The Front Page: Five years later, have Labor and Jacinda Ardern lost their stardust?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern faces a tough challenge to be re-elected next year. Photo/NZME

On October 19, 2017, New Zealand’s first leader Winston Peter pledged his support to the New Zealand Labor Party, making Jacinda Ardern the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Given the dire straits Labor found itself in before then, few would have expected the young Morrinsville politician to rise to the occasion.

To borrow from former national leader Bill English, Ardern was stardust.

His five years at the helm were among the most tumultuous that a Prime Minister has ever known. The pandemic, two terrorist attacks and a volcanic eruption are just some of the challenges she has faced.

His efficiency in responding with the hand dealt to him saw Labor achieve an unprecedented 61 seats in the last general election.

Since then, Labor’s fortunes have shown signs of reversal, with the latest polls showing the party in its mid-1930s.

So how much stardust does Ardern have left? And will that be enough to get Labor across the line in 2023?

Jason Walls, Newstalk ZB’s deputy political editor, has followed Ardern’s rise from the press box since winning in 2017.

“She was incredibly popular,” Walls told the Front Page podcast.

“During Covid-19, his preferred Prime Minister rating was up in the 60s, reaching almost 70% in some polls. It was absolutely stratospheric. We haven’t seen anything like that. Even John Key hasn’t reached these levels of popularity.”

Though she’s come down to earth, Walls says her favorite prime minister rating is still pretty high in the 1930s.

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“Its popularity is still inextricably linked to Labor. However, as it starts to become less popular – and we’ve seen it go down a bit and Christopher Luxon start to go up a bit – that will start to impact Labor too.”

Walls argues Labor cannot win the next election solely on Ardern’s popularity and Covid track record.

“They’re going to have to come up with policies that are consistent and substantial enough to get Labour’s votes back.”

Contributing to Labor’s recent struggles is the fact that some of its policies have not resonated with the public as well as they should have.

No recent policy has proven more divisive than Three Waters, which faced opposition across the country and gave talking points to opposition politicians seeking to capitalize on frustrated New Zealanders.

“You can’t quite fathom how controversial Three Waters has been,” Walls says.

“The divisive nature on the co-governance side has been an opportunity for the opposition…Three Waters is something the government needs to look at to see if it’s worth losing the election. If they cut it, they may have more opportunities in the 2023 election than if they go ahead.”

When you combine the Three Waters issue with the cost of living crisis and the frustration that many New Zealanders have felt over the pandemic response, the upcoming election is starting to look pretty tough for Labour.

• The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every day of the week from 5am.

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