The Government’s last Cabinet for the year will be on Monday, not a moment too soon for its Ministers, who look and sound exhausted.
It’s not just them.
Opposition MPs also are talking about having a longer-than-usual break over the summer.
This has been a long political year.
It somehow seems like another age when Parliament’s front lawn was filled with protesters in their tents, but they only left in March, nine months ago. We only stopped wearing masks three months ago.
The past two and a half years have been some of the most abnormal in our country’s history, and many people just want to forget them.
Necessarily, huge restrictions were imposed on people’s individual freedoms.
But while the restrictions undoubtedly saved lives, they also appear to have provoked a massive wave of almost irrational anger directly personally at the Prime Minister. Support for Labour in the polls began to sag last year after the landslide 2020 victory, and that fall gathered steam during the long Auckland lockdown.
Perhaps it was over exposure from the daily press conferences which began the process.
Maybe the fact that the Prime Minister never visited Auckland during its three months lockdown was another.
Whatever, somewhere towards the end of last year, New Zealand’s love affair with Jacinda Ardern began to fade.
She was seen as the architect and imposer of all the restrictions which were frustrating people’s abilities to go about their daily lives.
There was an echo of that time this week with the Ombudsman’s critical report on how the Ministry of Business Innovation and Development had managed the allocation of spaces in Managed Isolation and Quarantine.
It was a damning report; he found that the Ministry could have designed a system that would have allowed decisions to be made not just with reason but with sympathy and honour and that “collectively, the omissions by MBIE failed to give sufficient emphasis to the consideration of individual circumstances and the need for prioritisation were unreasonable.”
MBIE’s response was revealing.
Instead of a simple acknowledgement and apology, we got yet another justification for the ends justifying the means.
“MIQ enabled almost 230,000 travellers to safely return home and cared for over 5,000 community cases,” their statement said.
“It was responsible for stopping more than 4,600 cases of COVID-19 at the border – at a time where just one case entering the community could have compromised our collective efforts to eliminate the virus.
“The decision to establish MIQ was one of the hardest parts of the pandemic, but it saved tens of thousands of lives.”
And — you can hear the grounded Kiwis mutter — traumatised many others.
It was that constant assertion from the epidemiologists, Ministry of health officials and the prime Minister herself that the restrictions were necessary that had begun to grate by the end of last year.
And that is when the polls began to fall.
But what amplified the fall were two other factors, one of which was the election of Christopher Luxon as National Leader was out of the Government’s control.
Luxon has brought order and organisation to National, but he has yet to master the nuance and language of politics. However, he has done sufficient to erode Ardern’s popularity.
But the more significant force undermining the Government has been its overload of far-reaching legislation.
This has been typified by the Three Waters debate.
The proposition was simple.
New Zealand Councils have neglected their three waters infrastructure to the point where water quality is dangerously unhealthy in some places while pipes burst and flood streets in others.
Credible engineering estimates put the repair bill at $185 billion.
But instead of articulating that, the Prime Minister emphasised how the reform proposals would mean cleaner, healthier water. That was true, but it was the reason to undertake reform, not the reason to undertake the specific reform the Government was proposing.
Much of the opposition was a proxy for other issues, particularly the co-governance proposal, but also, Councillors skillfully exploited the opposition in a bid to stop their councils from shrinking if they lost the right to manage water.
Even her own Cabinet colleagues will concede the Minister in charge of the reforms, Nanaia Mahuta, did little to sell them to the broad general public.
Ultimately it was a failure of political management.
Maybe the reason for that is that political management under the Ardern Government has become highly concentrated in her office.
If we believe Gaurav Sharma (and on this issue, there is no reason not to), Labour Party caucus meetings offer very few opportunities for substantial debate.
Instead, the “voice of experience” that a backbencher might be able to contribute is now largely replaced by polling and focus groups.
And that polling and focus group research is directed through the Prime Minister’s office.
It gives the PM a valuable trump card to play whenever a decision is being debated within the Cabinet inner circle.
But it may be at the expense of the practical feedback that backbench MPs can gather from their weekly electorate clinics and meetings of their party organisation.
There were MPs who would have warned about the political dangers of Three Waters.
There are other problems; the broadcasting merger was headed by two Ministers (Kirs Faafoi and Willie Jackson) who seemed to have little interest in it and it was managed by a Ministry with no experience in the area.
The Select Committee hearings were cursory. At one stage, it was proposed that TVNZ and RNZ each get 10 minutes. They managed to extend that to 15.
Ardern’s attempts to defend it were, like the Three Waters proposal, off the point.
She suggested that without it, TVNZ would struggle to be financially viable.
That may be true, but all media companies face challenging economic times.
A much more convincing case for the merger was put by the Koi Tu Institute for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland, who argued this was a way to build an organisation with the heft and reach to combat disinformation. the bill needs to be considered in relation to the declining trust in democracy, civil institutions, and the media.
“The bill needs to be considered in relation to the declining trust in democracy, civil institutions, and the media,” the Institute said in a submission on the merger legislation.
In some ways, the Government now faces something like the Clark Government’s “winter of discontent” from 2000 when business revolted over a series of Government reforms to workplace relations and employee leave entitlements.
Helen Clark and Michael Cullen dealt with that by withdrawing or modifying some of the contentious proposals.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson has now suggested that Ministers reprioritise initiatives within their portfolios.
That will be an opportunity to drop some of the more troublesome proposals like the merger.
The Clark Government, however, was able to be rescued by something that is unlikely to happen to the Ardern Government.
In 2001 the economy turned around.
Growth had bounced back to 3.5 per cent.
Few commentators expect that next year, even though the September quarter GDP figure yesterday surprised markets, coming in at 2 per cent.
That was because of a boost from tourism, but at the same time, household spending declined.
“The rebound in visitor arrivals should help a recovery in tourism and see the sector make a greater contribution to overall activity,” said a Kiwibank commentary yesterday.
“ A recovery in tourism, however, only delays an inevitable recession.
“With a weakening global economy and an exceptionally aggressive RBNZ, the outlook for Aotearoa is worsening.”
The Bank believes that the Reserve Bank will keep raising interest rates as it attempts t bring inflation under control.
The buoyant growth evident in tourism may only make that required even more.
Robertson has indicated he will look at applying a stimulus, perhaps in the housing market, around the middle of next year if the Reserve Banks engineered recession is too brutal.
The challenge is huge.
Labour’s lowest poll between 1999 and 2002 was around 43 per cent (there were two polls lower); it got 42 per cent on election night.
The latest Curia poll has Labour on just over 33 per cent. National was on 39.4 per cent. To hold on to power, Labour needs to reverse those figures, which means it needs to convince at least another 10 per cent of its total 2020 voters to stay loyal.
That is what will define next year’s politics.