Thursday, January 19, 2023

Sudden, unexpected change

Today, there was what the news media is fairly calling a “shock announcement”: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is stepping down as Prime Minister no later than February 7, and will leave Parliament in April. “You cannot, and should not [be Prime Minister] unless you have a full tank, plus, a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges,” she said. “This summer, I had hoped to find a way to prepare for not just another year, but another term – because that is what this year requires. I have not been able to do that.”

It was widely expected that today the prime minister would announce the date of the NZ General Election, and she did: Saturday, the 14th of October. Many pundits also expected her to announce a cabinet reshuffle, something governments always do in an election year to present a fresher face to voters, and they also though there might be a shift in some policy priorities, especially the ones the rightwing and the news media have been attacking. No pundit in recent weeks picked that Jacinda would step down. I didn’t, either.

The Labour Party Caucus in Parliament will meet on Sunday, and if a candidate has the support of two-thirds of the caucus, they will become the new Party Leader and Prime Minister. If not, then the choice will be made by vote of party members (people like me). I fully expect the new Prime Minister will be selected on Sunday, but I have absolutely NO idea who it will be.

I was actually working on a blog post for today when I got a pop-up notification that she was about to speak to the news media after today’s Cabinet meeting. I stopped work so I could find out when the election will be. My jaw dropped at the real news.

I’m actually not all that surprised, really. She has become the object of vicious hatred and harassment by the lunatic, unhinged far-right, including lots of serious and credible threats of violence and death. At the same time, her daughter starts school this year, and if she remained Prime Minister, she’d miss so much of her daughter’s formative years. I don’t blame her in the least, and I’m happy for her, though not for the country.

Some folks who didn’t like her opined that she must be jumping because she “knows” Labour will lose the election. That’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. In fact, her staying could also pose a risk to a third term because she is the focus for so much inchoate dislike among the general public, rightwing voters, and the news media. Without her leading, there may be a better opportunity for the party to make its case to voters—depending on who the next Labour Party Leader/Prime Minister is.

Jacinda is the Electorate MP for the Mount Albert Electorate. When an Electorate MP resigns more than six months before an election, there’s a byelection in that electorate (like Hamilton West had thrust on it for no good reason last year). By resigning from Parliament in April, six months out from the General Election, there will be no byelection.

If she thought that Labour would definitely lose, she’d have chosen to run as a List MP in the General Election. If Labour lost the election, she could then resign and the next person on the Labour Party list would enter Parliament. That would’ve been the clearest possible sign she expected Labour to lose. Resigning her seat in April indicates nothing certain, except that she wants out.

Having a new leader and, no doubt, new portfolio assignments, will mean that Labour will go to the voters with a new-look team, which can actually make them more competitive, because shiny and new is always better for getting voters’ attention. That's why governments of both parties do a cabinet reshuffle in the run-up to an election.

At the same time, without Jacinda at the centre of Labour’s campaign, she’ll blunt energy of the aggressive far-right loons who hate her to the core of their being. On the one hand, this could make it harder for Labour because the loons would’ve helped split the rightwing vote, which would help Labour and the Greens. On the other hand, with her gone, voters who aren’t loons but who don’t like her may not see National and it’s aggressive far-right potential coalition partner, the Act “Party”, as being so attractive—especially when voters look at the far-right agenda the two parties would promote. The lack of aggressive loons fighting Labour, combined with her non-loony opponents now more relaxed because the person they don’t like is gone, could mean that ultimately this is all a wash. Maybe.

Everything is riding on who is selected as the next party leader. If Caucus gets it wrong, then the election’s results won’t go their way. But, if they get it right, Labour’s back in the fight with a good wind behind its sails.

If Jacinda at her best was leading the party into the election, then only a fool would bet against Labour winning a third term. But as she herself has said, she not at her best, and she feels she has to go. The new leadership team will be able to change policy priorities, jettisoning ones that aren’t connecting with voters, and that’s likely something that Jacinda couldn’t have gotten away with.

There’s one more possibility I’ve seen people talking about. If the new leadership feels that they’ll lose the next election, they could push through the last of their agenda while they still have power. This seems highly improbable. First, it would signal that they expect to lose, and, more importantly, the incoming rightwing government would just repeal everything, anyway, so it would all be for nothing—and could possibly just had victory to the Right.

So, my bet is that the new Prime Minister and leadership team will move quickly to chart a new direction so it’s fresh—and looks fresh—heading into the General Election. If they can show energy and enthusiasm—as, indeed, Jacinda did heading into her first election as Labour Leader in 2017, then it’s a whole new game. Interesting times.

All that said, the country owes a huge debt to Jacinda Ardern and her government for leading the country through a perilous time in the world. Whoever becomes Prime Minister next, and whoever is elected in October, has a big task living up to her example.

Here’s the complete text of the Prime Minister’s statement today:
Today I have two important announcements to make.

The first is the election date.

Under the last government, the practice began of sharing the election date at the beginning of election year.

Early announcements allow for planning and preparation by the Electoral Commission, agencies, and political parties, and is, I believe, best practice. That’s why in 2020 we announced at the beginning of election year, and I do so again today.

The General Election for 2023 will be held on Saturday the 14th of October.

In setting this date, I have considered the advice of the Electoral Commission, Public Holidays and school holidays, the advance voting periods, and important events and fixtures. I believe this date best accommodates each of these factors.

Consideration of the date over the summer, and the impending election and new political term has also given me time for reflection.

I am entering now my sixth year in office. And for each of those years, I have given my absolute all.

I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging. You cannot, and should not do it unless you have a full tank, plus, a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges.

This summer, I had hoped to find a way to prepare for not just another year, but another term – because that is what this year requires. I have not been able to do that.

And so today, I am announcing that I will not be seeking re-election and that my term as Prime Minister will conclude no later than the 7th of February.

This has been the most fulfilling five and a half years of my life. But it has also had its challenges.

Amongst an agenda focused on housing, child poverty and climate change, we encountered a major biosecurity incursion, a domestic terror event, a major natural disaster, a global pandemic and an economic crisis. The decisions that had to be made have been continual, and they have been weighty.

But I am not leaving because it was hard. Had that been the case I probably would have departed two months into the job!

I am leaving because with such a privileged role, comes responsibility. The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also, when you are not.

I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.

But I absolutely believe and know, there are others around me who do.

We achieved a huge amount in the last five years. And I am so proud of that.

We are in a fundamentally different place on climate change than where we were, with ambitious targets and a plan to achieve them.

We have turned around child poverty statistics and made the most significant increases in welfare and the state housing stock we’ve seen in many decades.

We’ve made it easier to access education and training, improved the pay and conditions of workers, and shifted our settings towards a high wage, high skilled economy.

And we’ve worked hard to make progress on issues around our national identity, and I believe that teaching history in schools and celebrating our own indigenous national holiday will all make a difference for years to come.

And we’ve done that while responding to some of the biggest threats to the health and economic wellbeing of our nation arguably since World War Two.

The team that has done all that, they have been some of the best people I have ever had the privilege of working with, and they are well placed to take us forward as we continue to focus on our economic recovery with one of the strongest economies in the world.

They are also a team who are incredibly well placed to contest the next election. In fact, I am not leaving because I believe we can’t win the election, but because I believe we can and will, and we need a fresh set of shoulders for that challenge.

I know there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so called “real” reason was. I can tell you, that what I am sharing today is it.

The only interesting angle you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, that I am human. Politicians are human. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time.

And for me, it’s time.

I intend to remain the Member for Mt Albert through till April. This will give me a bit of time in the electorate before I depart, and also spare them and the country a by-election.

Beyond that, I have no plan. No next steps. All I know is that whatever I do, I will try and find ways to keep working for New Zealand and that I am looking forward to spending time with my family again – arguably, they are the ones that have sacrificed the most out of all of us.

And so to Neve, mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year.

And to Clarke, let’s finally get married.

As for the next Labour Leader. The caucus has seven days to ascertain whether one individual holds more than 2/3rds of the caucus support.

Caucus has today agreed that a vote will occur in three days’ time on Sunday the 22nd of January. If a leader is successfully elected, I will issue my resignation soon after to the Governor General, and a new Prime Minister will be sworn in.

If no one is able to garner this level of support within caucus, the leadership contest will go to the wider membership.

My opportunity to thank the many people I need to, will likely come in April when I depart Parliament, 15 years after having been sworn in.

Till then, I see my role to help the Labour Party, who I consider my family, navigate this next phase. And then, to leave the next colleague who takes on this role, all the space they need to make their mark.

For my part, I want to finish with a simple thank you to New Zealanders for giving me this opportunity to serve, and to take on what has and will always be the greatest role in my life.

I hope in return I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused.

That you can be your own kind of leader – one that knows when it’s time to go.

Source: New Zealand Labour Party Facebook Page.


Roger Owen Green said...

I think she's great, how she dealt with COVID and the shooting at the mosque and a ton of other things.

Arthur Schenck said...

Yep. I voted for the government she led, of course, and admired her for many years before that.