Claire Trevett: Chocks away on 2022 – will it be PM Jacinda Ardern’s Year of Reckoning

OPINION:

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has the occasional habit of giving each year a name to reflect her focus for that year.

There was the supposed year of delivery in 2019. There was no name in 2020 but it ended up becoming the Covid-19 year and then the year of Ardern’s historic election win.

There was the year of the vaccine in 2021, which ended up gate-crashed by the year of Delta.

Given the mixed results of the previous attempts to pin a theme to the year it is little wonder that Ardern declined to label 2022 when Labour’s caucus met for its away-daythis week. Instead she suggested others could give it a name.

In reality, it is likely to again be Covid-19 that decides what the focus of the year will be.

Ardern must have felt as if she was in the movie Groundhog Day as she re-emerged from about a month out of the limelight over summer.

Covid-19 was still there and looking uglier, the Opposition parties were still crying “there is no plan” and the protesters were still there.

Omicron inevitably dominated the news agenda at the Labour retreat. It will equally inevitably dominate for the year.

Labour’s pollster David Talbot, of Talbot Mills Research, was at the retreat. He did not have new polling, but he would not have been the bearer of good news when delivering his round-up.

By the end of last year, Labour’s polling had dived by more than 10 points since the election. And National’s had gone up the minute Luxon took over.

Ardern would have hoped the summer she spoke of at the beginning of the day might mean she started with a cleaner slate in 2022, that people would forget the hard grind of the Delta lockdowns.

A Curia Taxpayer’s Union poll released on Friday showed that wish might have been granted: Labour’s support had slightly nudged up and people were more optimistic than they had been at the end of last year. The poll should be taken with a grain of salt: people are not focused on politics at such times.

Summer certainly gave people a reprieve, a short period of time in which Aucklanders could enjoy moving around once more and Covid was not front of mind.

But that support cannot be expected to simply flow back to Labour, especially if the Opposition parties are putting up a convincing case. The change of leadership in National to Christopher Luxon will add to Ardern’s difficulties.

That support has to be earned, and Ardern will be trying to earn it back while the flow-on effects of Covid-19 are buffeting her … 2023 will not be all about Covid-19, but it will be about the aftershocks of it.

The first news Ardern had to deliver after the summer was bad news, that Omicron would spread any time and the country would be put at the red setting when it did. That is not as bad as lockdown – but it is a much more careful, tentative life.

The middle year of a Parliamentary term is the business year, but also the year to put in the foundations to fight an election.

Labour’s choice of New Plymouth for the conference was a nod to that. It was one of the seats Labour wrestled from National in 2020. National’s Jonathan Young had held it since 2008.

Labour is clearly keen to try to hold on to as many of the provincial seats it has won as possible, hence the mass deployments to those provinces that have recently come into its hands.

However, National are also keen to reclaim them. As Labour met this week, new leader Christopher Luxon was travelling the country introducing himself. The places he was going were also electorates National lost last time but wants to win back.

Hamilton, Tukituki in Hawke’s Bay, Nelson all in quick succession from Monday to Wednesday. He had started his leadership by telling the 413,000 National voters who deserted them in 2020 that “National is back” and the road trip to the seats those voters live in was to convince them of it.

The bad news in the Curia poll for Labour was that National had now overtaken Labour again when it came to confidence in handling the economy. Finance Minister Grant Robertson will be key in clawing that back.

At the retreat, Ardern talked about the economy and perhaps unwisely tempted fate by boasting how well the economy had stood up to Covid-19 thus far, giving plaudits to Robertson for his efforts. But there are some dirty words that should not be mentioned in these run-downs of achievements and one is inflation.

On the same day, the ANZ issued forecasts that inflation could hit 6 per cent.

And later in the day Robertson himself sounded a more cautionary note, saying if Covid-inflicted disruption went beyond the first quarter of the year it could cause problems. He said there was no “Nirvana” of being able to get Omicron over and done with in a hurry, as if it was just a bad dose of gastro for the country. The toll on health and lives would be too great, and the economy would not necessarily be spared.

Robertson also spoke of the costs of Covid-19, saying it should be enough for Omicron but if needed the Government “will find the money”. “Find the money” is code for borrow more money.

At the end of her speech to MPs, Ardern issued a command of humility.

She said humility was in order, because it was a privilege to be in government.

It is Ardern’s equivalent to Sir John Key’s constant exhortation to his MPs not to be complacent or arrogant. Such warnings are needed but rarely effective.

Sages might observe the truly humble do not need to tell themselves to be humble, not least because it carries the implication that they have something they need to be humble about.

Nor does such an exhortation usually follow a prolonged back-patting of the Government’s achievements and Covid management.

This year could end up being many things – from the Year of the Red Setting to the Year of the Great Reopening should the borders ever reopen. But it’s safe to say it probably won’t be the Year of Humility.

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