Latest opinion polling suggests the political mood is still coloured by the pandemic, with support for the Prime Minister and her party remaining strong.
Yet uncertainty about economic trends points to the risks that will have to be navigated through the next 12 months. Will inflation burn out of control? How will the tourist industry recover? Will the surge in house prices flatten out? May the trend in growing inequality reverse?
Through all the uncertainty, the faith in the Prime Minister remains unshakable. Any regular reader of the “letters to the editor” columns in newspapers will be familiar with how any criticism of Jacinda Ardern is met with a volley of responses from those who ascribe to her the power of defeating Covid in its different variants, and preventing New Zealanders from suffering the rate of fatalities experienced in the UK, Australia or the US.
The prevalence of this conviction in the wider population has meant scant heed has been paid to any complaints from those who have lost jobs or whose businesses have gone belly up.
But it may be a different story if inflation settles in. The relatively smooth run through the pandemic of many industries (who would have guessed dairy exports would have been in such demand internationally that farmers will receive record payouts?) has disguised the economic pain in tourist regions, or in the international education system.
Another economic benefit, at least for the Southland community, is that international prices for aluminium have bounced so high that the Tiwai Point smelter will remain open, as Point of Order suggested last week, far beyond 2024, when it was earlier talking of closing.
Stuff reports NZAS chief executive Chris Blenkiron saying Rio Tinto sees “a positive pathway to continue operating and contributing to the local and national economies beyond 2024. We are working closely with Ngāi Tahu, Southland and key industry leaders to find the best way to achieve this”.
It looks then that a “new normal” is developing for the NZ economy, with some industries running as strongly as before the pandemic, and others still fighting to get back on an even keel, or to survive. The tourist industry, for example, may be dismayed they will be trailing in the wake of Australia, which plans to open its door to foreign tourists later this month.
Some columnists – Fran O’Sullivan in the NZ Herald, for example – think Jacinda’s leadership is being tested “like never before” as she prepares NZ for the “new normal” with Covid becoming endemic. O’Sullivan says it is the polar opposite to the campaign of fear that Ardern successfully employed in March 2020 when New Zealanders were urged “to stay home and save lives” as a pandemic took hold within an unvaccinated population.
Point of Order believes many voters, including thousands who cast their ballots for National in the 2017 election, credit Ardern for our country being spared the fate of countries whose morgues were filled to overflowing with Covid deaths. Those who do so discount the problems that only became apparent subsequently – particularly in the next generation’s education, mental health issues, the difficulties arising from MIQ, mounting government debt, and surging inflation, not to mention depressed living standards for many New Zealanders.
The slow pace of the vaccine rollout is overlooked, just as the fact that NZ’s isolation was a vital factor in reducing exposure to Covid is discounted by those who label Ardern as “saviour”. It may have been a different story if NZ’s hospital ICU resources had been put to the test.
At least, as NZ adjusts to the “new normal”, ministers can readjust their priorities, and get to grips with both the economic and social headaches which NZ now confronts. The old excuse that the previous National government was to blame for these headaches has worn thin.
Now New Zealanders will discover the real capacity of the government to tackle seamlessly the deepening issues – poverty, inequality, housing, health, education, inflation, climate change, not to mention Treaty “partnership” along with more mundane issues like the price of petrol or of milk – without diminishing Ardern’s saintly stature.