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Anti-vaccine protesters occupy the grounds of Parliament House in Wellington. AAP

Mid-term pressures test Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government, but National must still find the new political centre

Whether or not recent (if limited) polling accurately reflects sympathy for the protest, the current spectacle in parliament’s grounds will be worrying Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government – not least for its suggestion the “team of five million” may be breaking up.

Opposition Leader Christopher Luxon certainly believes so, calling the occupation “emblematic of a deep-seated sense of frustration in New Zealand around where we are going with COVID”.

In truth, it’s difficult to assess just how far the frustration extends. It’s even harder to determine how much the protest has fuelled extremist narratives and damaged social cohesion.

To some extent, claims of social division can be attributed to media (social and traditional) breathlessness. Moreover, government ministers consistently point to high rates of vaccination as evidence the malcontents are just a small minority.

But no government wants its front lawn turned into an illegal campground, or see human excrement hurled at police while the media look on. The “optics” are just too hard to predict. Some will see the occupation as a PR win for Ardern. Others will interpret it as a loss of control.

Centre-left still ahead

For now, though, Ardern and her ministers continue to hang tough. They are roughly halfway through their second term in office, and voters can now confidently say the election is next year. New Zealand’s three-year parliamentary cycle means it feels a lot closer than it did just six weeks ago.

The prime minister’s poll ratings remain solid (if well down on the stratospheric heights of the pandemic’s early days). Her Labour government continues to outpace the National opposition. While the gap has closed, the centre-left bloc would still retain the government benches were an election held today.

Read more: The Wellington protest is testing police independence and public tolerance – are there lessons from Canada’s crackdown?

What explains these continued levels of support? Some of it, I suspect, reflects admiration for the relentless workload shouldered by ministers, and the prime minister’s composure in the face of the vitriol she is now having to contend with.

The plaudits, too, are for levels of government competence not always obvious in countries New Zealand likes to compare itself with, specifically its public health response and the country’s better-than-expected economic performance.

Testing times: Jacinda Ardern and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson on their way to a post-cabinet press conference, February 21. AAP

Inflation and housing

But things are about to become more challenging still. With Omicron infection rates beginning to lift off, there are concerns about the (already stretched) public health system’s capacity.

Inflation, too, is building up steam. A generation of mortgage holders (and renters) who have only ever known cheap credit are about to find out what rising interest rates really mean.

Read more: The pandemic exposes NZ’s supply chain vulnerability – be ready for more inflation in the year ahead

Ardern’s administrations are not wholly culpable for New Zealand’s housing crisis, which reaches much further back than 2017. But the government will inevitably cop the political blowback if the housing market falters and house prices fall appreciably.

If there is much for opposition parties to play for, however, they face a few challenges of their own. The principal question facing the National Party is whether a new leader is enough.

Christopher Luxon: the phrase ‘National’s new leader’ has run its course. AAP

Winning back the National vote

Christopher Luxon is only three months into the job and has improved the party’s polling, but he lags behind Ardern in the preferred prime minister stakes (to be expected given an incumbent’s bully pulpit).

While New Zealanders don’t directly elect their political chief executive, the numbers suggest Ardern remains a powerful political asset two years into the pandemic – vaccine mandates, passes and disputed traffic light systems notwithstanding.

Read more: Inflation is raising prices and reducing real wages – what should be done to support NZ’s low-income households?

The phrase “National’s new leader” has run its course. The party now needs to produce more compelling reasons for voters to support it.

Luxon also has to find some friends in the House. His one current ally, the Act Party, has been shedding some of the support it had peeled off towards the end of Judith Collins’ National Party leadership.

So, insofar as National’s improved polling reflects a recycling of support on the political right, to win the Treasury benches in 2023 it will also have to woo back some of the support Ardern attracted from National in 2020. Some of those people have come home, but not enough of them yet.

Will the centre hold?

Behind all of this churn lurks a bigger question: where is the centre of political gravity in Aotearoa New Zealand these days?

The pandemic has been a period of significantly greater government intervention in the economy – much (although certainly not all) of it to good effect. Core neoliberal shibboleths – big government is bad, free markets will solve distributional issues, individuals are responsible for their own circumstances – have been tested and arguably found wanting.

It seems unlikely the political centre is where National left it the last time the party was in office. Even assuming he can locate that centre, Luxon will need to tack towards it. Some of the old navigational tools may no longer work as well as they did.

Read more: The most challenging phase of the Omicron outbreak is yet to come, but New Zealand may be better prepared than other countries

National will try to reclaim the mantle of having the safest economic hands. But the party’s past internal ructions, as well as Labour’s relative success in guiding the economy through the pandemic, make that a tougher proposition now.

If by the time next year’s election arrives, vaccine passes, mandates and traffic light systems are things of the past, people will be looking to put the COVID years behind them. Labour will be the continuity party and National the party of change.

Chances are the outcome will swing on voters’ responses to an old question: am I better off with the devil I know or the one I don’t?

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