Bryce Edwards: Verdicts on the Government’s first year

Bryce Edwards: Verdicts on the Government’s first year

The Verdicts are in. The last week has seen a plethora of evaluations of the Labour-led Government’s first year in office. They’re mostly positive, but not without criticisms or warnings of future problems.

Of course, the one verdict that the Government would have paid particular attention to was last week’s TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll which had Labour in first place, with 45 per cent support. In his latest Poll of Polls update published today, Colin James argues that the Government is in a good place after a year, and the problems of recent months have not proved harmful – see: Polls show coalition well-placed in second year of govt. In addition, he argues that “inter-party coalition disagreements are now being better managed behind Beehive walls.”

Looking at poll results from the UMR polling company, James also says “Ardern’s approval rating has been consistently in the 72-76 percent range since March, comparable with Sir John Key at his most popular.” What’s more, “Consistent with the coalition’s firm support, UMR has consistently shown strongly positive assessment that the country is going in the ‘right direction’. The right direction figure has fluctuated very close to 60 percent since May – only slightly down from the peak after the government was formed.”

Many commentators are giving plaudits to the coalition and the Prime Minister. Heather du-Plessis Allan wrote in the Herald yesterday that: “The Coalition Government’s past year is really the story of two people: Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters. They two should take the credit for making this arrangement work for the past 12 months. Sure, it hasn’t always been easy and there have been a number of silly mistakes and deliberate trip ups. But things held together, it seems, because of the way these two work together” – see: Hats off to Ardern and Peters.

No one is saying that the Government hasn’t had problems, but rather that these have not proved particularly damaging, and Ardern herself has escaped relatively unscathed. For instance, Claire Trevett says, “while her Government has had its hiccups, Ardern herself has rarely stumbled” – see: Ahoy! One year down but pirates ahead for PM Jacinda Ardern.

Trevett summarises the state of the Government after a year: “Ardern got through the first year in a stronger position than she began it. Labour’s polling is now at a respectable level for the major governing party. While the hubcaps got a few chips along the way, the wheels remain on the car.”

The Press newspaper also gives a pass mark to Ardern’s government, saying in an editorial that its “first 12 months find it stronger rather than weaker” – see: The Government is in good shape on its first anniversary.

The editorial gives much of the credit to Ardern’s “personal appeal”, also pointing out that “it has been a long time since anyone tried to claim a working mother was somehow unable to lead the country”. But Peters also gets credit for his stint as Acting Prime Minister.

RNZ political editor Jane Patterson gives credit to the Prime Minister, saying “Ms Ardern has performed strongly overall, facing questions about her leadership along the way, but settling into the shoes of a prime minister and gaining credibility with voters” – see: One Year On: Rating the government‘s performance.

It’s hard to find critics who give the Government a poor evaluation overall. Even Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking says the Government deserves 8 or 9 out of ten “in terms of cohesiveness and professionalism, and staying on message, and out of coalition-type trouble” – see: Coalition has held together and prospered.

However, in what might be seen as a continuation of this topsy-turvy situation, the most critical commentary has come from the political left. The epitome of this is leftwing blogger Martyn Bradbury, who has written two interesting anniversary posts – one evaluating the three political parties in power, and the other looking at progress in various policy categories.

In terms of the parties, Bradbury gives New Zealand First the highest grade – a B+ –saying “they’ve done enough to keep their voters happy” – see: One year of the new Government: The faded hope of a hollow promise – grading Labour, NZ First & Greens.

The Greens fare the worst, getting only a C+. After making a list of list of the various mistakes they’ve made over the last year, Bradbury concludes: “The Greens have become a middle class vehicle for alienating woke identity politics and my fear is they will get mauled by TOP in the 2020 election and slip beneath the 5%. I just don’t believe they have the strategic skills not to get crushed and Marama’s outbursts on Twitter seem deeply destabilising.”

Bradbury gives Labour a B-, and outlines a list of important wins for the party, but adds that not enough is being done for those in poverty: “at some point the pain of those on the bottom must shame this party into actually doing something, not just pretty words and symbolism”.

In terms of policy, here are the marks Bradbury gives the Government: Education: D, Corrections/Police: C-, Social Welfare: D–, Kiwibuild: D, Housing NZ: F, International Affairs: A-, Immigration: B-, Climate Change: B-, Economy: B+, and Relationship with Māori: A- – see: One year of the new Government: The faded hope of a hollow promise – grading the issues.

There are a number of reports that back up some of Bradbury’s complaints – see, for example, John Gerritsen’s One Year On: Teachers disappointed and frustrated and Eva Corlett’s One Year On: Govt exceeds some social housing promises – fails on others.

For a thorough and analytical take on complaints that this Government hasn’t been delivering on its promises of radical change, see Thomas Coughlan’s One year on: Change worthy of its name?. He says there’s been a lot of rhetoric from government politicians and the Prime Minister about “transformation”, “transition”, and being a “government of change”, but in reality a lot of the administration has been characterised by cautiousness.

Although Ardern has spoken of climate change being her generation’s “nuclear-free moment, Coughlan suggests an appropriate response might be: “Pardon me, but I think I can smell the methane on your breath”.

Coughlan pinpoints an explanation: “The problem for this Government is that it knows what change looks like and it’s afraid. It knows that true change is ugly and real people get hurt.”

As an example of the cautiousness, Coughlan points to the lack of movement on housing and infrastructure: “Faced with a housing and infrastructure crisis, it has shown it prefers to commit to its completely arbitrary and (frankly) nonsensical Budget Responsibility Rules instead of using the exceedingly low cost of additional debt to borrow more and invest in the country’s future. On this score, the Government could even be described as averse to change.”

Some academic commentators have been kinder to the Government in their evaluations. For example, Jennifer Curtin of the University of Auckland is reported in the Guardian as arguing “that the slow pace is proof that Ardern’s government is aiming for true transformational change, and isn’t interested in ‘tinkering’ with the status quo” – see Eleanor Ainge Roy’s Ardern’s first year: New Zealand grapples with hangover from Jacindamania.

In contrast, union organiser Joe Carolan is quoted saying there is “huge anger” in terms of “the high cost of housing and transport, and many workers feel betrayed that a Labour-led government is not doing enough, fast enough to improve their everyday lives.”

For a different view, Massey University’s Richard Shaw draws attention to the unique leadership of Jacinda Ardern in this first year, saying that she “occupies political time and space in a way no previous New Zealand prime minister has” – see: One year on for Ardern’s coalition government in New Zealand.

Shaw details the important symbolism of the new Prime Minister and her situation (“our cultural politics are changing”), but also points out that the actual delivery of results from the first year are “patchy”.

Also interested in the results from the first year is rightwing political commentator Brigitte Morten who says: “Governments should be judged on what they deliver to their constituents, not on how well they get along. Unfortunately, most of the commentary after one year of the Labour-NZ First government seems focused on how well the political parties got on, rather than what they delivered to taxpayers” – see: Few fireworks in Labour-NZ First marriage, but is govt delivering?

Morten says some very bad decisions have been made in the first year: “spending $2.8 billion to give tertiary students their fees free in the first year, and an uncanvassed decision to ban further oil and gas exploration.”

Finally, in a parallel universe, Toby Manhire reports on the last twelve months, saying that in National, “English has done well to promote emerging talent, too. Jami-Lee Ross has proven himself the kind of minister who will drive through the night for his country. Maureen Pugh is very useful”, while in Labour “It is only a matter of time until the outspoken front-bencher Clare Curran mounts a leadership challenge” – see: On their first birthday, how is the National-NZ First government getting on?