Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with Grant Robertson and Carmel Sepuloni at the conbference

Labour’s conference over the weekend was one for the true believers.

It was not so much a conference as a three-day series of motivational sessions culminating in a ringing declaration from the Prime Minister to “bring it on”.

She was talking about the election, which virtually every one of the 450 delegates at the Manukau City Due Drop Events Centre was ready to concede looked like it was going to be nail-bitingly close.

Delegates were  endlessly reminded that what was at stake was Labour’s historic legacy. 

Over the last two years, the annual conferences have been on zoom.

The last time the party met in person was in Whanganui in 2019.

Memories of that led outgoing party president ClaIre Szabo to ruminate that it was the first time she spoke to the party in person and her second time, on Saturday morning, was her last.

She will be replaced by former Wellington deputy mayor Jill Day.

But Szabo’s rueful comment was a reminder, as if the delegates needed it, that three years is a long time in politics.

In 2019, it was on top of the world, heading with confidence into the 2020 election year.

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In the wake of Covid and an increasingly angry electorate, Labour is now seen as the underdog going into next year.

There was an unpleasant reminder of just how angry the electorate is with the large police cordon surrounding the conference venue.

Just down Great South Road, the conspiracy theorist Telegram stream, Counterspin, had parked a large advertising hoarding on a trailer.

POLITIK Labour’s Pasifika caucus line up for photos at the conference

But inside the Events Centre, the politics were local.

Labour had focussed the weekend on the Pasifika vote.

There are reasons why it needs to.

In 2005, the South Auckland vote came in late but got the Clark Government over the line with a margin of two seats over National.

The name of the political game in South Auckland is turnout. Voters either vote Labour or don’t vote at all.

Even in 2005,  the South Auckland turnout was comparatively low at around 73 per cent, but last election, that had slumped to 69 per cent.

And in a result that appears to have jerked Labour into action, its endorsed candidate, Efeso Collins,  recorded an exceptionally low turnout in South Auckland in the local body elections.

Labour’s most senior Pasifika Minister, Carmel Sepuloni, told Politik turnout was a real issue in South   Auckland.

“It is going to be important that we’re out on the ground making sure that our families are enrolled to vote and that they understand how to vote,” she said.

“All of our in are engaging with Pacific communities and. making sure that they feel like there is a reason to vote, and that’s certainly what our job is.”

The party has assigned the Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, to head the Pasifika strategy.

He told Politik that Pasifika young people would be critical; people he calls “the 6bs”; – people who are “brown, brainy beautiful, bicultural. bilingual, and bold.”

“They’re not only university educated, but they’re very confident in their own cultural means,” he said.

“So the combination of all of those things and leadership is still a  very important concept when it comes to the political arena.

“And they like the kind of leadership that Jacinda is displaying and demonstrating.

“ It’s not your traditional political leadership of old that the men displayed.

“This is a leadership where I’ve often said, yeah, give a man of fish and you feed himself, but give a woman a fish; she’ll feed the children and the parents and then probably share her portion with the neighbour’s kids.

“That’s the kind of leadership that Jacinda displays that our elders and our traditions really value.”

POLITIK Tone6 performing at the Labour Party conference

And to reinforce the Pasifika emphasis at the conference,  delegates were treated to a half-hour performance from South Auckland Pasifika teenagers, “Tone 6”, whose close harmonies and lively dancing had the delegates clapping along in unison.

For traditionalists, they were followed by an old-time tub-thumping speech from Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson. It was his second of the conference; both were lively and sounded like rehearsals for the campaign trail next year.

Delegates loved them, and he got rewarded with foot-stomping applause as he introduced Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as someone who had confidence and optimism “in spades”.

POLITIK Grant Robertson

On Saturday, Robertson had been more political. He listed recent Labour achievements; increasing the minimum wage, increasing benefits, the winter energy payment and the public transportation subsidy.

“I recently heard Christopher Luxon say the tax cuts were not the only way to support low and middle-income people,” he said.

“Well, congratulations on working that one out.

“But here’s the rub; every one of those initiatives that I’ve just mentioned was opposed by National.

“Every chance to support lifting wages and protect working people; they’ve opposed, and didn’t we see that when National opposed the Fair Pay agreements.”

Just as it has in Ardern’s Friday night speech listing Labour achievements, this drew thunderous applause.

Delegates didn’t need to look too far to see who might benefit from the agreements.

Along with the scores of police guarding the venue, there were also a large number of mostly Pasifika security personnel from local security companies.

Security guards are expected to be one the first groups to sign up for a Fair Pay Agreement.

The emphasis at the conference was heavily on things like the Fair Pay Agreements; on Labour’s achievements.

Wall posters, illuminated screens and pamphlets all listed over 100 accomplishments of five years of Labour-led and Labour governments.

Maybe the problem is that Ardern’s management of the mosque shootings, the White Island eruption, Covid and now the economic crisis have tended to overshadow the day-to-day achievements of the government.

In a subliminal sense, all the publicity seemed to be trying to say that there was more to the government than Ardern.

But it was also part of a conscious attempt to anchor the current Labour government within Labour’s past.

Labour loves its history, and it is always revealing at its conferences to see which of its former leaders are acknowledged.

The constant favourite is Savage and Ardern was keen to acknowledge him.

“Sitting directly behind my desk is a picture of Michael Joseph Savage,” she said.

“You could say he’s on my shoulder but also ever so slightly in my ear.”

Peter Fraser, the wartime Labour leader, was ignored, and she then jumped to Walter Nash, who “led Labour’s second government as it continued to build our nation’s social welfare system.”

Next was the pin-up leader of the conference, Norman Kirk. There was a photo exhibition to mark his time as Prime Minister and his government which she said had tilted the country towards a modern future with reforms of trade, health, the arts, and education.

“They worked hard to foster a renewed national identity and partnership with Maōri – all the while challenging global evils such as apartheid and nuclear testing.”

David Lange was briefly acknowledged for making New Zealand nuclear-free “while also righting the wrongs of the past by legalising homosexuality and fully abolishing the death penalty.”

There was, of course, no reference to floating the dollar, deregulating the financial markets,  GST, allowing T

reaty claims back to 1840,  the introduction of the Resource Management Act, the Reserve Bank Act or anything else that might loosely be connected with Roger Douglas.

The Clark Government was credited with  “improving the economic well-being of Kiwi families by setting up KiwiSaver, the Cullen superannuation fund, and Working for Families.”

“These were all Labour governments that, despite what came their way, never lost sight of the things that matter.,” she said.

“I believe the same can be said about us; we are a government that cares for our people.”

POLITIK Outgoing Labour Party President Claire Szabo

Outgoing party president Claire Szabo took the opposite tack to Ardern.

Her speech to the conference warned of the dangers of a National Government which would be likely to destroy the gains Labour had made.

“Next year, once again, it’s all at stake,” she said.

But she also offered a more sober warning about the nature of politics i

“The campaign next year is going to have some elements we’d rather not see,” she said.

“I’m talking about those things that increasingly creep into our politics as unwelcome guests, attacks, vandalism, harassment, unlawful behaviour, insidious trolling.

“Our candidates and volunteers will need to be ready to deal with a greater level of difficulty in this campaign than we are used to, and we’re used to quite a lot.”

Labour has established a Health, Safety, Welfare and Protection Committee, which is using a Red Cross-developed resource to train welfare officers to be placed in each electorate.

“This is how we will keep ourselves safe and watch whatever politics throws at us, possibly literally,” she said.

Labour knows next year will be tough.

Christopher Luxon is a far more formidable opponent than Judith Collins, and National’s campaign team, led by Joe de Joux and Chris Bishop, backed by copious amounts of money, will be very competitive.

The party organisation is looking back to 2005 as the last close election we had and trying to draw lessons from that.

And the first one is that they need South Auckland Pasifika to get out and vote.