The weekend Labour conference saw the party rule a line under the last 30 or 40 years of its turbulent past and launch what in effect is a new Labour Party.
The new “progressive” party is very much the product of the leader, Jacinda Ardern with a new emphasis on pragmatism and the realities of MMP coalition government.
But in the process of getting there, Ardern has airbrushed out of the narrative the party’s recent Prime Ministers.
In her keynote speech, she stopped at Norman Kirk who died in 1974.
David Lange and Sir Geoffrey Palmer were not mentioned; that would have brought back to many horrific memories of the last time the party had a conference in Dunedin in 1988 and nearly ripped itself in two over Rogernomics.
But perhaps surprisingly there was no mention of Helen Clark.
There has, however, been some frustration from within the party over Clark’s willingness to frequently comment on everyday political issues and POLITIK understands this caused the party’s ruling Council to suggest its president, Nigel Haworth, go and have a word with her.
Apparently, he did. For now, she has pulled back.
But the concern over Clark goes deeper. There is a feeling that her government was too conservative and that it missed the opportunity to make more substantial changes to New Zealand.
In a way that adds urgency and teeth to what Ardern wants to achieve with her government.
The most eloquent outline to the conference of what that might be came not from her but from her deputy party leader, Kelvin Davis.
He said that the Labour party was in government to take care of people.
“As a government, we are not only changing policy and legislation,” he said.
“We are changing the way we see ourselves as a country.”
The same idea; that this was a government that was changing things ran through a speech from Finance Minister, Grant Robertson.
Next month the Treasury will release its first Living Standards Dashboard.
“This will show a range of indicators of our current wellbeing as a nation,” said Robertson.
“ It includes the tangible, like incomes and homeownership, but also the intangible like life satisfaction and cultural wellbeing.
“It is a work in progress.
“We need to make sure it is truly reflective of Aotearoa New Zealand, and all that makes us unique. It will evolve over the coming years.
“But it is a great start to a new way of thinking about what counts as success.”
Robertson said there would be five core priorities which would be unveiled in the Budget Policy statement in December
“These priorities will include sustainably growing and modernising our economy, lifting children’s well-being, and yes, we will finally be giving mental health the priority and focus that it deserves,” he said.
Though the priorities are not yet public, they are being used already to measure Ministers’ budget bids in the current round of Ministerial bi-lateral negotiation with Robertson over funding to be included in the next Budget.
One of the Government’s most influential Ministers, David Parker, originally from Dunedin, was MC for the first night of the conference.
He believes that Labour’s time has to have come if New Zealand is to avoid the kind of forces that have been unleashed by Trump in the United States.
In his day job as Trade Minister, he has to confront the protectionism of Trump and the nationalism of Brexit.
“What is it that is causing these unusual outcomes overseas?
“I am convinced it is the insecurity of the middle class and the huge riches that have been amassed around the world to the one per cent.”
“On the back of that there is an appetite in New Zealand which is a forward-looking movement, but it also harks back in a slightly nostalgic way to when things were a bit easier and fairer in New Zealand.
“As consequence, there is room for us as Government to do the things that that people understand are in their interests.
“The Labour Party is not being seen as telling people how they should live their lives but helping them live their lives as they would want to live them.”
From another point of view, the party’s former Chief Whip and then the Lange Government’s State Services Minister who was the architect of the 1988 state sector reforms, Stan Rodger, attending the conference as an observer in his hometown, saw a new unity in the party.
“There is nothing like the success of being in government and delivering things to encourage base membership, and there is huge enthusiasm here amongst the delegate because frankly 18 months ago there was no expectation that the Labour party would be in government.
“Now it is in government it is delivering things that the Labour party is terribly keen to see, like housing, social welfare enhancement and health and those things are really at the heart of the party.”
But the membership in the closed remit sessions indicated that it wanted to ensure the government stuck to a Labour agenda. There were calls for things like subsidies on women’s sanitary products, free dental care and for the Commerce Commission to investigate the supermarket duopoly.
That remit, from Dunedin South, was an example of how being in government changes things.
The electorate wanted a review of the supermarkets.
But the more politically sophisticated Wellington South electorate amended it to bring the new powers that Labour has given the Commerce Commission into play.
That remit crystallised the subtext of the conference; the need to adapt to being in government.
The time for protest and complaint has gone. Now party members must focus on positive solutions to problems.
But maybe the party membership is already there.
Members even elected to change the constitution to allow for a rural representative to go on to the ruling Council.
Even National don’t have that.
The president, Nigel Haworth, in his speech outlined how the party was calling for submissions from members as to how to restructure the party to make it “fit for purpose” in the MMP era.
“One thing we have been told very clearly by you is that members want a party organised to win elections,” he said.
For much of Labour’s past 30 or 40 years, a comment like that would have been regarded with deep suspicion by many in the party because “winning elections” was the mantra of the much-loathed right
The Rogernomes and the right have now all departed.
On the eve of the conference John and Josie Pagani, some of the last organisers of a right-wing faction within the party, held an alternative progressive politics meeting at a Wellington pub. They were not at the conference.
Their departure along with the departure back in the 90s of the left who went off to the Alliance and are now in the Greens has left Labour depleted in numbers but with a more ideologically cohesive party.
For the Prime Minister, government is a product of pragmatism.
“I’d like to think we have always been pragmatic,” she said at her media conference after her speech.
“You only get a chance to make change if you are in the position to govern so we have always been a party that has both an activist base that go out and knock on doors and campaign but with the purpose of having the chance to make change.”
In a way, that sentence sums the Ardern government up. It is determined to make change, but it understands the need for power which may, at times, temper its enthusiasm for reform.