Bryce Edwards: Jacinda Ardern’s stardust returns 

Bryce Edwards: Jacinda Ardern’s stardust returns 

An important new book is being launched tonight in Wellington by the Prime Minister. Stardust and Substance: the New Zealand General Election of 2017 is Victoria University of Wellington’s collection of 38 perspectives on last year’s fascinating campaign and the formation of the new government headed by Jacinda Ardern. I’ve written a series of essay reviews of the book – you can see the first one here: Stardust and Substance: the 2017 election through politicians’ eyes. And the Herald has published an excerpt from the book – Jacinda Ardern’s chapter: Labour 2017: the Prime Minister’s perspective.

The title of the book plays on the phenomenon of Jacindamania that dominated the campaign, together with questions of to what extent Ardern epitomised style and/or substance. That question has re-emerged in terms of her major speech yesterday, which was meant to provide a “re-set” after a troubled month for the government.

It largely worked. I went on TVNZ’s Breakfast to explain why the speech can be deemed a success: “they really needed something to put them on the front foot, to show that they’re united, to give the Prime Minister a chance to be on the stage and perform the way that she does, which is brilliantly” – see: Jacinda Ardern’s major speech was all about harm reduction after NZ First went ‘rogue’, analyst says.

The speech was all about shoring up support amongst those Government voters who might have started to have doubts about the unity and coherence of the coalition, especially after the last week of instability caused by Winston Peters and New Zealand First.

Despite the stardust in Ardern’s speech yesterday, there wasn’t a lot of substance in either the speech or the new “roadmap”. As I said on Breakfast about the event, “Stylistically it was brilliant but it was fairly hollow in terms of substance”, and “I don’t think there was anything particularly in this roadmap that couldn’t have been in a National Party roadmap if they were in Government.”

Perhaps the strongest critique of Ardern’s announcement came from Toby Manhire who said the “plan was simply serving up the same ambitions-values-visions-priorities salad from a new bowl. If it felt rather hollow, it was a slick show” – see: ‘Not dysfunction junction’: what was Jacinda Ardern’s big speech really about? Furthermore, “There was nothing discernibly new there. If it was a road map, it was a pretty vague and well-thumbed map.”

Manhire draws attention to opposition leader Simon Bridges’ labelling of the event as “Trump-like”. Bridges has explained the comparison, saying the event was an “attempt to avoid tough questions with a stage-managed pep rally and carefully vetted questions”. And interestingly, Manhire gives some credence to this analysis: “it is nevertheless true that the prime minister has withdrawn from interviews on programmes where interviewers would be asking a host of difficult questions on the same weekend that she appeared before an audience of adoring supporters, who proffered a bunch of preordained, softball questions at the end.”

But Manhire does see the event as having some limited success: “It was an attempt to recapture and reignite some of the energy of the campaign, an effort to put some fresh air in tyres that had started to feel kind of flat. It was a rally. But that’s all it was.” It also “delivered the most valuable image of the day for the government: leaders of the three parties of government standing hip to hip to hip – a remarkably rare sight over the last year.”

Newsroom’s Tim Murphy is less than impressed with the stardust or the substance that was on display yesterday. He admits that “Ardern presented well, as is her way”, but says for “an evangelical gathering” the “atmosphere in the room was warm, but a furnace away from the sort of heat Ardern produced a year ago on the election campaign trail” – see: The Push-me-Pull-you Government.

Murphy also reports that Ardern’s slogan of “Let’s do this!” has been updated to the less-Zeitgeist version of “We are going to keep doing this”. Similarly, Ardern’s summation of the new agenda is “hardly a searing political ambition” – this is: “We want to be the country that we are already pretty proud of.”

In terms of the substance of the plan, he says “it was virtuous and nebulous. Everything to agree with, nothing to oppose. And it was un-detailed and unspecific and unformed and unknown.”

As with other journalists, Murphy draws attention to the degree of stage-managing that took place, especially with the question-and-answer session: “Questions were sourced from known attendees in advance, and from vetted offerings via Facebook. It was almost as if the event wasn’t for the media or the public, the voters, but for the three parties themselves. It was a kind-of-tripartite party conference.”

The Trump-like parallels are raised again by Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins: “National’s conclusion that it was a Trump-like ‘rah-rah’ rally wasn’t entirely wide of the mark as the speech to a friendly audience of about 400 people was clearly about energising the troops a year on from the election” – see: After a horror few weeks, Winston and Jacinda are all smiles for the unity show.

Watkins reports that Labour and Ardern are clearly bending over backwards to keep Winston Peters happy: “The biggest symbolism of all, however, was in what wasn’t said – like Ardern’s failure to mention even once the words Labour-led Government. In fact, Labour appears to be a dirty word in what we are told is a new era of MMP government, with Ardern’s speech notes mentioning her own party just once during a 25-minute speech”.

Yet, Watkins notes that the favour didn’t appear to be returned by Peters: “After being invited onto the stage for what media had been told would be a speech introducing Ardern, Peters failed to mention the ‘A’ word – Ardern – in  his roll call of the Government’s achievements. Even the term prime minister seemed to be another dirty word since it wasn’t mentioned”.

The Herald’s political editor Audrey Young also says Ardern’s address was a success in terms of style rather than substance: “Ardern delivered her speech in Ted-talk-style, like the gifted communicator she can be. And while it was important in terms of setting out priorities, nothing in it was new” – see: Show of unity by Peters was important at Jacinda Ardern’s speech. Furthermore, “The political theatre is of greater value than the substance of the Prime Minister’s speech”.

Nonetheless, Young says that the timing of yesterday’s speech was good for the Government: “It may help to give a sense of coherence to the Government which has been looking fairly chaotic recently.”

Numerous commentators, including Young, drew attention to Winston Peters not playing a full and positive role in yesterday’s events. For example, he conspicuously left the stage once Green co-leader James Shaw arrived, which seemed to undermine the message of unity.

This morning, former politician Peter Dunne has been the AM Show to explain why he thinks Peters has become more belligerent and difficult lately: “When he was Acting Prime Minister while she was on maternity leave, he did a reasonable job. In a way that’s emboldened him and I think the contrast between the relatively calm times during her absence and the chaos that’s occurred since, is pretty stark – and he’s playing to that.”

What’s more, Dunne suggests that Ardern is entirely hostage to his demands, saying if “Peters doesn’t get his way, he’ll ‘pull the pin’ and take down the Government”, arguing “He’s done it before and he’ll do it again” – see: Winston Peters will ‘pull the pin’ if he doesn’t get his way – Peter Dunne.

Finally, for more chapters from the Stardust and Substance book, the Spinoff has published the other leader’s extracts – see: ‘Confident but paranoid’: Bill English reflects on election 2017, ‘We chose the harder path’: Winston Peters on election 2017When the wheels came off: James Shaw on Election 2017, and ‘We didn’t pay enough attention to the brand’: David Seymour on Election 2017.