Jacindamania strikes again. On Saturday, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led her Labour Party to its greatest election victory in over 50 years, one that offers some clear lessons to politicians on this side of the Tasman.
First: keeping your citizens safe during a pandemic is a major vote winner. Immediately before COVID-19 struck, the NZ Labour Party led the National Party 42.5% to 37%. The election landslide saw Labour triumph 49% to 27%. In other words, the gap widened from 5.5% pre-COVID to a remarkable 22% by election day. That was despite the New Zealand economy contracting by a frightening 12% in the June quarter.
The determination of the premiers of Queensland and Western Australia to keep their borders shut shows that they recognise the huge electoral benefits of controlling the disease. President Donald Trump either never had that realisation or decided that it was all too hard in the land of the free.
The second lesson is that, in modern politics, nothing beats charisma and celebrity.
Jacinda Ardern is a political star of the first order, almost as well recognised internationally as she is at home. Known to her legion of fans as “St Jacinda” and “the anti-Trump” (and to her detractors as “Jaspinda”), Arden typifies modern presidential-style politics where the party leader is central to the party’s electoral prospects.
Ardern’s stratospheric personal popularity was crucial to Labour’s success. It swept all before it in the election campaign. Most significantly, it transcended mundane issues like policies. One can only sympathise with Ardern’s opponent Judith Collins.
Of course, it’s one thing to understand this lesson but quite another to follow it. Charismatic celebrities like Ardern are thin on the ground.
And what does a political party do if its leader isn’t a charismatic celebrity, or at least a popular and engaging individual with some kind of X-factor? Change the leader?
That’s where the third lesson from the land of the long white cloud comes in: changing leaders is fraught with danger. Judith Collins was the third leader of the National Party in less than six months. There were numerous rumours of division within the party and she has already identified the leaking of damaging internal party documents as a contributing factor in her loss. Disunity is death in party politics.
This lesson would not come as a surprise to either the ALP or the Coalition. However, given their proclivity for dispatching leaders, they could probably both do with another reminder.
The harsh reality is that it’s practically impossible to reconcile lessons two and three. If a party needs both to have a “star” leader and to avoid disunity, the only solution is to identify future stars early in their careers and to engineer their smooth flightpath to eventual leadership.
There are two problems with this. First, it is not always easy to identify future stars. (The attributes that have made Ardern a star were not obvious early in her career. She stood twice for the seat of Central Auckland and failed to win.) Secondly, party politics do not lend themselves to long-term leadership planning. They are far too random and messy, driven by self-serving ambition and factional interests.
The fourth lesson from the New Zealand election is that dramatic changes to the political landscape can occur very quickly. It was not that many years ago that the National Party’s John Key reigned supreme. If not charismatic in the traditional sense, he was nevertheless upbeat and exuded stability and competence. It’s been less than four years since Key’s departure, yet on Saturday his party barely won a quarter of the votes.
What do these lessons tell us about federal politics in Australia? In terms of leadership, neither Morrison nor Anthony Albanese have the communication skills or personal empathy of Ardern, let alone her international recognition. But Morrison has the benefit of incumbency. He’s in front of the nation constantly and has developed an easygoing confidence. Albanese has an unenviable task. There is little for an opposition leader to do during a national crisis.
In terms of party unity, the Liberal Party looks more stable than at any time since John Howard was in charge. The same cannot be said of its coalition with the Nationals. Meanwhile, the ALP appears susceptible to division on environmental issues.
The good news for Labor is that the next election is still at least a year away, and a year in politics is an eternity. All sorts of dangers lurk for the government, from a worse-than-expected economic downturn to a major deterioration in relations with China, from another outbreak of COVID-19 to another outbreak of Barnaby Joyce.