Ardern faces major challenges despite landslide win in NZ election

Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party secured a landslide victory in Saturday’s New Zealand election. Labour got 49% of the vote and 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament, meaning it can form a government without entering into a coalition. No party has won a majority since New Zealand adopted a mixed-member proportional electoral system in 1996. Labour received its highest level of support in 50 years.

But landslides are also disruptive, and there are a number of challenges ahead for the re-elected prime minister. Ardern’s effective management of the health aspects of the Covid-19 crisis masked a failure to deliver on core 2017 promises and formulate policies for 2020 that will help New Zealand recover from the longer-term economic effects of the pandemic.

In the last leaders’ debate, Ardern said people’s minds were on the future and they wanted to know where the country would go next. But she failed to then say where that would be. Her list of promises for 2020 included programs already launched and failed to highlight any obviously transformational policies. The overall policy branding was good, with a focus on people, jobs, rebuilding, business and NZ’s global situation. But there was no outside-the-box thinking or clear priorities that the government can now score quick wins on. The phenomenal result therefore doesn’t equal public support for specific actions because Labour never said clearly what action it plans to take.

The unfair reality of political marketing is that political consumers are rarely satisfied for long and always want more. Having successfully managed the health side of the Covid-19 crisis, Labour will soon find voters asking, ‘What’s next?’ In particular, they will be looking for ideas from the new government on how it will handle the slower burn economic fallout from the pandemic.

Data from the online engagement tool Vote Compass 2020 run by TVNZ (just like the one run by the ABC in Australia) suggested chinks in Ardern’s armour. On the one hand she was the most liked leader, reflecting her relatable brand. But the economy—including jobs and economic recovery—was the top voter concern and only 40% said they trusted Ardern to manage the economy best. This was only 12 percentage points more than National Party leader Judith Collins. And 56% of undecided voters—the very ones likely to have created Labour’s landslide—said they trusted neither Ardern nor Collins or did not know.

The Vote Compass data also revealed a nationalistic or protectionist leaning among voters. There was a strong desire for protection of New Zealand’s assets and independence—90% of respondents thought the government should impose a royalty on exporters of NZ water, 70% that foreign ownership of houses shouldn’t be allowed and 67% that New Zealand should be less reliant on other countries for its goods and services.

As the landslide settles into place, there may still be dust in the air, making it hard to read the political market.

While voters did support increasing taxes on wealthier people (59% agree) and free dental care for those on low incomes (70% support action in this area), there was a strong divide on other areas of social welfare such as increasing the minimum wage and providing free lunches to students in state schools.

In her first term, Ardern showed that she was good at dancing around the different coalition partners, adapting to the circumstances she faced so that she could achieve as much as possible. However, her weakness was in not discharging plans effectively and thus being perceived to fail to deliver, abandoning key promises such as to introduce a capital gains tax and overseeing a problematic implementation of Labour’s flagship housebuilding program, KiwiBuild.

She will now have to show leadership and use political management and marketing much more effectively. Time must be spent on creating a vision for the recovery, designing a plan with specific policy priorities, and investing political capital from the Labour landslide in executing plans once decisions are made. In political marketing terms, this means creating market-research-led communication to persuade people to get behind potentially difficult decisions and ensure tangible outcomes can actually be delivered. And all of this must be done while managing the tension between two diverse markets: a victorious Labour movement wanting more transformational, progressive action and those who cautiously lent Labour their vote for the first time.

Ultimately, the biggest message to come out of Vote Compass was that New Zealanders want leadership that shows care and concern but also takes action. Doing this amid a global economic crisis is not going to be easy.