Ardern vs English: Is this the time of transformation?

2:31 pm on 22 August 2017

Analysis - The rise of Jacinda Ardern and the resignation of Peter Dunne show New Zealand's political scene is heading towards a generational change, writes Tim Watkin.

Bill English and Jacinda Ardern

Bill English and Jacinda Ardern don't just represent different parties, they're also an example of the generational divide. Photo: AFP

A stark difference has arisen between the two major parties in recent days - one doubling down on old ways and another bursting with new generation vibes. Peter Dunne's resignation reinforces the sense that generational change is coming.

But when? Is this it?

At some point this era of New Zealand politics will come to an end. The long chapter that began in 1984 and which has been dominated by baby boomers and neo-liberalism will be re-shaped by a new generation of thinking and voters. We will get a transformation election and a change of heart.

History would suggest that change will be led by a Labour government, as it was in 1984 and 1935. So is the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour Party the one to do it?

I know, calm down. It's always tempting to see the present as more significant to history than it really is. False dawns have come and gone under Helen Clark and John Key. And the election itself is still very much up in the air; the major parties both have reasons for confidence and the New Zealand First caucus is still more likely than not to decide this one.

Most observers too would struggle to compare the ability in this Labour line-up to those led by Michael Savage and David Lange. Indeed, United Future leader and former member of the fourth Labour government Peter Dunne has said as much, and you only have to look at the two debates on the weekend politics programmes to see that Labour is hardly sweeping its opponents aside.

Peter Dunne announces he will resign at the 2017 election after 33 years in parliament.

Peter Dunne was one of the last of his generation to still be in Parliament before this week's resignation. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

But it's Dunne's decision yesterday to walk away from politics that sends one of the strongest signals yet that the curtain is falling on his generation.

Trevor Mallard is the only other remaining MP from that '84 intake, and he's destined either for departure or the Speaker's chair. So Dunne's decision is bigger than him. In his statement announcing he would be standing down at the election, he described this period of politics as "volatile" and noted a mood for change. He seems to have sensed that mood is for a new generation of politics that is not for him.

The idea that this election could be a pivot point in our political history has been growing in my mind in recent days. Witnessing the resignation of three party leaders in four weeks is unprecedented. So is that coincidence or is it freighted with more meaning?

Are we about to enter the post-boomer era sooner than expected? Were Jim Bolger's comments that neo-liberalism had failed - on the very day that Key resigned - more symbolic of an end than I appreciated?

Again, I'm reluctant to jump to conclusions. We have a whole campaign to go. National still has support on the right direction/wrong direction measure and will play the uncertainty card hard.

But like Dunne, I reckon it suddenly feels like a volatile time. The economy is not unsound, no war drums are beating and the state of our union is strong. And yet, we are unsettled. Perhaps even restless.

The dominant characters of Clark and Key have gone (a movie and a knighthood has them dancing on the fringes, but a glimpse of them only serves to remind the electorate that we lack such a dominant figure at the moment). Opportunities abound. Risks are being taken. Change is coming.

This isn't change out of crisis, as in '35 and '84, but the sense of a new generation arriving is strong. It's worth noting that for the first time at this election, more millennials will be eligible to vote than boomers. At long last, those who have lived in the shadow of that generation have the chance to take control and change the government's priorities.

Jacinda Ardern on a visit to her hometown of Morrinsville. 10 August 2017.

Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Yes, the change is more incremental this time, which may mean voters see it as less urgent, if not less inevitable. Whether it plays out to fruition now or in three years, it seems Ardern, out of nowhere, will be the vehicle for this change. The Ardern years are coming, it's just a question of when we want them to start.

The sign is there in the pulling power of Ardern, sparking hour long queues outside the Auckland Town Hall for the party's campaign launch on Sunday, or - if Twitter is to believed - the equally long waits for selfies in Tauranga yesterday.

National's greatest challenge now is to somehow match the energy and sense of possibility engendered by the Jacinda Effect. Its strategists are making fair arguments - there has been little in the way of new policy since she was elected, while National is steadily unveiling its carefully crafted plans.

However inelegantly it was put, Gareth Morgan has a point when he says little of substance has changed from the Labour Party of a month ago - it just has a new face. (Although we can expect that to change on Thursday, once we see the Treasury's PREFU and we know how much an incoming government has to spend).

Bill English and co seem to be doggedly sticking to their game plan, as laid out over the summer. What else can they do, you may ask? Maybe it's wise to play to their strengths. Maybe it's all you can do with English in charge, given his own limitations on the energy and charisma front. But they look less than nimble in the face of what's becoming a very different campaign.

On our Caucus podcast last week, I said National was looking like the England rugby team, with English as Jonny Wilkinson - trying to keep it tight and grind out a victory. It seems ever more true after the weekend.

While National tried to drive one up the middle with an announcement of a whopping $10 billion on more roads, Ardern whooped up a fever at the Labour campaign launch and, in case you missed it, underlined the generational difference between her and English. She said climate change was her generation's nuclear-free issue - a brilliant comparison for the times.

Not only does it start to put some clothes on the Ardern doctrine (along with a promised commitment to honour that age-old Kiwi idea that we're 'a great place to raise kids'), it draws a line between her generation and do-better vision, and English's boiled cabbage pragmatism and long years of service.

Watching the news on Sunday night it was striking. There was English under a grey sky with a group of older folk, promising ever more roads (a symbol of the 20th century if ever there was one), while Ardern glowed on stage as around 2000 people cheered.

Then, she followed that up by committing at least to the first stage of what would be a game-changing (new generation?) of rail lines linking faster trains to Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.

Although the National Party strategists must be aware of the obvious risks, they don't seem to be willing or able to stop English heading off down the "strong and stable government" path so ineptly paved by Theresa May in Britain earlier this year.

It reeks of stale ale, yet it English is using the language repeatedly. It's authentic, but suddenly looks out of date and a little lame. It could end up looking like fear vs hope.

Bill English speaks after hearing Peter Dunne would step down after the election.

Bill English Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

If people like voting for a winner and feeling like they are part of something bigger than themselves, then it's hard to deny Labour has the momentum as the campaign proper gets under way. National needs a game-changer of its own; to throw it to the backs, you might say. Keeping it in the forwards looks unlikely to be enough now.

Yet five weeks of volatile campaigning and three big factors remain in its way. First, the PREFU this week, Steven Joyce's cunning and whatever promise/bribe/wedge issue National chooses to unveil. Will it be enough to turn the tide?

Second, the debates. English has thus far been schooled to attack the policy, not the person. But one-on-one on TV, it becomes personal. Can he win an argument without mansplaining? Can she look assured enough to those worried she may not have the experience and financial chops to run the country?

Third, and perhaps most vital of all, there's Winston Peters and New Zealand First. If Labour and National finish close, they will be the ones to decide who governs. Will the sense of transformation and generational change resonate with the 72 year-old. Peters has out-lasted even Dunne. Will he be willing and able to adapt if this is a transformation election? Or will he be tempted to give his generation one last whirl?

It may just be that the last dominant figure of the previous political era is the one to open the door to the next.

This article was originally published at pundit.co.nz. Tim Watkin is the co-host of RNZ's Caucus political podcast, with a new episode available every Thursday.

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