PM says there’s not much to learn from by-elections – but Tauranga voters weren’t signalling an end to Labour’s slide in popularity

The  Tauranga by-election confirmed  Labour’s slide  in popularity, with  its  candidate,  the  newly promoted Cabinet minister Jan Tinetti, winning only 25%  of  the  vote, 14%  less  than  in 2020.

But Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern didn’t  see  it  that  way.  She  said  Tinetti received one of the better results the party has recorded in Tauranga in a number of decades.

In somewhat convoluted English, she further said:

“I think actually for by-elections, it’s very hard to read into them as someone who’s run in a by-election myself because it’s just simply not the same as in general elections, you don’t often have every party represented, so I’m not quick to read into individual outcomes.”

Tinetti came in with a very similar proportion of the vote to the support Labour received in Tauranga when it became the government in 2017, Ardern said.

But it was difficult to extrapolate too many lessons from by-elections, she said.

“Of course hearing from Jan and what she was hearing and experiencing, we listen to that in the same way as what we hear and experience with all of our MPs and every Tuesday we reflect on that in our caucus meeting.”

Ardern acknowledged it was tough for many people at the moment.

“People do see the government taking every effort we can to try and ease those pressures on people and Jan heard that out on the streets as well.”

People were likely look to the international environment and see that New Zealand was not the only country currently dealing with significant inflation and energy issues, Ardern said.

“It is our job to ease the impact of that.”

The Tauranga verdict nevertheless can be seen as a message to  the Ardern  government that  it is failing  on  many  fronts.  The obvious lesson:  it needs  to  pull  its sox  up smartly if  it is  to win a  third  term.

It  can  still do  so, even if  it  fails  to  recover much  of  the  vote  it  has  lost.  Both  the  Greens  and the  Maori Party  could  end  up with support from  a  significant proportion  of  the  departing Labour voters, particularly  if  the  Maori Party  gains  seats  like Te Tai  Tokerau, Tamaki Makaurau   and  Te  Tai Hauauru.  The  aggregate  Left-leaning vote  could be  higher  than  the  centre-right.

The  difficulty  for  the  government  is  that after  the  bounce  it  got  as a  result  of  its  handling  of the  initial stages  of  the  Covid  pandemic,  it  is  now  suffering from a bout of  post-traumatic  stress disorder, exacerbated by an economic  downturn  that ominously is shaping up as a  prolonged bout of  stagflation.

The  result  could be a  voting public  complaining  about  what happened to all Labour’s commitments for a  rising  standard  of  living, the elimination of  child poverty, the 100,000 houses,   and  better  health  services, all of  which  were promised  by  Labour.

Instead  the  country is  confronted  by  falling living standards, prices  outpacing wage  increases, shortages  of  key  workers, soaring  construction   costs, and  highly stressed health  services. Now  New Zealanders  are seeing their savings shrinking  as monetary shocks  devastate  the  sharemarket.

One  political pundit  recently  wrote  suggesting Prime Minister Jacinda  Ardern  could  step  aside, shouldering  the  blame  for  what  has  gone  wrong,  and  making way  for the  more  capable  Grant Robertson  to  steer  the  ship back to  safe  harbour.

But Robertson himself is beginning to look fallible, after arguing NZ is in good  economic shape, despite the  evidence  of  the cost-of-living crisis, and  the  prospect  of recession.  He  managed  to  stoke  the  fires of  inflation  with  his  latest, big-spending  budget,  instead  of  exercising  the level  of  fiscal restraint  essential  to back up  tighter monetary policy  from the  Reserve Bank.

Furthermore, in 2019 he  handicapped the  Reserve Bank for its fight against inflation by extending its  remit of “price  stability” and requiring it to add the goal of   “employment”  when  it formulates monetary  policy settings.  It may not  be  able  to   deal effectively with  both.

Certainly NZ  is  alone in the  world  where  the Reserve Bank  has  such  a  task.

Voters   might  have  been  more  impressed  with Labour  if  it could provide a list of  its achievements in   health, education, transport   and  housing – even in just one  of  them.

Take  transport:  Labour  promised  a  Light  Rail network  in Auckland. There is  no  sign  of  it and  the  cost  of  one  now  would be  astronomical.

It  talked  for a  time  about a harbour  bridge  for cyclists  and  pedestrians in  Auckland. That  too has  vanished  even as a concept. Meanwhile  highways   like  SH1  in the  North  Island is  said  to have  fallen  into disrepair.

Even  the Key-English government’s Roads  of National Significance have  not been  fully  completed,  five years  after that  administration left office.

The  Ardern  government  was  critical  of  the construction  cost of the  Transmission   Gully project  near  Wellington—until the  project was finished  when it  was  happy  to spend $337,000 on the  opening ceremony.

Now as the  nation looks  ahead there  is  little to  savour  on the  economic horizon. Measures  to  deal with climate  change  seem certain  to  add  to  the  pain  of  countering rising  inflation, and the  shortages  already  evident on several fronts.

Whether Cabinet will  be re-energised  by  the  ministerial reshuffle last week remains  to be  seen.  Ardern promoted several of  her  more  capable  backbenchers  but while they may be vigorous  debaters  in  the  House, they  don’t  have  the  wider skills  and  practical ability so badly  missing in the  current  Cabinet.

Still, Ardern and her staff insists it was a “minor” reshuffle.  We  may  have to  wait  for the  “major”  reshuffle  for  all the  deadwood  to be  removed.

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