Into the Valley of Something Unexpected: The Resignation of Jacinda Ardern

One of my earliest political memories is the resignation of Prime Minister David Lange in August 1989. I remember this because of a brown felt-tipped pen drawing I did of the Beehive, the building that houses the Executive of the New Zealand Government. More than thirty years later, we have another Labour Prime Minister resigning. This afternoon, it was Jacinda Ardern.

This one was… unexpected.

Hitherto, mooted Ardern resignations were the stuff of right-wing internet trolls and the occasional media commentator. I don’t think anyone was realistically expecting this. Ardern has not exactly had a pleasant second term, and her Government has spent the last two years literally running away from the reasons it won the 2020 election, but her leading Labour into 2023 was seen as a given.

Now? Well, Ardern is quite within her rights to do this, especially with a young family to raise – albeit, unlike some other commentators, I do not think the critics of her were motivated by misogyny. Labour Prime Ministers must endure attacks from the Right. It is what the Right does. And while I have been perennially grumpy at the Ardern Government for its inconsequential inactivity, I must also pay tribute to her handling of the Christchurch Mosque Shooting of 2019 and Covid in 2020. Ardern was an admirable security blanket for a traumatised nation, even if she and her cohort (with several noble exceptions) are wafer-thin in terms of policy.

(There’s actually a case that Ardern is New Zealand’s answer to Winston Churchill. Someone who holds the country together during crises, but runs into problems when there isn’t a convenient crisis on the horizon).

As to where this leaves the Labour Government, the situation is unclear. Finance Minister Grant Robertson – Ardern’s second-in-command, and a guy with ambition – has announced he’s not seeking the leadership this time. This opens the door, I think, for two possibilties:

  • Chris Hipkins
  • Michael Wood

I’ll be honest – I do not like Hipkins. I have nothing but contempt for his handling of Education, and as Covid Response Minister, I blame him for the Great Backsliding of 2022. But he’s part of Ardern’s little inner circle, which means he probably has the stronger backing within Labour’s parliamentary caucus. The Right also consider him “competent”, though whether that is seriousness or a Brer Rabbit/Briar Patch situation is unclear.

Michael Wood – author of the Fair Pay Agreement system – is the more overtly Left option, albeit a more traditional economically-minded form of Left than the social liberalism associated with Ardern. If Hipkins does not get the requisite 2/3 of caucus, the leadership selection goes to the rank-and-file Labour members, and I suspect they’d prefer Wood. I think Wood would also be able to present himself as a “new broom” better than Hipkins, which might play well in the 2023 environment.

There are also other possibilities, of course. Andrew Little might try again, though I think his previous stint as leader would tell against him there (he’s also lumbered with Health). Nanaia Mahuta might have a go too, but that’s just asking for full-scale Culture War at this point, what with various public relations issues associated with co-governance. David Parker would be a return to 1980s-style neoliberalism, with all that would entail. Or maybe there’s someone else waiting in the wings. We will see.

Whomever takes over, of course, will be in charge of a Government in decline – and currently not on track for re-election. However, the polls are not apocalyptic right now – National/ACT is about five points in front of Labour/Green. It would not take a monumental effort to turn that around. The question is whether Ardern leaving is a net positive or net negative for the Government at this point. Ardern enjoys substantial popularity among her base, but has accumulated various bits of political baggage over the past five years… and the New Zealand Right is thoroughly energised in a way the Left is not.

(I would summarise things as – mainstream New Zealand is grumpy with Labour, but not exactly sold on National. The Right is angry and mobilised, hence the high ACT vote, but the Left is apathetic and unenthused by Labour, hence high Green vote, and godawful turnout in Hamilton West. A new Labour leader might lack the established positives of Ardern, but might also shake the Government out of its doldrums. As I have suggested, I think Wood is a better candidate for that than Hipkins).

There are also a couple of other points to consider:

Firstly, we now have an election date. Saturday, 14th October. This is timed to allow Ardern to leave Parliament in April without needing to force a by-election in her seat of Mount Albert. To be honest, this is the one area where I am slightly grumpy at Ardern’s decision. The election date (which I had picked for 25th November) really ought to be the decision of Ardern’s successor. It’s fair enough for Ardern to quit as leader, but she really ought to have served out her term as MP – she was, after all, elected on that understanding, and by wanting to leave early, she’s tied the hands of the next Prime Minister. In a year like 2023, timing might make all the difference.

Secondly, one thing National can take heart from: unlike Britain and Australia, replacement Prime Ministers often struggle in New Zealand. Between Bill English in 2017, Jenny Shipley in 1999, Mike Moore in 1990, Bill Rowling in 1975, Jack Marshall in 1972, and Keith Holyoake in 1957, that’s quite a track-record of electoral failure. You have to go back to Peter Fraser in 1943 to find a mid-term replacement leader winning the ensuing election. But again, we shall have to wait and see.

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