LET’S PLAY A GAME. Let’s pretend we’re half-way through 2022. Covid-19 isn’t exactly a memory, people still get it, but hardly anyone ends up in hospital and almost nobody dies. So politics has returned to all the normal settings. The Government is no longer being judged on how well it kept us all safe from Covid. Now it’s all about what it’s doing; how well it’s doing it; and whether it should be doing it at all.
Now, those of us with good memories, will recall that this is exactly where the Labour-NZ First-Green Government was at in the weeks before the global pandemic swept politics-as-usual from the stage. Back when Simon Bridges was leading National, and National was leading Labour in the polls. Back when Jacinda Ardern had Winston Peters to protect her and Labour from their worst woke instincts. Back when, Winston’s presence notwithstanding, things weren’t looking so good for the Left.
Okay, so that’s where we are in 2022. Living in a New Zealand where all the usual rules of politics once again apply. And, guess what? Jacinda’s government, once again, isn’t doing very well – not very well at all.
What is the cause of the Government’s worrying slide in the polls? Most people would agree that it is Nanaia Mahuta’s “Three Waters” programme. With the local government elections fast approaching, a nationwide political movement is taking shape dedicated to rolling back what is now being quite openly presented as a Māori power grab for the nation’s water. Tickets are being organised all over the country of candidates pledged to resist the state’s confiscation of municipally owned water resources and infrastructure. Already ratepayer groups are pledging to engage in civil disobedience to prevent the Three Waters programme going ahead.
Why haven’t Jacinda and her colleagues simply cancelled the programme and gone back to the drawing-board? The answer lies in the disproportionate death-toll of Māori Covid victims. When the Delta outbreak turned deadly in the last few weeks of 2021, it was in unvaccinated Māori communities that it really went to work.
The anguish and anger of Māori is easily imagined, and almost all of it was directed at the Labour Party. It was, after all, Labour which had presented itself as the Māori people’s best friend back in 2017. And it was Jacinda Ardern who went to Waitangi in 2018 and asked Māori to hold her and her Government accountable for their actions. In vain did reasonable people point out that it was Covid-19 that had killed Māori – not Labour. But, after the trauma of 2021, Māori weren’t in a very reasonable frame of mind.
So, the Labour leadership felt obliged to back their own Māori caucus’s agenda without reservation. Anticipating the massive resistance Nanaia’s Three Waters programme was bound to inspire, they steeled themselves for the inevitable racist backlash and told them to press on regardless – the Government had their back.
This was why Labour had forced through the Three Waters reforms, legislating right over the top of an overwhelming majority of local authorities’ objections. And why, faced with the prospect of a clean right-wing sweep through the nation’s district, city and regional councils, the Government was seriously considering using its Covid Emergency Powers to postpone the local government elections for at least another year.
To say this idea was going down like a cup of cold sick with a majority of the electorate was to understate the position considerably. Following his generous settlement with Harry Tam, Winston Peters was now roaring back into electoral contention on the back of the racist beast unleashed by the Three Waters reforms. The votes that weren’t surging towards NZ First were being gratefully received by National and Act. Small wonder Labour was shedding support.
Although, not that much support. Thanks to the sterling efforts of the mainstream news media in explaining/justifying Mahuta’s scheme, a crucial chunk of the Pakeha population was refusing to jump on the anti-Three Waters bandwagon. Educated voters were sticking with Labour, even as principled conservatives, disgusted by the overtly racist narrative of the right-wing parties, were gritting their teeth and shifting their support to the Left.
Labour was looking at the fast-growing support for the Māori Party, calculating that the Greens would remain above the 5 percent threshold, and factoring-in the likely consequences of making it easier for Māori voters to switch from the General to the Māori Roll – coupled with lowering of the voting age to sixteen. With the election still a year away, there just might be a narrow – very narrow – pathway to power.
Covid or no Covid, in this political game, there was still everything to play for.