After the excitement of her US visit and White House call, PM Jacinda Ardern is now engaged in the harsh realities of running a government that appears to be crumbling by the week.
Ministers are tripping over themselves – this week it was Police Minister Poto Williams who became the butt of Opposition calls for her to be sacked. Then there were the polls charting a governing party’s falling popularity, despite a huge spend-up in the latest budget.
The One News Kantar poll at the end of May put Labour’s support down at 35%. Then came the Roy Morgan poll which had Labour even lower, at 31.5%.
This is the sixth Roy Morgan sampling to show there would be a change of government if there were an election now. According to Ipsos polling, people rate National as more capable than Labour on four out of the five top issues – inflation, housing, health care, petrol prices and crime).
Just what Labour’s own polling is indicating is being kept a party secret, but it is possibly even grimmer than the public polls because in desperation the party has been using social media to try to discredit National’s Christopher Luxon, who had succeeded in hitting the government where it hurt by drumming on the themes of a cost-of-living crisis and the need for tax cuts in the budget.
The government still has time on its side in pulling itself back from the brink, but it is not projecting a coherent messaging as it did at the height of the Covid pandemic.
Instead, the headlines are filled not just with the issues of inflation and taxation, but the worsening standards in education, the shortages of skilled labour, the outflow of key nursing staff, and the whole law-and-order gamut, from daily gang shooting in Auckland neighbourhoods to ram raids.
On another front Labour’s moves on co-governance have aroused deep misgivings among many New Zealanders. It has put Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta in the firing line, and, some say, exacerbated racial tension in communities which previously prided themselves on being in harmony.
Another issue which has antagonised major sectors has been the government’s introduction of “Fair Pay” agreements.
Labour, which in 2020 won over many electorates which normally are not known for leaning to the left, now finds its grip on those loosening and – if the current polling were to extend to the next election – as many as 25 Labour MPs would be tipped out.
The Green Party, which backs the government, by comparison would sail through the next election relatively unscathed. It has carved out a role where it is often as critical of the government as the Opposition parties—and not just on climate change issues. For example, it criticised the budget for failing to deliver any extra support for beneficiaries to take the edge off cost-of-living pressures.
On the other side of the House, ACT has been vigorous in its opposition to the government and David Seymour has matured into a highly effective politician. But when it comes to the election, it will need something distinctive to retain the seats it holds at present.
Similarly, National has work to do, though in a different direction: it has to find candidates of a higher standard than it put forward in many electorates in 2020.
As Labour backbenchers recognise the unpopularity of the government has deepened rather than gone away, it could be expected they would be agitating in caucus for a reshuffle of the Cabinet. It rests on them if they are to extend their parliamentary careers to do so but they may not have the experience or the technical know-how to mount the onslaught to dislodge the more unpopular or useless incumbents.
As Ardern and her deputy Grant Robertson are on their way to Australia today, they may be putting their heads together to work out what they can do to turn around the growing disenchantment at home with their government