popularity as PM is still relatively high, and way ahead of any other candidate, but it has dipped considerably.

Nonetheless, it might still suit Ardern to get out of politics before things get even worse. For this reason, broadcaster Rachel Smalley has recently written in the NBR that it’s only a matter of time before Ardern steps down.

Smalley argues that Ardern only has two likely outcomes at the next election, neither of which will be attractive to her. The first is that she suffers a defeat, which will further tarnish her reputation. It would therefore be better to go out on her own terms: “She will be an undefeated Prime Minister and the first to achieve a single-party majority government in New Zealand. Her legacy will be tied to two events of significant historical importance: her compassionate, unifying response to the March 15 Christchurch Mosque Attacks and her decision to lockdown the country in March 2020. Those two events, one year apart, showcased Ardern at her best.”

The second likely outcome if Ardern sticks around, is that she will be re-elected but only with difficult coalition partners to manage: “At best, Labour will win but lose its status as a single-party majority government. For three years, Ardern has governed without fear or favour, unchecked by a coalition partner. She will have little appetite to enter a tumultuous third term where she will be held to account by her likely coalition partners – the Greens, Te Pāti Maori or, God forbid, New Zealand First.”

Even under a scenario whereby Ardern’s coalition management of these disparate forces is smooth, the economic and social conditions will be highly challenging for her: “All of the economic and social fallout from Covid will start peaking” and “Jacinda Ardern is not the Prime Minister to lead New Zealand’s fiscal and economic recovery from 2023 to 2026. She knows that. We know that. So I reckon she’ll jump.”

Smalley believes that Ardern’s resignation will be announced before Christmas. And she also points to the recent rule change in the Labour Party which means that a caucus vote of two-thirds in favour can quickly install a new leader without having to go through the expanded party membership and trade union vote. Therefore, Ardern’s trusted close friend Grant Robertson could be put into the top seat immediately. If it is to occur, such a transition would certainly be best to take place well before the next election.

The likelihood of such a big change has divided political commentators. The Herald’s political editor Claire Trevett responded to speculation about Ardern a few days ago, writing: “As things stand she remains Labour’s best chance in 2023 and is still more popular and trusted than any other leader. I’d be very surprised if she cut and run while that is the case. She and Grant Robertson will be critical.”

But Trevett confirms that the rumours of Ardern stepping down soon are now frequently being put to journalists and the PM.

Trevett has also argued that Ardern can’t afford to leave Labour in the lurch during a time of instability: “At a time of economic and social uncertainty, the worst thing for Labour would be to add political uncertainty onto that bonfire by rushing to the polls or switching leaders.”

The Labour Party annual conference takes place next month, and will be a chance for Ardern and her colleagues to show that the party has some new ideas and momentum. There are so many problems building up steam at the moment, and yet Labour and Ardern look like they have run out of steam and ideas themselves. When this happens, it’s normally a good idea to consider the political exit door earlier than waiting to be pushed out.

• Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.