Timing is everything for Ardern & Labour

Jacinda Ardern and Labour have time on their side for a change. It may allow New Zealanders to think it's their 'turn', but only if they can avoid distractions like, oh, trans-Tasman squabbles

Timing is just so important in politics, as in so much of life. Plenty of able people don't have the luck – or planning – to be in the right place at the right time. But right now, timing may be Jacinda Ardern's greatest gift.

Ardern has been an MP for nearly a decade, and around parliament for longer than that. She seemed to genuinely be happy working her way, one day, to being a minister. The hope she might be Prime Minister seemed distant; only possible if she played the long game. Instead, Labour has been forced to gamble on her now and, unlike her predecessors, she has the good fortune of good timing.

Before her, Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliffe and Andrew Little have struggled with the weight of Opposition and each, in his way, has been found wanting. Timing has hurt them all.

After nine years out of power and with a popular Prime Minister at the helm, it was always going to be next to impossible for Goff to win. It would have needed a colossal error by National or a hugely unpopular Mother of all Budgets-like policy to have given Labour a shot at victory in 2011.

Labour then, arguably, got its leaders in the wrong order. The ABCs (Anyone But Cunliffe) rallied behind Shearer when it was too soon for him. Then, when Cunliffe's turn became inevitable – well, there were many reasons why he didn't win – but the damaged state the party and the clear divisions didn't help.

Little actually had the good fortune of a nearly three year run at an election. Plus, he had a party, if not quite united, then at least resigned to letting him have a decent crack. He just wasn't the right person for the times, and the time he had saw Labour stalled, or starting to slide backwards. Hence his resignation.

They all had to wrestle with a hugely popular Prime Minister in John Key and deal with the growth that typically comes after an economic crisis and natural disasters.

But Ardern has been handed the leadership just seven weeks from an election. That changes things and, frankly, is incredibly lucky for her. She comes in at an intense time when emotion, presentation and discipline under fire matter at least as much as policy and consistency.

It's short enough that 'the Jacinda Effect' might not have time to wear off. And short enough that there may not be time to truly test her abilities in the leaders' role. 

From my experience, there's some truth in both the praise and criticism that surrounds Ardern. She is likeable and genuinely cares about the issues she speaks to, is something of a policy wonk and has a good command of detail, but equally she hasn't made much of a public impact in any of what have been quite significant portfolios she has been given.

But that won't be the skill-set demanded over the next month and a half. Indeed, they may not be the skills that make for a strong and able Prime Minister anyway. But her failings or her strengths will get little exposure in the frenetic mood of a campaign. Many voters will decide on a feeling or a short-term impression. People like to vote for someone they like and who's liked by others.

In contrast, timing has been cruel to Bill English when it comes to leadership. First time round, he was asked to do too much, too soon, much like Shearer. This time, seamlessly handed the baton and set up to be a safe guardian in a 'better the bore you know' election, he suddenly finds himself facing a new generation leader. Suddenly, framed against a young and "relentlessly positive" opponent, he looks tired. Even the spaghetti pizza vibe has gone from 'Dad chic' to just a bit lame.

What that means for Labour is that Ardern may be able to ride one of the strongest currents in New Zealand politics. The idea that parties get turns in power.

It seems to run deep in the NZ electoral psyche. New Zealand voters don't like one side having too much time in power and, if the Opposition looks in reasonable shape, like share things around. Those parties – the fourth Labour and National governments aside – have tended to reward that way of thinking by listening pretty hard to their mandate and taking a relatively uncontroversial approach to government.

There's a reason why people talk of a nine-year rule and how hard it is to break. National is realising that anew.

But Labour needs to remember there's still time to fail, as Chris Hipkins has provided them with a great example of the cardinal sin its MPs must avoid at all costs.

Hipkins silly indulgence asking questions for a mate in the Australian parliament took attention off Ardern and forced her to look anything by "relentlessy positive" for a day or two. That doesn't help. It again makes Labour look like it's mucking around, not doing the grown-up work of getting ready to govern.

Labour's mantra for the next six weeks must be: "no mistakes, no distractions". Its MPs must find the discipline they have sometimes lacked in the past three terms. But, again, time is on their side. They only have to stay focused until September 23.