Politics 2022: Good luck for the year ahead

3:55 pm on 28 January 2022

It's mid-term, a time when the Cabinet gets its act together, nails down the big projects and does its best to make sure there won't be any train wrecks in election year.

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Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Good luck with that. The government has started 2022 the way it didn't want to - striving to get a grip on a Covid-19 outbreak that's widely expected to be the worst yet.

In other countries, the highly transmissible Omicron variant has disrupted supply lines and severely strained health and hospital services. The government has a plan designed to avoid that happening here, and whether it succeeds or fails could have a significant impact on its chances of winning a third term in 2023.

The three-phase plan revealed on 26 January could be logistically troublesome, not least the supply, distribution and use of rapid antigen testing kits intended to provide Return to Work Testing so that key workers don't have to isolate for days waiting for results.

The worst-case scenarios are horrifying - RNZ has reported modelling which suggests the country could face a peak of 80,000 infections a day. That's right, 80,000 a day.

The outbreak would last three months and the projected deaths would total 400 by 1 May.

Although Omicron is generally considered to be less severe in terms of actual illness than its predecessor Delta, it's the sheer number of people it infects that could strain the hospital system.

Parliament doesn't sit until 8 February but already the government is being criticised for being too slow and for having to "scramble" to prepare for a variant that has been raging around the world for months.

There will be more of that in the weeks and months to come, and if the three-phase plan goes off the rails the government will be condemned for it.

With the exception of Judith Collins losing National's leadership and Christopher Luxon gaining it, the pandemic almost totally eclipsed the political landscape during 2021.

Debate on government projects that would otherwise have been really big news was stifled.

But those projects are still there, and the ministers in charge of them must get them on the road this year, and safely.

Reform of the health system, condensing 20 DHBs into four regional authorities with a new Māori Health Authority alongside, is a really huge task for Minister of Health Andrew Little.

National has said it's crazy to try to do it in the middle of a pandemic, and it won't let up on that.

Minister for Local Government Nanaia Mahuta has to manage turning over water control and infrastructure held by the councils to four regional entities.

When it was first announced last year, councils were told they could opt in or out. Enough of them said they would opt out to make it unworkable and Mahuta decided to legislate and force them in. The government denied it was a U-turn.

There were howls of protest and complaints about the destruction of democracy. Mahuta made conciliatory noises and the controversy lapsed during the summer break. It could easily reignite and probably will.

Then there's inflation, something that affects nearly everyone and for the government it's a blot on an economy that's doing well despite the pandemic.

On 27 January Stats NZ reported it had jumped to 5.9 percent, the highest level since June 1990. That was the year Jim Bolger became prime minister and Auckland hosted the Commonwealth Games, Stuff reminded us.

Ministers blame it on the pandemic and say the same thing is happening in numerous other countries. It is, but that won't placate the public when prices are rising significantly faster than wages and cost of living increases start to really bite.

A general grumpiness with life and pessimism about the future hurts governments and this year it could damage Labour.

"This will be the first time a lot of voters have ever experienced rising prices of this sort," said Stuff columnist Ben Thomas. "In a lot of cases voting is just a referendum on how positively people feel about their lives and their future."

It will almost certainly mean higher interest rates, making mortgages more expensive to service and harder to get. The Reserve Bank is due to next set the official cash rate on 24 February.

Opposition parties will blame the government, as they will blame if for whatever goes wrong with the pandemic plan, health reforms and Three Waters.

For National and ACT, seizing opportunities to hammer the government and putting up their own policy proposals during a mid-term year is just as important as getting it right is for Labour.

National is better placed to take advantage of this than is has been for some time. Luxon so far hasn't put a foot wrong, he's looked calm and confident, has avoided extreme rhetoric and appears to have a firm grip on his caucus.

This year could make or break him and it will probably make him. Jacinda Ardern could find herself up against a formidable foe for the first time since she became prime minister.

National's poll ratings improved after Luxon took over and the first TVNZ Kantor poll of the year showed the trend continuing.

The party had gained four points to 32 percent since November while Labour dropped one to 40 percent. Luxon's preferred prime minister rating jumped 13 points to 17 percent while Ardern dropped one point to 40 percent.

National's gain was mostly at ACT's expense, which dropped three points to 11 percent.

Labour would still be able to govern with the Greens, and the poll showed a situation that's returning to around normal for this time in the cycle although National still has to claw back support it lost during Collins' chaotic reign.

Whatever else happens in politics during the months ahead, the only issue that's going to really matter is how bad the Omicron outbreak will be and whether the government's plan is good enough to avoid the worst of it.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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