Resignation offers chance for Lab-Greens reset
Gareth Hughes Former Green MP, not a member of any political party. Works for the Wellbeing Economy Alliance Aotearoa.
Stuff NZ Newspapers
All politicians secretly harbour a fantasy they could become prime minister; today, one might unexpectedly find themselves thrust into the role. This is no mild reshuffle of Local Government and Health portfolios as previously expected. Jacinda Ardern’s surprise resignation totally upends the political chess table and the Government’s fortunes rely on who, how and what her successor Chris Hipkins does. Despite declining poll numbers and a polarising presence, Ardern was still Labour’s greatest asset. MMP makes all elections tighter than they can appear and she had every chance of a third term. A gifted communicator, experienced crisis manager and global phenomenon, she would have been a formidable opponent for Christopher Luxon – especially in debates. The Labour Party with a once-ina-generation MMP majority now faces a stark fork in the road. Will it stay the course with a lesser-known face at the helm, trimming a few unpopular policies to focus on economic management, or will it change both leader and tack with a bold new narrative over the next nine months? If the Labour Caucus can agree on a new leader today, New Zealand’s unexpected 41st prime minister will have an uphill battle. They have to introduce themselves to the public; refresh and refocus the Government; celebrate but differentiate from Ardern; and respond to a resurgent National. All this while battling the worst inflation, social disunity and international situation of many New Zealanders’ lifetimes. In an ongoing pandemic. This is an ‘‘open door’’ moment. Hipkins could grab political attention by the scruff of its collar and turn away from the cautious centrism of pre and postCovid Labour, which saw the party’s polling steadily decline, and use its historic majority to do unabashedly bold, progressive things. Benefit increases, minimum wage increases and other policies like school lunches have been positive. Ambulances are a welcome sight at the bottom of a cliff but despite the rhetoric the Government hasn’t laid down new economic tracks away from the current destination delivering poverty, pollution, inequality, homelessness as the norm. Ardern ruled out a capital gains tax but her successor could instead run on it, arguing our current lack of tax on unearned income locks Kiwis out of homes and businesses out of capital. Our new prime minister could relook at universal dental, wipe student loan debt, crack down on excessive corporate profits or massively invest in public transport. Other world leaders have, even under conservative governments. Ardern and Labour were at their best in the dark days of the pandemic when they governed from the heart, putting aside the old bureaucratic playbook. Perhaps a new leader could recapture those values of care and community and build a new narrative of an economy in service to people and not the other way around. What does the resignation mean for their partner the Greens? Ardern was their best and worst friend. In 2017, as newly-minted leader, she ended Metiria Turei’s career in a ruthless display of her political steel yet generously welcomed the party into the fold when it didn’t need to in 2022 with two ministerial roles. She had a warm relationship with James Shaw from their time together working in London and that closeness, Shaw’s conciliatory approach and the silver chains of ministerial positions saw the Greens muted in their criticism of Labour. If the new prime minister fails to connect with voters, the Greens will no doubt more actively distance themselves from Labour. Historically the Greens have performed best when Labour is weakest, but any Green gains from Labour’s loss will be ruefully celebrated from the Opposition benches. Labour will need the Greens to form a third term, and in their 50th year not sitting around the Cabinet table the Greens need Labour. This leadership refresh is also a Labour-Green relationship reset. Another item on Hipkins’ long to-do list will be to work out how the parties will work together against a National-Act pairing as the country counts down to October 14.