Labour needs to remember its original election promises

Steve Maharey Director and former academic, politician and vice-chancellor



Stuff NZ Newspapers


Ihave often wondered what an Ardernled Labour government would have been like without Covid. All governments must deal with events they did not and could not anticipate. Ardern’s dealt with the Christchurch mass shooting, the White Island eruption and climate-driven civil defence emergencies – but Covid was a game-changer. A pandemic that threatened to overwhelm the health system meant all hands to the pump. Ardern and Labour became synonymous with Covid, and they will long be respected for the remarkable response they oversaw. But what if there had not been Covid? Although Ardern and Labour were elected in 2017 after protracted leadership wrangles that left little time for policy to be fully developed, they knew what had to be done. The previous National government had to deal with an unanticipated event of their own in the form of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. They got the books back in balance but at the cost of ignoring almost everything else. By 2017, voters were well aware a long list of policy issues was crying out for attention. Ardern and Labour could form a government at that election because it was clear substantial change was needed, and they captured the spirit of the time. In the early days of that government, Ardern identified challenges that included climate change, inequality, child poverty, Te Tiriti, skills, incomes, productivity, infrastructure, the environment, housing and more. Much more. This was a government that understood New Zealand needed transformational policies to create a new New Zealand. In the past five plus years Labour has managed the challenges thrown at it while putting in place changes that have ensured New Zealand compares very well with other OECD nations. Without Covid more progress would have surely been made. As the Labour caucus (oddly its meeting was in Napier at the same time as National’s) contemplates the future, it would do well to remember why it was elected in the first place – to make a new and better New Zealand. Incoming leader Chris Hipkins will be his own person, but would be wise to embody those original aspirations. He, and a refreshed line-up of ministers, have until October to make it clear to voters that the work to bring about positive change continues. That story needs to be told alongside a reminder that Labour is the battle-hardened team that can get the job done. It is appropriate that the National Party was alongside Labour in Napier this past week because it encouraged comparisons. National has just released its refreshed lineup. An objective observer might be forgiven for pointing out that nothing seems new or fresh about the team National is offering. Indeed, it is hard not to see National in the same light as US Republicans, Liberals in Australia or Conservatives in Britain: more interested in the past than the future. ACT has pointed this out already as it worries National in government would revert to type and do nothing. This is a view perhaps reinforced by the list of large donors to National’s election coffers. Nothing about them suggests they want change. They made their money under a system that favoured them. More of the same please. There is no denying that Labour looks and talks like the New Zealand of the future. But they have work to do. A crowded policy agenda needs to become clear, achievable and compelling. Ministers and the wider caucus will need to demonstrate unity of purpose and deliver results. They need to be the government New Zealand must have if it is to meet the challenges of this century. Noone should be left to think that more of the same or more of the past will lead to a fair, prosperous and sustainable future we can all have a stake in. If the Covid years have taught us anything about leadership, it is that we need leaders who can inspire us to hope for more, learn more, do more and become more. At her best Ardern did that. Now it is the turn of those who follow on from her. A note on Jacinda Ardern. I do not know her as well as her colleagues do, but I have seen enough of her to know she is charismatic, charming, intelligent, hardworking, a communicator and a very decent human being. In a world full of self-consumed political leaders like Trump, Bolsonaro, Morrison, Putin and Johnson, she was a beacon of hope for everyone across the world who believed politicians could stand for what is the best in us. History will be kind to her, as she was to it.