‘Team of 5 million’ turn on Ardern
It's been another difficult week for New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who on Thursday had to face the resignation of her health minister.
That came after a series of government bungles stoked fears COVID-19 might be loose in the country, just weeks after New Zealand was declared coronavirus free.
With a general election due in 11 short weeks, questions are being asked if COVID-19 stuff ups, as well as fails in a number of other areas, could damage the Labour Party at the polls and Ardern's prospects of remaining PM.
The concern is her much vaunted "team of five million" Kiwis, who pulled together behind her to fight coronavirus, might fall by the wayside as the election nears.
Already the opposition National Party have had a swing in the polls in their direction.
A political watcher told news.com.au there was one big risk she had to contend with. If she failed at that, then "all bets are off" on Labour winning on September 19.
One analysis of Ardern declared her adept at "dancing" - collaborating with other politicians and building a rapport with the public - but was marked down for her lack of a vision for New Zealand or implementing key polices.
On Thursday, health minister David Clark fell on his sword saying he had become an "unhelpful distraction" for the government. Ardern accepted his resignation and said it was "essential our health leadership has the confidence of the New Zealand public".
Despite leading the health response in a country that is the envy of the world when it comes to coronavirus, it's fair to say former Mr Clark has not had a good pandemic.
He was caught breaking lockdown by taking his family on a road trip. He then had to explain to the nation why two overseas visitors with COVID-19 were allowed to travel across the nation meeting up with friends along the way, and then why hundreds of people in quarantine had been allowed to depart without having compulsory tests for the virus.
But Mr Clark was most sharply criticised for apparently trying to push the blame for the blunders onto well-liked director general of health Ashley Bloomfield.
Politics professor at New Zealand's Massey University Richard Shaw told news.com.au Mr Clark's resignation was actually a blessing for Ardern.
"It solves a big problem for her. He was becoming personally unpopular - less, in a way, for his own missteps with COVID-19 and more for having 'kicked the puppy' by being seen to disrespect Bloomfield who is very highly respected."
But his departure didn't mean Labour were out of the woods.
ALL BETS OFF
Ardern has the merest of toeholds on power. Labour has precisely the same number of seats in the Wellington-based House of Representatives as the opposition Nationals.
But a coalition with the conservative Winston Peters' led New Zealand First (NZF) party - not natural bedfellows for Labour - and a supply and confidence agreement with the Greens allowed the Labour led government to take the reins of power in 2017.
However, Prof Shaw said Labour was likely more secure than those figures suggested.
"Labour is polling about 14 or 15 points higher than it performed at the last election, and that's after a fairly testing three years with the Christchurch shootings, White Island, and COVID-19, so they're a lot stronger now than then."
However, he said, the conduct of coalition partner NZF was "not helpful".
"(Deputy Prime Minister) Peters is seen as obstructive and retrograde. His usual antics of chaos, p*ssing people off, isn't working for him in quite the same way it has in the past."
But, said Prof Shaw, this seemed to be harming Peters' re-election chances more than Ardern's. If NZF's current lower polling and the Greens' higher numbers pans out, she may not even need him.
"My money is on a Labour-Green coalition. But there's a long way to go and in the present climate all it takes is another run on COVID-19, a meltdown with employment figures and all bets are off."
TEAM OF 5 MILLION 'DISBANDED'
In a piece for local website Newsroom Auckland University Associate Professor of politics Jennifer Lees-Marshment said Ardern was doing well at the political "dance" of adapting and communicating.
But in many other areas she had been found wanting. The KiwiBuild policy, that promised thousands of new homes, has been a mess and a plan to reform capital gains tax has been scrapped.
Part of the problem was her warp speed rise to the top, said Prof Less-Marshment, when Ardern become opposition leader and then PM within a bewildering blur of just a few weeks.
"She still hasn't defined what her vision for New Zealand is, and of course COVID-19 has disrupted everything.
"Ardern may be an effective dancer when it comes to managing challenging coalitions and crises, she is less well-perceived when it comes to having a plan and getting things done," she said.
Leaders who inspire in a crisis don't necessarily end up leading for long. Just ask former Queensland Premier Anna Bligh who was praised for her handling of the state's horror floods of 2011 and yet a year later Labor lost to the LNP in one of the biggest election drubbings in Australian history.
In recent polls, the New Zealand Nationals have had their stocks rise with a nine-point swing towards them while newly installed leader Todd Muller is seen as having more charm that his predecessor.
"I think the 'team of five million' probably disbanded when we moved to level one (the lowest level of coronavirus restrictions) and that's what the 9 per cent increase in support for the Nats meant," said Prof Shaw.
But he said that swing was coming off historically high levels of support for Ardern and Labour.
"The new National Party leader (Muller) is struggling to get traction. His first set of polls were OK but the Nats are at exactly the same place they were under the previous leader."
ODDS ON TO WIN - BUT THE BIG RISK
The warmth New Zealanders have towards Ardern is such that the opposition have to be careful when it came to attacking her directly, said Prof Shaw.
"They need to take her and Labour on policy, not on personality, temperament or kindness."
An economic downturn of some level is certain, he said, but she may dodge that bullet too.
"Soft economic figures are never good for a government - but this time, these figures are clearly a function of external factors and I'm not sure those figures will mean what they normally do."
Prof Shaw said trust in Ardern remained high, despite the undoubted missteps - but she couldn't get complacent.
"At the moment, the failures from last year, such as KiwiBuild, have dropped right out of sight.
She would need to do something very egregious personally for that capital to disappear. Failure at the border looks like the major risk at the moment, and with more and more New Zealanders coming hone, that pressure is only going to grow," he said.
"That's the major risk - that community transmission picks up. If that happens there's every likelihood that the polls would tighten up."
Originally published as 'Team of 5 million' turn on Ardern