One Year On: Rating the government‘s performance

3:08 pm on 24 October 2018

A year ago to the day Labour and New Zealand First revealed the details of their coalition agreement and then-National leader Bill English was fronting up to his caucus for the first time after his party's fate was sealed by Winston Peters.

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters speak after signing the coalition agreement.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking after after signing their coalition agreement. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Two days later, in the pomp and ceremony of Government House, a bevy of new ministers was sworn in, many of whom had just served the good part of a decade on the opposition benches.

There were a few old hands in the line-up but most could barely believe their luck, after a general election transformed by Jacinda Ardern taking over as Labour leader.

But there was little time before reality hit in the form of the 100-day plan, an ambitious list of top priorities - a list drawn up in opposition which would quickly become a blueprint for the new government to plot its early course.

That was a chaotic time with a messy administrative transition and inexperienced ministers facing the challenge of getting legislation through the House on deadline, including a scramble to introduce a year's fee-free for some tertiary students and reversing National's tax cuts to implement the families package.

Underneath all of that were ministers and staff trying to figure out how to run the coalition government, and how to keep any disagreements under wraps.

Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens have settled into the arrangement, with the linchpin the relationship between Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters.

She trusted the New Zealand First leader to take over while she took time off for maternity leave, and when she returned the government remained in one piece.

You don't need to look past the significant wins for New Zealand First to see the influence it has within the government, most notably the multi-billion-dollar Provincial Growth Fund and major boost for spending in the Pacific.

But New Zealand First is also working hard to make sure it's not seen as a coalition doormat, pushing hard on controversial issues where there are differences with Labour, and outspoken attacks on business interests the rest of the government is actively trying to woo.

New Zealand First will be keenly aware of the fate of smaller parties in governing arrangements; it will make sure it's not only standing apart from Labour, but also seen to be a moderating influence some Labour policies that may rankle with its core support base.

The Greens also have plenty to keep them busy, in transport, waste minimisation and the Zero Carbon plan being driven by Climate Change Minister James Shaw.

But they have been a less assertive voice in the government, choosing to take a more collaborative approach. Their polling is stable for now, but they too will want to avoid getting swallowed up by Labour come next election. The Green caucus's support of the waka-jumping bill (or in their words swallowing a dead rat) caused outrage from within their own party, but the leadership insisted MPs were acting in good faith, in line with their agreement with Labour.

As for the prime minister, it has been a rocky few months; high profile overseas trips interspersed with a ministerial resignation then a sacking, and ongoing pressure in foreign affairs, in particular New Zealand's stance towards Russia.

But Ms Ardern has performed strongly overall, facing questions about her leadership along the way, but settling into the shoes of a prime minister and gaining credibility with voters.

Opting to stay out of the mudfight engulfing National at the moment will only help her brand.

There are some ministers obviously hitting their stride in key portfolios, but there are still many yet to be truly tested with dozens of policy reviews still underway.

Labour was taken by surprise when it found itself in power, and complex, gnarly issues such as abuse in state care and mental health in New Zealand are off the table, awaiting the completion of two inquiries. The whole education sector is potentially up for review, including NCEA, and major changes have been flagged in social welfare.

The government has also asked the Tax Working Group to basically come up with its tax policy for the election, that is shaping up to include some way of taxing capital gain, without calling it a capital gains tax.

The government has acted on fundamental differences it had with National: resuming payments to the New Zealand Super Fund, banning most foreign buyers from the residential market, cancelling tax cuts, starting a government building programme and putting a halt to most new permits for oil and gas.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson reported a healthy set of books to end off the financial year, but he still has a major challenge on his hands - to deliver the big ticket coalition manifesto, while saving enough for the "rainy days" - when Finance Ministers are most closely judged.

The government has so far not lived up the expectations of many in the public sector and social services; there's currently a great deal of industrial unrest driven by key quarters of traditional Labour support, including education, health and transport unions.

Pent up frustration after a decade under a National government, and disappointment they're not getting as much out of Labour as expected, has resulted in several ongoing and imminent strikes, with unions calling crisis in sectors like health and education.

Mr Robertson and colleagues are also keeping an uneasy eye on international developments, including trade tensions between China and the US, events far away but with the potential to have a negative impact on New Zealand's open economy.

The government's two main vulnerabilities are its economic management and a breakdown in coalition, or confidence and supply, arrangements.

The self-imposed budget responsibility rules are being used by the Cabinet to maintain fiscal discipline but business more generally fails to be convinced.

Within the coalition relationship there are times when New Zealand First has challenged the prime minister directly, most notably MP Shane Jones' comments about Air New Zealand and its head Chris Luxon, and it will continue to push the boundaries, that will become more intense as the 2020 election comes closer.

The test for Ms Ardern as prime minister is that she has to be the one seen to be holding the reins.

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