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.