‘Needs to up her game’: Ardern’s other side
For a small nation on the far side of the world it must have been an extraordinary sight to behold.
In March last year, an image of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern - donning a headscarf and embracing a mourner in the wake of the Christchurch massacre - was beamed onto Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, her counterpart in the United Arab Emirates, praised her "sincere empathy and support that has won the respect of 1.5 billion Muslims".
Yet while she is the odds-on favourite to win this weekend's New Zealand election, analysts have said her image at home is more "complex" and, back home, she's broken a string of electoral promises.
One commentator has remarked the "virtual Ardern" the world sees is out of kilter with the real Ms Ardern.
It's a view of the superstar prime minister the world rarely hears about.
Political scientist at New Zealand's Massey University Richard Shaw rated her administration's performance on its policies as "modest, at best".
New Zealand today fell silent in honour of the mosque attacks' martyrs. Thank you PM @jacindaardern and New Zealand for your sincere empathy and support that has won the respect of 1.5 billion Muslims after the terrorist attack that shook the Muslim community around the world. pic.twitter.com/9LDvH0ybhD— HH Sheikh Mohammed (@HHShkMohd) March 22, 2019
LABOUR'S BIG POLICY PROBLEM
Kiwis head to the ballot box on Saturday with predictions Ms Ardern's Labour Party could be tantalising close to the 50 per cent of the vote needed to be able to govern without a coalition partner.
The Nationals, similar to Australia's Liberal Party, are trailing in the polls, but leader Judith Collins is hoping to cause an upset and form a government with the help of the libertarian ACT Party.
Indeed, up until the new year, National were leading in the polls. Victory was in sight. But that achievable goal has turned into almost a pipe dream for the opposition due to the pandemic.
The election, was which was delayed by a month due to an outbreak of COVID-19, has been - perhaps not surprisingly - dominated by the virus.
Labour's slogan is "let's keep moving" with the party's key message that it's "COVID-19 rebuild plan is underway".
What the party isn't focusing on its plan of action from the 2017 election, because large chunks of it either have fallen short, or haven't happened at all.
ONLY JACINDANISTAS ARE UNDER ANY ILLUSION
A central commitment was to lift 100,000 children out of poverty by 2020, with Ms Ardern making herself minister for child poverty reduction.
Yet the Government has barely managed a fifth of that figure and, embarrassingly, last month UNICEF put New Zealand close to the bottom of 33 developing countries ranked on the issue.
Then there was "Kiwibuild" fiasco, a plan to build 100,000 affordable homes. By late last year, just 258 had been built. The target has now been scrapped.
And what of Auckland's $5.5bn tram project? Plagued with delays and rumours of cost blowouts, it's another flagship project that has now gone into the long grass.
Professor Shaw told news.com.au the view of Ms Ardern within New Zealand was more "complex" than how she was perceived overseas.
"She gets credit for empathy, calmness and generally being a decent person, but no-one other than the hard core Jacindanistas are under any illusion that she needs to up the policy game."
He said there was "much to be done" on issues of public housing, income and wealth equality, child poverty, hospital waiting lists, house prices and rents.
However, part of the problem was the Government's own hubris and the ambitious targets it set itself.
There has been progress on child poverty, Prof Shaw said, but slower than what Labour hoped for; and they were doing better on public housing then the previous National-led Government.
The Government has some wins too. A wide-ranging climate bill garnered cross-party support; the country will take in more refugees and victims can take domestic violence leave.
LABOUR WERE SET TO LOSE
Labour has pushed back on suggestions its failed to live up to its promises. Ms Ardern questioned the findings of the UNICEF report and claimed more children were no out of poverty. While the Auckland tram debacle wasn't helped by Labour's coalition partner New Zealand First questioning whether it was worth building.
Nonetheless, the policy bungles were harming Labour and Ms Ardern.
Opinion polls from mid-2018 saw National within spitting distance of Labour; by late 2019 the opposition had pulled ahead in the popularity stakes.
And then the White Island volcano blew and COVID-19 happened - and Labour's polling soared.
Ms Ardern, who united the nation following the Christchurch slaughter, stepped up to the plate once more.
"Ardern's poise under pressure, calmness and ability not to rise to anything faintly resembling bait that has deeply resonated," Prof Shaw wrote on website The Conversation.
"As much as anything else, in times of crisis it has been her way with words that has registered: 'They are us', 'The team of five million,' are now part of the vernacular.
"The Prime Minister appeals less to conviction than to disposition. Her administration is being given credit for allowing us to be the little country that could."
The lack of big-ticket policy items in Labour's 2020 manifesto, in contrast to 2017, is striking.
"Mostly, it's 'you've trusted us this far, let us get on with the job,'" said Prof Shaw.
THE "VIRTUAL" ARDERN
In an opinion piece in The Australian on Thursday, political writer Greg Sheridan attacked what he saw as a lack of substance behind the hugs, selfies and warm words.
He said the "virtual Ardern" had almost "nothing to do with competent government administration and useful policies reliably delivered".
Even what could be seen as her impromptu signature policy of her first team - dealing with COVID-19 - Mr Sheridan was scathing of. He argued New Zealand's isolated position was part of the reason for fewer infections and the lockdown was "overkill" that led to far greater knock to the nation's economy than necessary.
Arguably, however, voters back Ms Ardern's pandemic plan and appear to have forgiven any perceived policy fails.
The latest TVNZ/Colmar Brunton poll, the most widely followed, has Labour on 46 per cent of the vote. That won't give it a majority, but if the Greens poll well it could be enough to secure Ms Ardern a second term.
But that's where her troubles could begin, said Prof Shaw.
Up to now Kiwis have been dazzled by their youthful, new mum PM lauded the world over, with the gift of the gab and, seemingly, a heart of gold.
If the economy doesn't recover quick enough, or they can't get on the property ladder, they may have buyer's remorse.
"If she governs alone, there won't be a New Zealand First or a Greens to shovel the blame onto," he said.
"On the other hand, if that's the case there won't be anything to hold her back, either. So, she may actually get some of this stuff done."
Originally published as 'Needs to up her game': Ardern's other side