Ardern: I need to prove myself
By Richard Harman (author)
Today’s farmer protest in Morrinsville is obviously carefully targeted at Labour Leader Jacinda Ardern who makes much of her roots in that Waikato town.
Yesterday at a packed rally in Hamilton she explained that she learned to drive a tractor on the family orchard there and immediately crashed it into two trees and her father.
But her Labour Party and its water tax policy has riled up the farming community big time. National has been only too happy to exploit that.
Hence the Morrinsville protest.
But the irony is that there is both more – and less – to Labour’s policy than meets the eye.
What may matter more, to use that hackneyed phrase from “The Castle”, is the vibe of the thing.
And the vibe is that Labour cares about water pollution.
Say that, and up go the farmer hackles.
But look at the policy; it would tax irrigators who make up around 2000 of Fonterra’s 13 or 14,000 farms.
It would do nothing to stop nitrate leaching from the remaining 10,000 plus dairy farms.
Maybe Labour thought the farmers would analyse it that way and conclude that it was more show than substance.
Instead, they saw it as the last straw in an increasing demonisation by city slickers of the rural community.
Ardern is in danger of pleasing nobody with the water tax policy.
She doesn’t agree.
“Everyone will need to play their part in fencing off our waterways and riparian planting,” she told POLITIK.
“But we also want to make sure there are support mechanisms in place to make sure that happens at a regional; council level as well.
"Yes there is a link (to the water tax) to how we fund that, but the requirements will be across the board."
In fact Labour would use the same tool as National, which is the National Freshwater Policy Standard, to impose nutrient limits on farms which is more or less where the Government’s policy is headed.
As so often happens in politics, what has happened with Labour’s water tax is that it is being seen by the rural community as an outward and visible sign of something much more substantial which can best be summed up by the phrase “generational change”.
Jacinda Ardern’s appeal is more than the fact that currently, she is Labour's youngest MP, but more that she ostentatiously represents a younger urban electorate who have a different set of goals and ambitions to their parents.
Over lunch, in a Hamilton café she and her partner, Clark Crayford, are interrupted by Jason Kerresin from the early 2000’s rock band, OpShop, who explains that he will be in Kenya on election day but is hoping to watch the election results live on the web.
Kerresin and Ardern are obviously well acquainted with each other.
In that sense, she is a polar opposite to Bill English.
It’s easy to dismiss her as simply that; the hip young woman who is one of the best political orators the Labour Party has thrown up since David Lange.
But her real issues are back-to-basics fundamental traditional Labour Party ones, particularly the fact that nearly 50% of the workforce are net tax recipients who receive more from the state than they pay.
"Unlike other countries, we haven't seen an increase in our productivity being shared fairly among the workforce," she said.
“That brings us back to the discussion we’ve been trying to have in this election which we haven’t got very far with because the Government continues to argue that the labour productivity is good; we would argue it’s not.
“We’ve been trying to have that discussion where the OECD is saying education is where you have to lift your game.
“We’ve got a set of policies that are designed to do that.”
And in her rally speech yesterday she highlighted Labour's proposal for three years free post-school training and a policy which brings big applause, the reinstatement of night schools.
“But those policies will not only help us with productivity but also with the future of work and the challenges around automation.
“We can’t predict what will happen but if we create an environment where we are continuing to educate and we think that will make a difference.”
This goes further though than lifting the education of workers so they can get into better-paid jobs.
The current economy is built on three big pillars; dairying, tourism and export education.
One of those industries --- tourism and its associated hospitality industry --- is largely a low-wage industry.
Dairying faces environmental limits, and Labour will restrict export education with its proposal to cut back immigration.
So where is the future?
"We've got to diversify, and that's good for our regions if we do.
“We don’t want to have fragile regional economies either.
“I grew up in a forestry town; I grew up in a dairy town; both of those have a place in New Zealand.
“But having diversity means that we are more resilient as well.”
There wouldn’t be a politician in Parliament from any party that would disagree with that; the challenge is how do you do it.
“We can create the environment; R and D tax credits, we think is one lever as well as sitting here and saying where are our strengths and where do they sit.
“Even in Dunedin, supporting a regional centre for excellence on digital, around gaming, acknowledging it’s a growth industry, good wages, it can remotely operate.
“Trying to support clusters of excellence like that around the country we think is the way to go.”
That still leaves the two big contours that this election campaign has opened up.
Clearly, there is a divide between urban and rural New Zealand, or at least urban Labour and rural New Zealand.
“I know that I need to prove that this isn’t a them and us; that this is about what we can achieve together.
“I know I need to prove that I understand and believe in the role that the dairy industry plays in New Zealand.
“I need to prove that. I get that.
“I can understand some of the agitation that might exist.
“It hasn’t helped that it has been stoked by our opponents.”
And the other big contour is generational.
Ardern herself ahs referred to this being a time for generational change. She is defensive about this and interrupts the question.
“I have described it as being about generational issues.
“I don’t think it is only one generation who has an interest in that.
“I’ve seen parents and grandparents as worried about the future for their kids as my generation is worried.
“I don’t think it is confined to one demographic.
“I do think everyone wants to see us keep improving the lot for the next generation coming through.
“So, again, I see that as a view we are united by rather than divided by.”
At the start of the campaign, National thought the electorate would quickly see through this rhetoric and demand policy detail.
Labour has pumped the detail out on a daily basis, but the audiences that flock to hear Ardern don't want to hear it.
They are there for her “relentless positivity"; her “yes we can” approach to politics.
It was the New York Governor, Mario Cuomo, who said politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose.
Ardern is certainly campaigning in poetry. What no one really knows is whether she can master the prose of Government.