|Lange versus Douglas Round Two? Rumours of a prime-ministerial resignation may be intended to head-off something considerably more dramatic on the policy front.|
THERE ARE ALL KINDS of political rumours, but they don’t get much bigger than: “The PM is about to resign.” When that rumour was relayed to me on Friday morning, my initial reaction was “Bullshit!” Wellington is a very intimate capital city, so the idea that such an important story could somehow be kept from the Parliamentary Press Gallery, struck me as fanciful. Were it not for the fact that my informant was “a usually reliable source”, I would have given the matter no more than a dismissive shake of the head. Instead, I decided to make some calls.As I suspected, nothing remotely resembling a resignation rumour had been picked up by the Press Gallery. What I did hear, however, were concerns about “Jacinda”. The Prime Minister, I was told, was “out of sorts”, “morose”, “not her usual self”. Among female journalists, I discovered, there was much speculation about whether or not the PM was pregnant. Scuttlebutt, I thought to myself. Although, I had to concede, the PM’s sunny disposition has, of late, given every appearance of having fallen under a cloud. Even to the casual observer, Jacinda seems distracted.
It is doubtful whether her overall mood was uplifted by the latest poll results. Though Labour still hovers around its Election Night 50 percent, the TV1-Colmar Brunton survey showed Ardern falling a statistically significant 15 percentage points in the Preferred-Prime-Minister stakes.
It is likely that these latest numbers only accentuated the PM’s dissatisfaction with the way she and her government are being represented in the newspaper columns and across social media. This dissatisfaction turned out to be one of the most consistent themes of my Friday-morning soundings. The PM, it is alleged, has been stung by the sharp criticisms of her administration which have been growing in intensity since Labour’s landslide victory last October. At the heart of these critiques lie two inter-related questions: “Why the preternatural caution, Jacinda. What, or who, is stopping you?”
While New Zealanders understood the role played by Winston Peters and NZ First in reining-in the PM’s “transformational” aspirations (and were, accordingly, prepared to forgive Labour’s less-than-stellar record of achievement on the big issues of homelessness and child poverty) after 17 October 2020 that excuse was no longer available. Not when Labour, the Greens and Te Paati Maori between them command 77 seats in New Zealand’s 120-seat House of Representatives.
Labour’s caution and timidity were attributed (often none-too-kindly) to the party’s determination to hold on to the huge swag of former National Party voters who had defected to Labour in recognition of the PM’s outstanding handling of the Covid-19 Pandemic. Commentators mused that “Jacinda” was little more than a brand; and that, for all her talk about “the politics of kindness”, Ardern was just another party leader with one over-riding priority – winning the next election. Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from one of Ardern’s most reliable supporters on social media. Martyn Bradbury, Editor of The Daily Blog. Playing on the left-wing swearword “Neoliberalism”, Bradbury described the PM as a media-savvy purveyor of “Neo-kindness”.
The message coming back to me throughout Friday was that these accusations had hurt. That the PM was feeling keenly the lack of faith in her bona fides – especially from those who are regarded as being (and who certainly see themselves as being) on the Left. I was told that over the summer Ardern’s determination to keep her promises to the homeless, the poor, and the planet had grown ever-stronger. That she refused to go down in history as an instinctively empathic crisis-manager. That someone who could pull off an electoral rout on the scale of 17 October required an altogether more substantial legacy. The word began to spread through Wellington’s labyrinthine corridors of power that “something big” could be expected on the policy front by the middle of the year.
Hearing this, I wondered how much attention Ardern and her closest advisers had paid to the words of the veteran left-wing trade-union leader, Robert Reid. Barely 48 hours had passed since the Red Tide had ripped the infamous “handbrake” from NZ First’s hands, but Reid was already tweeting out a warning to the new Labour majority government:
“No one mentions that every government is a coalition between the elected governing party(s) and the senior bureaucrats.
“The bureaucracy acts as more of a handbrake than NZ First ever did.
“But most 'ruling' parties continue to let it dictate policy.”
What would happen, I asked myself, if the PM made it clear to her Cabinet colleagues that she was no longer willing to play it safe; that, having made promises to the New Zealand people, and been rewarded with an absolute majority, she was now absolutely determined to keep them?
The most obvious starting point for the PM would be the housing crisis. A major initiative here would not only boost the well-being of New Zealanders considerably, it would also make a huge impression on the level of child poverty. Killing two birds with one stone has always been an attractive political proposition. But, to be at all effective, such an effort would have to be on a scale unprecedented since the 1970s – entailing an eye-wateringly large amount of expenditure.
Alternatively, the PM may have decided to give effect to the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s recommendations on social development – including a massive increase in core benefit levels. This, too, would provoke genuine horror in Treasury. Effectively eliminating child poverty at a stroke does not come cheap.
And, it is here, perhaps, that the rumour about a prime-ministerial resignation may have had its genesis. Faced with ever-higher levels of government borrowing, Treasury officials would undoubtedly have attempted to pressure the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, into dissuading his friend and ally that what she was proposing was as irresponsible as it was unlikely to succeed.
In normal circumstances, this might have worked. But, from what I have discovered over the past 72 hours, these are not normal circumstances. Only last week, Robertson’s friend and mentor, Sir Michael Cullen, a man stoically succumbing to terminal lung cancer, is reported to have told a select gathering of Labour Party notables that: “It is not enough simply to win – you have to DO something.” Aware of how determined the PM is to “do” as Sir Michael advises; seized also, as his boss is said to be, by intimations of mortality, Robertson, “the reluctant radical” seems ready, for once, to throw caution to the wind.
From all sides, now, comes word of the imminence of “something big” being announced. The Labour caucus is said to be both “nervous” and “excited”.
Writing in The Daily Blog, Martyn Bradbury (whose connections with the Labour caucus are numerous and strong) sums up the situation like this:
“Jacinda has taken the time over the Summer to decide being kind has to mean something, desperate rumours spread by Wellington bureaucratic elites that there is a split between Jacinda and Grant are designed to create a rift not report on one.”
If Prime Minister Ardern’s big policy gamble fails, then her resignation will, indeed, have to be handed to the Governor-General. But, everything I have learned over the last 72 hours convinces me that “Jacinda” is no longer content merely to win: she means to DO something.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 22 March 2021.