How quickly things change in politics.
The Ardern era is behind us. Just as water instantly closes over a stone that’s been thrown into a river, leaving no trace of where it fell, so the former prime minister has already assumed the character of a political ghost.
The change in the political tone of the country that followed her departure has been dramatic and immediate. It’s now clear that Ardern had come to be regarded – and very likely regarded herself – as a liability in election year.
Her leadership will forever be associated with the ascendancy of identity politics, which polarised the country in a way not seen since 1981 – if ever.
She was careful to personally remain aloof from the culture wars, in keeping with her image as someone who avoided unpleasantness. She couldn’t be accused of actively inciting them because she didn’t need to. Merely by doing nothing to discourage them, she gave the impression she approved.
With Winston Peters out of the way after the 2020 election, her assumption of complete power sent a signal to the forces of wokeness. It said, “This is your moment”.
They seized the opportunity with gusto, zealously pushing – with the mainstream media serving as state-subsided cheerleaders – an agenda of radical change that principally revolved around divisive issues of racial and sexual identity, with a generous side-order of climate change panic.
Under Ardern, Labour became a genuinely transformational government – one of only a few in New Zealand’s history (Richard Seddon’s Liberals in the 1890s, the first Labour government under Michael Savage, the Lange administration that ushered in Rogernomics) that could be so described.
In 2023, New Zealand feels like a very different country from the one Ardern inherited only three years ago. Problem was, as with Labour under Lange, much of that change was unmandated.
Unlike Rogernomics, it was a cultural transformation as much as a legislative one. The similarity was that it caught people by surprise because they couldn’t remember voting for it.
Now Chris Hipkins has thrown Labour into reverse gear. The most obvious sign is Labour’s abrupt jettisoning of Transport Minister Michael Wood’s Government Policy Statement on land transport, which prioritised emissions reduction. That would have meant more cycleways and bus lanes, higher fuel taxes and fewer new roads.
We first learned about the land transport policy statement yesterday morning. By afternoon it was gone. Now you see it, now you don’t. How quickly things change in politics …
It was a reminder that politics is ultimately about winning and retaining power, regardless of which ideological side you’re on. Policies that are seen as an electoral risk are likely to end up on the bonfire.
In the broader context, Cyclone Gabrielle changed everything. By placing Hipkins and some of his key ministers front and centre in the national consciousness, it has given vital oxygen to Labour. They have been presented as politicians able to roll their sleeves up and act decisively in a crisis.
That in turn has aligned neatly with Hipkins’ obvious desire to reposition Labour as a party of the people – its traditional image – rather than one representing the urban, university-educated elites, which it had become under Ardern.
Cancelling a hostile-to-cars transport policy was the pragmatic thing to do, even if it meant alienating Labour’s Green allies. It won’t have escaped the public’s notice that politically unfashionable diesel SUVs come into their own in a crisis; or that electric cars – the favoured mode of private transport for virtuous urban liberals – are useless when there’s no electricity.
Cyclone Gabrielle also had the effect of snatching the political initiative back from National. It couldn’t have come at a better time for Labour, because it provided a platform for Hipkins when he needed it most. The combination of Labour’s leadership change, followed almost immediately by Gabrielle, arrested the government’s decline and relegated National to the sidelines.
Suddenly all bets were off. A general election that had looked like National’s for the taking now looked like a real contest. There was even speculation that Hipkins might seize the moment and call an early election.
But whoa! Back up the truck! Now the pundits are saying National has got the jump on Labour – and raided its territory – by announcing a family-friendly childcare subsidy. Election calculations are being revised … again. How quickly things change in politics.
What was perhaps just as significant about National’s policy announcement was that Christopher Luxon, for perhaps the first time, seemed to take a genuinely red-blooded position rather than reciting safe, PR-crafted sound-bites.
His promised crackdown on government handouts to wealthy corporate consultants cleverly plays to the public perception that far too much power and influence is wielded by shadowy, overpaid, unaccountable consultants and political hangers-on. Political parasites isn’t too strong a term.
What’s more, Luxon for once didn’t allow the media to bait him or trap him into equivocating. Asked whether he was concerned for the jobs lost by consultants, he replied: “I feel very good about that.” Does this mean he finally has the confidence to say what he really thinks?
Oh, and by the way, please remind me – who’s Jacinda?