Two images seem to sum this weird political year up.
One was a Facebook post on March 26, the first day of the Alert Level Four lockdown, when the Prime Minister, in an oversized jersey, sitting up in bed, metaphorically tucked the nation in.
“Evening, everyone,” she said.
“I thought I would jump online and just quickly check in with everyone.”
She asked her audience to excuse her casual attire, but “it can be a messy business putting toddlers to bed, so I am not in my work clothes.”
Big sister, Jacinda.
It was an acknowledgement of a unique bond she had forged with the electorate, in part through the tragedy of the Christchurch Mosque attack.
She would employ that trust and enhance it even more over the next seven weeks as the country sat at home seemingly transfixed by her 1.00 p.m. press conferences from the Beehive updating progress on the pandemic.
The Beehive conferences were a masterstroke.
Her Chief of Staff, Raj Nahna drew the inspiration for them from President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats which started in the depression and proceeded through World War Two, as informal radio speeches intended to comfort a nation during two crises.
And that is how hers worked out. An anxious nation watched for and got reassurance from “Big Sister” Jacinda.
Though National’s leader Simon Bridges attempted through his chairing of the Covid-19 Response Select Committee (which was also live-streamed) to raise questions about the Government’s response he couldn’t.
That wasn’t so much because there weren’t problems with the response; for example, the Auditor General’s report on the distribution of personal Protection Equipment is a damning indictment of the Ministry of Health; but ultimately Ardern’s daily “big sister in the Beehive” was an impossible act to trump.
But the power of the reassurance that Ardern delivered transcended everything.
And the electoral consequences of what she was doing in the Beehive produced the second iconic image of the year. That was the shots of Labour benches at the opening of Parliament.
The immediate standout was how many MPs the party now has.
Labour ended up with 65′ 19 more than it won in 2017.
But a closer look at the 2020 Labour caucus shows another, possibly more powerful image, just who their MPs are.
Labour now has 15 Maori MPs; 9 Pasifika and five Asian. Contrast this with National with two Maori MPs and one Asian.
What is even more notable is who Labour’s new MPs are. Most have, as Ardern likes to say, a “solid grounding in their communities” and many are professionals; some with outstanding CVs such as Whangarei MP Emily Henderson who has a Cambridge Ph D in law or Kapiti or Mana MP, Samoan New Zealander, mother of eight and tax lawyer, Barbara Edmonds.
The new Labour MPs brought new voices to their maiden speeches as they told their own personal stories of how they got to Parliament.
Common among them were stories of immigrant parents who struggled in low paid jobs but who were able to give their children a better life and education through the welfare state benefits that successive Labour Governments had provided.
They differ from earlier Labour MPs. They have not come to Wellington intent on demolishing the state and the structures around it. You are now more likely to hear that from the Greens.
Instead they seem to have brought the kind of politics Barrack Obama brought to the United States when he became President in 2008; a politics of change and hope.
They are products of the Ardern era; accomplished, diverse, representatives from a New Zealand which has moved a long way from the white middle class provincial base that has dominated New Zealand politics for so long.
It is thus between the two images, the Beehive Theatrette and the new Parliament’s debating Chamber, that Jacinda Ardern sits comfortably with her own brand of cautious progressivism.
That caution is obviously visible.
She talks continually about the need for policy to be sustainable and to be able to survive a change of Government.
Within her Cabinet she is known as being exceptionally cautious.
At the Agriculture Summit three weeks ago she invited farmer critics of the Government’s freshwater reforms to bring their complaints to her.
That invitation appeared to sideline Environment Minister David Parker who has pressed for change on freshwater and alienated many farmers in the process.
Certainly farmers saw that as an indication that she was on their side and was not a radical idealist which they believe Parker to be.
But nothing Ardern does nor her acsent to the omnipotent position she now has has happened by accident.
Behind her is a massive Labour Party machine.
Labour employed an extensive polling and focus group effort right from the beginning of the year to underpin their election campaign messaging.
They not only knew what their voters wanted, but they were able to extrapolate and work out what their rivals, National and ACT might be hearing from their focus groups.
(Though, as it turned out, National may have been hearing a bit less than Labour imagined because their money was tight and their campaign resources were stretched.)
But all of this has left the Ardern Labour Party with a very certain knowledge of where the centre is in New Zealand politics.
Ardern has made it clear she wants to hang on to that centre and to turn Labour into the natural party of Government.
To do that, she might look at Sir Keith Holyoake who in 1960 defeated the Nash Labour Government and ushered in 12 years of National rule.
His caucus with a number of younger World War Two veterans — like Sir Robert Muldoon, Duncan McIntyre and Peter Gordon — were impatient to modernise New Zealand stood in stark contrast to Labour’s elderly leadership who had begun their political careers in the depression.
Ardern’s new caucus has similar epoch changing potential.
And just as Holyoake faced a Labour Party stuck in the past so she faces a National Party unable to move on from 2017.
National is lost. Many of its MPs, and it would seem, party members, are still in denial either about the 2017 loss or now the belief that Covid cheated them of power this year.
There are already grumbles from within the caucus about Judith Collins’ leadership, and some powerful voices both from within the caucus and also outside (John Key?) are arguing that it is only a matter of time before Christopher Luxon takes the leadership.
But more immediately, Ardern is going to have to navigate some challenging policy choices next year.
The Half Yearly Economic and Fiscal Update makes it clear that from now the recovery will be positive but it will be slow.
The real GDP per head growth to 2024 will be only 3.3 per cent. The government will face 18 months of tension over unemployment figures which are expected to peak at 6.8 per cent in the year ended June 30, 2022,
Externally, it is still unclear how New Zealand will manage to maintain its economic relationship with China s as it comes under increased pressure from the Biden administration and governments in East Asia such as Australia and Japan to support a stronger united front against Chinese human rights abuses and activity in the South China Sea.
Internally Ardern will have to navigate the development next year of the National Climate Change Adaptation Plan (NAP) which will follow on from the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations for carbon budgets.
Inevitably the NAP will impose additional costs on some sections of the community. But who?
There will be fractious debates with some local communities who stand to see their District Health Board, or Council water provider or planning office merged into larger entities under the various proposals for reform of the health sector, the Resource Management Act and three waters infrastructure.
And the Government will need to watch the opening up of the borders carefully. If the “big borders” to North America and Europe are not starting to open by this time next year, will that start to breed impatience on the part of Kiwis who will have been stuck at home for two years.
At the top of the challenge list, though, will be housing, which both Ardern and Grant Robertson insist will be dealt with in a package early in the new year which will address both supply and demand issues.
But on the positive side, Labour’s new caucus gives the party a much better shot at reflecting the “real” New Zealand.
There may be some tensions with the Maori MPs who must be feeling a bit of a hurry-up for the strongly nationalistic Maori Party.
Labour will need to proceed carefully over water allocation because of this.
But despite that, Labour looks like representing the kind of people we saw mob the Prime Minister during the election campaign in places the Base Mall in Hamilton; younger and more ethnically diverse. That is where middle New Zealand now lives.
Couple that with the huge quantity of political capital, the Prime Minister earned from the Beehive Theatrette stage and the chances are high that Labour could end next year still well ahead in the polls.