As the Labour caucus suns itself at Martinborough, and members savour one or two of the local products, it may seem like a golden summer for the party.
PM Jacinda Ardern is just back from Europe where some of New Zealand’s finest journalists modestly recorded how she bedazzled the elites.
And although some commentators on the Left, notably Chris Trotter, have rather carpingly been critical of Ardern because there is little to show for the “transformation” which the PM promised New Zealanders, caucus members are unshaken in their conviction transformation will happen.
Never mind the own goals scored by Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri, not to mention Iain Lee-Galloway on the Karel Sroubek affair, or Phil Twyford with his KiwiBuild fiasco: the Ardern government will soon be tackling education reform, introducing a capital gains tax to make the system “fairer”, and giving trade unions greater powers in wage bargaining.
Then there is the budget to look forward to. It’s going to be all about “well-being”.
Ardern and Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, according to reports by NZ journalists, impressed the cognoscenti at the World Economic Forum at Davos with their insights into what constitutes a well-being budget (although international media, strangely, did not seem impressed enough to record those insights).
Treasury officials have been beavering away on how the well-being budget will be framed. The head of Treasury, Gabriel Mahklouf, (whose term sadly ends this year) won’t be there to see how the revolution is delivered, but is reported to have been an enthusiastic supporter of the concept.
There is no doubt NZ has issues which alarmingly put this country among the worst performers in the OECD, youth suicide and child abuse being notable examples. NZ’s “broken justice system” (a phrase which rolls off Justice Minister Andrew Little’s tongue) incarcerates too many, particularly Maori. Reoffending rates are too high.
So there is plenty of room for improvement. And a budget which delivers the funds to resolve these deeply troubling problems will be welcome on all sides.
Some argue Robertson should bury the budget responsibility rules to step up spending far beyond what would be regarded as prudent under those rules.
But the hard question is whether NZ has the proper structures and skilled personnel to carry through the programmes essential to improve the targeted outcomes.
The bureaucracy itself is not well equipped for some of the tasks. There are worries generally about the capacity of some state agencies to function at the level expected of them.
For example, in mental health there is a general shortage of the personnel who may be required.
The well-being budget will be a rather one-sided document unless it sets those targets (by which the public can identify the success or otherwise of the programmes).
That’s where the political risk will lie. If the government were to fall short on any one of the particular targets -lowering the rate of youth suicide, for example – it will be judged harshly.
Even commentators on the Left have questioned the political management skills of the present ministerial team.
So the Labour caucus meeting this week, if it does nothing else, will be urging ministers, from the top down, to lift their game.