Incumbency is the super power every politician craves, yet this oddly muted new Labour-led government doesn't seem to have figured out how to use it yet. This week's mini-Budget is now crucial if it wants to position itself as a truly transformational government
It's such a quiet and prosaic tranformation. An undistinguished revolution.
Labour's nigh-impossible election victor, with its ushering in of New Zealand's first post-baby boomer government and its distinctly loose three-way coalition agreement should still feel like a political earthquake, with the after-shocks still rattling the body politics. Yet – the occasional parliamentary embarrassment aside – it has rather quickly settled into a very work-a-day government. Which is odd, given the revolution it represents, and should be of no comfort to Ardern and Co.
That has been confirmed by the first post-election poll of polls from RNZ and the first Colmar Brunton poll from TVNZ. While the Colmar Brunton gave National an unusual post-election bounce for a losing team, the poll of polls (which includes a UMR and a Roy Morgan poll) has National down two points on election night and Labour up just over two.
Not surprisingly for a swing party that has to let down a chunk of its voters whichever way it goes, New Zealand First is down in all three polls.
Yet the mood I take from all three polls is a 'watch and wait' approach from New Zealanders. They reinforce the either/or result voters delivered in Election 17, which suggest a rather sanguine attitude to the two main parties. Voters are mostly relaxed about the government they've ended up with, but are far from convinced either.
Look back at the changes of government in my lifetime, and this sense of 'meh' is unusual. Muldoon stormed into power in 1975 on the backs of dancing cossacks and in a dramatic change of tone for the country. After three terms hunkered down under National, the 1984 revolution upended New Zealand like nothing since 1935.
The fourth Labour government survived two terms before imploding in 1990, ushering in Jim Bolger, his own crisis (the BNZ) and the Ruth Richardson era. After MMP's arrival, a coup and a torn and worn coalition government, Helen Clark powered into her three terms, only to be toppled as the world faced the worst global economic collapse since the Great Depression.
In other words, governments have typically changed in dramatic circumstances; yet this one kind of... slipped in. Maybe it was because John Key had already stood aside. Maybe Winston Peters as Goldilocks took just the right length of time to choose his coalition partner. Maybe it's just the lack of a singular crisis or economic threat. But the early days of this Labour-led government seem like, if not quite accidental then, an optional government.
Voters aren't inspired by the new or relieved to be free from the old. So it's just 'watch and wait'.
What many voters seem to be leaning on now is a faith in Jacinda Ardern. The power of incumbency has settled on her quickly and simply, as the Clmar Brunton has her pulling ahead of Bill English in the preferred Prime Minister stakes, 37 percent to 28.
Yet there's a big 'but' that comes with that.
That 37 percent is little more than John Key was on just before he pulled the plug after eight years in power. Look back around the 2008 and 2011 elections and you'll see Key over 50 percent. Ardern will know that voters are still getting to know her, so there's nothing to panic about in these numbers, but that has to change.
The greater concern though will be the party figures, where Labour is stuck in second even with the super power that is incumbency. I'm in no means questioning the government's legitimacy, but it's surely uncontroversial to say that incumbency should ensure a poll bump and if Labour stays in second over the medium term, it will raise questions about the party's staying power, not least from its coalition partners.
That's where Labour's front bench needs to get its act together, and quickly. If its first impression remains uninspiring – even clumsy, as National is trying to paint it – it could become a reputation that's hard to shake off. While it's acted effectively on Pike River, Tertiary education, paid parental leave and more, its failed to generate a sense of excitement or national pride.
The biggest buzz has been around regional development and tree planting, and that owes much to the showmanship of Shane Jones and his (mostly well-calibrated) barney with Ardern and Labour about 'work for the dole'.
That's why Thursday's mini-Budget is suddenly vital for this government and its attempts to capture the imagination of New Zealanders; especially those who didn't vote for it. This is the time to show some flair and razzmatazz, to maximise the headlines and paint policy in a light that hits people where they live.
This is the chance for Labour to use its incumbency to bring out the dancing elephants and really impress with a sense of – dare I say it – vision and heart.
In 1990, Ruth Richardson's mini-Budget set the tone for much of that decade. It was the essence of what she and her party stood for. It led to the Mother of all Budgets and much that Labour finds repulsive. Indeed, much of what this government is looking to try to undo.
But can they summon the same sense of commitment to their cause and the same zeal for a programme of generational change? Perhaps not for Grant Robertson a pastel tracksuit and some jogging, but he needs to come to sell a sense of mission.
That's what's needed to move the polls and light a fire under the new coalition. This mini-Budget needs to blow on the embers to get this government's boilers burning.