Graham Adams: Ardern’s winter of discontent far from over

Graham Adams: Ardern’s winter of discontent far from over

The Prime Minister’s protective cloak of stardust is slipping from her party’s shoulders, Graham Adams argues, just when it will be sorely needed to sell the contentious health reforms.

During 2017’s election campaign, Prime Minister, Bill English, predicted the “stardust” that surrounded the newly minted leader of the Labour Party would “settle”.

He couldn’t have been more spectacularly wrong as Jacinda Ardern’s popularity — both here and around the world — soared into the stratosphere, culminating in Labour gaining the first outright majority of the MMP era at last October’s general election, largely because of her success in managing the threat of Covid.

Now the gloss is coming off. Ardern is still hugely popular but the omens are not propitious.

In the Newshub-Reid Research poll figures released last week, Ardern’s popularity as preferred PM fell 2.6 points to 45.5 per cent — after routinely reaching well into the 50s in 2020.

More significant, however, is that the popularity of her party is plummeting. And it is party votes that win elections, not the personal popularity of their leaders.

Exactly how fast the Labour government’s popularity is falling is not widely appreciated — in large part thanks to widespread confusion about the distinction between percentage points and percentages.

The media widely reported that the government’s approval rating in the poll had slid from 52.7 per cent to 43 per cent — and most described this as a 9.7 per cent fall.

In fact, a fall of 9.7 percentage points from 52.7 per cent represents a drop of 18.4 per cent. Losing nearly 20 per cent of your support in the three months since the last Newshub poll in May is a disaster in anyone’s terms.

Of course, Labour and the Greens still have enough support right now to form a government with ease — and for that reason Ardern could believably proclaim in the wake of the results: “I’m still really heartened, though by the fact that between ourselves and the Greens there’s still a solid majority there.”

Nevertheless, the gap between the centre right and the centre left is narrowing. As business people might say — the trend is not the Prime Minister’s friend.

Since the poll results appeared, Ardern has been doing the media rounds to soothe ruffled feathers and to proclaim she is “listening”. In fact, she appears to also be quietly panicking — as shown by her rapid back-pedalling on the Auckland Harbour cycle bridge, magicking up $600,000 to give to Mike King’s counselling service Gumboot Friday, and the sudden decision to let in more RSE workers.

The poll results undoubtedly reflect voters’ reaction to unpopular policies such as the cycle bridge, the ute tax, proposed hate-speech laws and the payment of nearly $3 million to a company operated by a Mongrel Mob member — but there is also deep concern about rising gun violence; the millions spent each week on housing the homeless in motels; rising rents; the soaring price of houses; our overburdened hospitals — and, of course, the growing apprehension that our slow rate of Covid vaccinations makes us a sitting duck for the highly infectious Delta variant to devastate the nation if it can get the tiniest toehold.

Amidst this increasingly volatile mix of fear of Covid and growing antagonism to the government on a welter of issues, there is also increasing suspicion bubbling closer and closer to the surface of exactly what the Treaty of Waitangi means for government policy when it is treated not just as a “partnership” but an “equal partnership”.

The heated debate over whether mātauranga Māori should be given equal status with “Western science” in the school science curriculum was merely a taster — as was news of a stoush on the West Coast over a Department of Conservation plan for a new visitor centre at Punakaiki, with the building to be given to iwi and DoC leasing space within it.

These skirmishes are harbingers of the major battles in store for Ardern and her lieutenants when legislation is introduced to Parliament next month to set up an interim Māori Health Authority and Health NZ agency, and ministerial committees appointed.

That this legislation will be handled by Andrew Little is not entirely auspicious given that, in an interview last week, he seemed to have forgotten that he is, in fact, the Minister of Health.

Little: “We’ve put so much extra funding into the system since we’ve been in government and the same pressures that were evident three years ago are evident now. What I’m saying is how can we possibly have pumped in billions of extra dollars and it not appear to have made a difference?’’

As one wag tweeted: “Andrew Little should demand a meeting with the Minister of Health to inform him that he needs to do better.”

There has already been much debate about whether the alleged inefficiencies of the existing bureaucracy can be cured by the creation of another, centralised bureaucracy — especially as it will include co-commissioning bodies in the form of the Maori Health Authority and Health NZ that will work in partnership to deliver health care across New Zealand.

Within that debate, one of the most explosive issues is undoubtedly going to be the question of a right of veto.

Ardern obviously knows just how explosive it is. She repeatedly avoided answering Judith Collins directly when she asked in Parliament in May about the Māori Health Authority having a right of veto over the plans made by Health NZ. Instead, she fobbed off National’s leader by referring to the Treaty as a “partnership” that requires “agreement” between the partners.

Ardern explained the proposed set-up: “The government would set health priorities… Health New Zealand, alongside the Māori Health Authority, would then establish national health plans to ensure the delivery of those priorities. Without having that equal footing in approving the way those health plans would work, you essentially just maintain the status quo, which is the idea of consultation, and we are trying to move beyond that.”

Andrew Little didn’t deny that such an explicit power of veto would be integral to the new set-up either. He sidestepped the question too, saying only that under the “partnership model” there would have to be “agreement” — and that everyone in the health system would “want what was best for all New Zealanders”.

When the Prime Minister and the Health Minister go out of their way so obviously to avoid directly answering a question, it is a flashing sign they understand a truthful answer would be highly damaging.

In fact, Little has already indicated in a Cabinet minute on 13 April 2021 that the Māori Health Authority will indeed have the power of veto:

“My expectation is that the Māori Health Authority should have a co-lead role in relation to national planning and in designing the key operating mechanisms that the system will use. This would require the Māori Health Authority to jointly agree national plans and operational frameworks (e.g. the commissioning framework), with clear approval rights including an ability to exercise a veto in sign-off.”

Some commentators have claimed that what this clause means is that Maori will have a right of veto only with regard to national planning for Maori. But why would Ardern and Little repeatedly refuse to answer the question if that were the case?

It’s impossible not to conclude that they both know that a health authority representing roughly 16 per cent of the population having the right to nix the plans for the remaining 84 per cent is likely to create the mother of all political firestorms. No doubt they don’t want to face that particular conflagration before they are much closer to setting up the new system.

The other inflammatory question Little has avoided answering is roughly how much money the Māori Health Authority will be given.

The topic made the news briefly in May, with suggestions that funding should be at least proportionate to population — ie, around 16 per cent of the total health budget — although this was described by independent researcher and commentator Dr Rawiri Taonui as only a “starting point”.

And National Hauora Coalition chief executive Simon Royal described tying funding to population as a “fairly crude way” to calculate budgets, and warned against under-funding the new agency. “You would also need to create an adjustor that acknowledges that Māori health inequities would need considerably more than what is proportionate to our population.”

National Urban Māori Authority chair Lady Tureiti Moxon echoed that view, saying there was a “long way to go” in ensuring the Māori Health Authority was properly resourced to tackle the challenging task it faced.

Exactly how far that “long way to go” might extend can perhaps be gauged from the fact that Te Ao Māori News reported in April that Lady Moxon had filed a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal on behalf of the National Urban Māori Authority — backed by Dame Naida Glavish, Dame Tariana Turia, Dame Iritana Tawhiwhirangi and Merepeka Raukawa-Tait — for Maori to receive a 50-50 split of the welfare benefit budget.

Moxon told the news service: “The only way we can change the whole [welfare] system is by allowing Māori to take care of themselves and by sharing resources by splitting it 50-50.”

Little is still being coy about money. This week — in response to a report by independent analysts Sapere commissioned by complainants to the Waitangi Tribunal that found Māori healthcare is massively underfunded — he refused once again to say how much money the government was likely to invest in Maori health.

Pretty soon, however, Ardern and Little are going to have to front up and answer the hard questions directly.

When they do, they will be ardently hoping that Ardern’s dwindling stock of stardust will be sufficient to persuade voters that a Māori Health Authority with the right of veto over plans for the rest of the nation as well as a very large chunk of the health budget is a winning idea.


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.