Jacinda Ardern addresses the United Nations Private Sector Forum, September 2019.
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Dr Bryce Edwards.

Labour held a very successful annual party conference in the weekend, projecting a strong degree of unity, progress, and positivity. And perhaps most importantly, it showed it was willing to deliver a major dose of spending where it will yield results, reiterating that this is a government focused on traditional Labour concerns.

This was all best conveyed by veteran political commentator Richard Harman, whose conference wrap-up title said it all: Labour finds its happy space. He begins like this: “For over 30 years the Labour Party could have only dreamed of the conference it has just held. Labour has finally found its happy space; devoid of factional rivalries; bitter personality feuds or fundamental challenges from the party activists to the Parliamentary wing. Delegates who were there for the fights of the 80s or even more recently the Cunliffe challenge in 2012, were left reminiscing about the bad old days.”

Yet, Harman also concludes his insightful column by pointing out that there’s not much about Labour’s latest big announcement for National to disagree with: “That maybe defines this weekend’s conference as much as anything else. This was not a conference that strayed very far from the political centre.”

Generally, the media coverage of the conference was very positive. For the best example of this, see Laura Walters’ article, which reports: “An invigorating, young energy was inescapable at the Labour Party annual conference” – see: Labour aims to balance the old and the new.

Walters draws attention to some of the changes of personnel in the party, which perhaps “signalled the party’s transition to a younger, more vibrant organisation”. She says “there was an unmistakable emphasis on the young” throughout the conference.

Although there was attention on new blood in the party – especially the election of the party president, Claire Szabó – some pointed to the party potentially still keeping too much power with the “old guard” and the Labour leader. Reporting from the weekend, Henry Cooke argued that Labour can still “can feel dominated by people who have done their time with the party”, and he pointed to some candidates for next year’s election who seem stale – see: Labour needs to be more than just Jacinda Ardern.

Cooke’s larger argument was that the party is now entirely reliant on the pulling power of their leader. He pointed to the conference programme to illustrate this: “The booklet for this weekend’s Labour Party conference features 13 separate photos of its leader, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, and none of any other MP. Grant Robertson gets in to one picture on the side, but only alongside his leader.  Leaders are always important to political parties, but the degree to which Ardern defines Labour is extreme. This is a party supposedly built on the backs of cooperation between workers and not a single person, no matter how strong their brand is.”

From “Let’s Do This” to “We’re Doing This”

The major focus of conference organisers was to attempt to dispel a sense the Labour-led Government was failing on its self-declared “Year of Delivery” slogan. The problem they were seeking to neutralise was described on Saturday by Jason Walls in his column: Spirits high ahead of Labour’s conference – but has the party been transformational enough?. In this, commentators discuss some of the “embarrassing” failures and lack of progress that might concern supporters of the party.

Such is the level of concern, “it is understood Labour are facing increasing pressure from it’s base to revamp its [Budget Responsibility Rules] altogether and scrap the debt and spending limits.”

Similarly, Herald political editor Audrey Young wrote in advance of the conference about growing disgruntlement within the party – see: Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party is less forgiving and patient (paywalled). But she wasn’t forecasting any major dissent at the weekend: “In the tightly choreographed conference programme there simply isn’t any opportunity for any public grumbling. But in the backrooms and side meetings, Ardern will be getting the strong message that the year of delivery has yet to be felt by some important elements of her party.”

Such dissatisfaction was also discussed by Thomas Coughlan in his pre-conference report, in which he suggests that “Labour’s ‘year of delivery’ is starting to look pretty ropey”. He compares John Key and Jacinda Ardern because they have both been inclined to “hoard political capital” instead of spending it on things they believe in – see: Jacinda Ardern heads to party conference ready to assert herself.

However, he felt the party’s popularity would mean discontent wasn’t likely to bubble up to the surface at the conference: “Ardern is winning wider political arguments and laying the groundwork for a long period in government. The sacrifices the party made in moving to the centre appear to have worked.”

Nonetheless, it was important for the party leadership to emphasise to supporters that the Government is making some serious progress on its agenda. Hence, the conference unveiled its new slogan: “We’re Doing This” – an update on the highly successful “Let’s Do This” from the election campaign.

Sexual assault allegations lead to a new party president

The other major negative that the party wanted to neutralise at the conference was the ongoing sexual assault allegations, which led to the resignation of the party president. Unsurprisingly, there was an enthusiasm for having a woman elected to the role of President, and Claire Szabó staved off a challenge from Labour’s Māori vice president and unionist Tane Phillips. Laura Walters reported: “Szabó ticked all the right boxes: her experience running a large organisation, her experience in Labour, and the fact she’s a woman” – see: Claire Szabó named new Labour Party president.

Szabó played down those identity issues in explaining her new position: “I think young women have played roles in the Labour Party traditionally, I don’t think that’s particularly new. The fact two young-ish women are playing leadership roles in the party is actually unremarkable… I think there’s plenty of precedent for two people of the same gender to play leadership roles in a party.”

For a backgrounder on the new president, see Audrey Young’s Claire Szabo elected new Labour Party president.

Szabó’s qualifications for navigating the party through the ongoing sexual assault allegation problems are emphasised by Henry Cooke and Collette Devlin in their opinion piece, Labour has a lot to clear up at its annual conference this weekend.

They report that the situation is the “elephant in the room” for the party, overshadowing everything else, as the official investigation into the matter continues. Cooke and Devlin argue: “Obviously having a woman – and a woman with serious experience outside of the party – would make sense as the party deals with the results of those reviews.”

The “nation-building” school spend-up

The big policy announcement of the weekend was designed to reassure supporters that this Government is still making progress on its “transformative” agenda. For months, critics have been scathing about Finance Minister Grant Robertson’s refusal to loosen the fiscal purse strings in order to deal with some of the problems in society such as infrastructure. See an earlier political roundup about the building pressure on the Government: Shouldn’t the Government be spending more?.

Robertson and Labour have shown they’re listening, committing to announcing both increased spending on infrastructure and on schools in particular. For the details of this, see Jason Walls’ Revealed: 2000 schools to get $400m bonus – what yours will get.

Not only is the Government making “the largest spend on school infrastructure in 25 years”, but it is also extending “the living wage to all non-teaching staff in schools, including cleaners, caretakers and grounds people.”

According to Audrey Young, such a policy will help the public forget about the rifts in the Labour Party, while being unlikely to get any real criticism from National: “If you were on the right of politics, you would complain that it is not targeted spending, that it is determined only by the number of pupils, not the condition the school is it. But is not one that you’d complain too hard about without sounding like Scrooge. She might not be delivering what everyone wants, but she is ending the year delivering the dosh” – see: PM Jacinda Ardern no longer feeling her way like some experimental PM (paywalled).

To get a sense of how favourably the policy will be received by struggling schools, see Tom Hunt’s article, Government funding boost for school like 40 fairs rolled into one. According to the principal of one Wellington school, the new funding would be “roughly 40 times what it made in a school fair. The money that would likely be spent re-cladding parts of the school before leaks started.”

RNZ’s political editor, Jane Patterson, says the school spend-up will be highly successful: “it’s a policy that will affect every community and families will be able to see tangible results, and in government terms relatively quickly, clearly a bonus as the party readies for next year” – see: Labour gears up for the 2020 election.

Furthermore, she says “it won’t do Labour’s relationship with the teaching sector any harm either”, and will allow the Government to argue it is part of their programme to “rebuild the nation” after National’s “nine years of neglect”.

There might still be some big questions about whether the Government has got the allocation model right for the schools. Although the total spend for the scheme might be calculated as about $700 per student, the funding is not actually being allocated on the basis of student numbers. Hence, it’s being pointed out that smaller schools are effectively getting much higher per-student funding than bigger schools.

For example, Henry Cooke and Collette Devlin point out that “Papanui Junction School near Turakina, which has a roll of 7, will receive the minimum of $50,000 – or $7,100 per student” – see: Government pumping $400m into school property, almost $700 per student.

Another Auckland principle says the funding model is mysterious, arguing there could be iniquitous allocations, for example: “The rollout’s just a little perplexing. You take a school like Avondale with 2700… they’ll be lucky to paint two or three blocks compared to a school of 580 which gets the same amount” – see RNZ’s Schools welcome maintenance funding boost, criticise allocation.

In terms of the bigger infrastructure spend – to be announced on 11 December – there is going to be plenty of disagreement about the best targets for funding. For an example of this, see Dan Satherley’s ‘Damn good idea’ to borrow, but money should go on roads – economist.

And there will be lots of other innovative ideas for where the money is best spent – see Alex Braae’s Credit cards out: Where all that infrastructure money should be spent.

Finally, the most colourful moment of the Labour Party’s conference in the weekend was the traditional story told by the party’s deputy leader about how “the coalition ending nine years of blue darkness”, and “preparing for the return of an election year taniwha”. You can read it in full here – see Kevin Davies’ The speech that delighted Labour.

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