WHEN 2017 BEGAN I wasn’t feeling all that hopeful about how it would look as it ended. Shortly after New Year’s Day, I wrote:
“The political consensus, at the beginning of 2017 – election year – is that the National-led Government will hold on to power. Not in its own right, as might have happened had John Key led them into battle, but with sufficient parliamentary support to govern comfortably. The identity and character of National’s support will likely prove the most intriguing electoral story of the year. The most significant political event of 2017, however, could well be the collapse of the Labour Party and the emergence of the Greens as New Zealand’s leading party of the centre-left.”
And if Andrew Little, alarmed at the sudden surge in support for the Greens, had not stepped aside in favour of Jacinda Ardern, then my gloomy prediction might very well have come true. Because, as we all know, that Green surge had come at Labour’s expense, driving the party’s poll numbers down towards politically unsustainable levels.
It is, therefore, arguable that the Labour-NZF-Green Government presiding over New Zealand as 2017 draws to a close owes its existence to the moral courage and simple decency of Andrew Little. Certainly, the Labour Party owes him a huge debt of gratitude. He was willing to do – unbidden – what, left to their own devices, his indefatigably self-interested caucus colleagues would never have had the gumption to force upon him.
There’s no disguising the fact, however, that Little’s decision to step down in favour of Ardern was a huge gamble. Neither he, nor his colleagues, nor the news media, were at all sure whether the MP for Mt Albert had what it took to reanimate Labour’s 2017 campaign.
Until, that is, she strode out of the Labour Caucus and into her first media conference – and opened her mouth.
I have participated in, and written about, politics for close to 40 years, but in all that time I can honestly say I have never witnessed anything like Jacinda Ardern’s first media conference as Labour Leader.
When words fail you, the best place to look for someone else’s is often in the works of William Shakespeare. Watching Ardern’s extraordinary political talent blaze forth so unexpectedly, I was reminded of the lines spoken by Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part One, where he explains his reasons for keeping his true nature hidden until exactly the right moment:
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mist
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
No one can dispute that Ardern’s sunny ways dispelled the “foul and ugly mist” in which Labour had been slowly expiring. Beneath the television lights, those “base contagious clouds” which, in the persons of Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little had been smothering Labour’s hopes, were dispelled by the glorious summer of this daughter of Morrinsville. “Jacindamania” was upon us.
And yet, for all her “relentless positivity”, Ardern’s dramatic emergence foreshadowed only negative consequences for the Green Co-Leader, Metiria Turei, and her party. While Little’s grey presence cast a pall over Labour’s campaign prospects, Turei’s reckless challenge to the status quo – “I committed welfare fraud to feed my baby!” – had set progressive hearts a-flutter. Before Jacinda’s blazing sunshine overwhelmed it entirely, Turei’s defiant policy candle had sent out rays of hope into the neoliberal gloom. So transfixed were progressives by the bells and whistles of the passing “Jacinda” juggernaut, however, that only a few took note of the number of radical Green policies left crushed and broken beneath its wheels.
And, it wasn’t only the progressive Left that found itself transfixed by the Jacinda spectacle. For most of the year NZ First had been struggling to come up with a plan to moderate the policies of its most likely coalition partner – the National Party. Suddenly, Labour was back in the game. Was it possible that Jacinda also knew “The Hallelujah Song” of political transformation and economic emancipation? Would she be willing to sing it with him? Peters didn’t know, but for the first time in a long time, it made sense to listen.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Thanks to her fairy NZ First godmother, Jacinderella did get to go to the ball. And, much to the fury of the National Party’s ugly sisters, it was onto her foot that Prince Winston slid the glass slipper of power.
So, can we say that, in spite of all those New Year forebodings, 2017 has had a happy ending? New Zealand has a progressive government, of sorts, and its young prime minister has already set about enchanting the world. What’s not to be hopeful about?
Strangely, I keep coming back to that Shakespearian quote: the one about Prince Hal imitating the sun. Because, of course, Prince Hal eventually becomes King Henry V. It is then that, as promised, he emerges from the “base contagious clouds” of his disreputable friends and hangers-on to claim his birthright – the Crown of England.
Aye, and there’s the rub. Power is transformative – it changes all who wield it. Henry V – Prince Hal as was – ruthlessly dismisses his former companions: breaking all former bonds, and forgetting all previous promises. With a kingdom to govern, his need is now for new friends, new advisors, new policies.
What that means, in terms of the true nature of the Labour-NZF-Green Government and its leader is, alas, only now becoming clear. New Zealanders may revel in the warm glow of their Sun Queen, but, having placed her on the throne, they must now content themselves with the role of mere spectators of her royal progress.