Claire Trevett: Angry response to Prime Minister Jacinda Arderns Facebook post a crossroads moment

OPINION:

Just before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern headed off on her mid-year break a week ago, she did a Facebook Live that will have set the hearts of the Opposition aflutter.

It was on the evening of the massive farmers’ protests around the country.

Ardern did not front to those protests, nor did she speak to any media that day to give her reaction to them.

After seeing the scale of those protests, Ardern clearly decided against ignoring them totally. So Ardern opted to respond with a live video on Facebook at 6.30pm that night, a Friday night.

Ardern’s Facebook audience is her most adoring audience of all.

She has 2 million followers and 1.5 million “likes” – many overseas– and that gives her something of a defensive army when her opponents chip in.

Her videos and posts, almost without exception, are responded to by people clicking the heart or thumbs-up reactions.

Very few click the angry face.

This post was the exception.As soon as she started talking, the angry faces and comments started flowing.

It is by far her most watched and responded-to recent video. It had 670,000 views by Friday – and 19,000 comments.

There were 7500 angry faces among the 20,000 responses. They were matched by multiple angry comments – some irrational but many simply angry and questioning whether the Government was actually listening.

It was a Facebook post on Ardern’s response to Covid-19 that proved the beginning of the end for former National leader Simon Bridges – and if Ardern is not worried about the response to her Friday post she should be.

This post was not quite of the same scale, nor as broad a cross-section of people. But it could well mark a crossroads moment for Ardern. It shows there is a limit to her powers of persuasion.

It is the first real scratch in the Teflon that Covid-19 has coated Ardern with and showed her immunity to criticism has waned.

And that will set the Opposition hearts aflutter because they know other issues are mounting that could also imperil the Teflon.

That does not mean it will be easy.

An Ipsos survey released early this week showed just how thick that Teflon is on almost every issue: Labour was trusted to handle every single issue – including the economy – better than National.

National had a caucus meeting on Thursday, during which it discussed the “Demand the Debate” campaign. That has so far focused on hate speech, gangs and He Puapua, as well as the ute tax for good measure. They are all issues which Act is also litigating.

Collins appears to be overly focused on trying to put Act in its place and MPs are starting to realise that they have somehow got too caught up in that internecine skirmish and lost sight of the real target: the voters.

The Ipsos survey rattled some of the MPs – but also highlighted the issues which will be fertile ground.

They were perfectly obvious ones although somehow National has lost sight of the obvious.

They are housing, cost of living, health and education.

They are the same issues that have been vexing New Zealand voters since the beginning of time – the hip-pocket and everyday life issues that guide voters’ ballots more than any technical argument around the legal definition of “hate speech” will ever do.

Collins dismissed the results of that survey as unsurprising given National’s low overall polling, but also said that this far out from an election it did not mean too much.

On the latter, she is wrong: it is precisely the time an Opposition should be starting to erode the credibility of the Government on the issues that will dominate in an election year.

Those issues are increasingly clear as house prices continue to rise, inflation starts to bite, interest rates start inching up, and patience starts ebbing.

In the next month, Collins and her deputy Shane Reti will be calling each of her MPs in for their days of reckoning: the performance reviews.

A reshuffle will follow in September, if not earlier.

Collins has now had time to assess which of the new MPs are showing promise and which of the more seasoned MPs are not in positions that suit their skills.

Collins will always (justifiably) have a potential leadership challenge at the back of her mind and the temptation will be to reshuffle to shore up her own numbers.

Her priority now should not be securing loyal lieutenants, but getting into fighting formation for the 2023 election.

That means putting heavy hitters into those portfolios where the Government may start faltering, including finance and health.Reti might be good doctor, and even a good deputy leader. But in Opposition, a health spokesperson with an attack mode is needed.

The other issue is Covid-19.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week apologised for the vaccine rollout there being somewhat slower than he had hoped.

Australia’s rollout is pretty much the same pace as New Zealand’s – but New Zealanders are so far more accepting than Australians have been. When Ardern was asked if she too would apologise, she instead talked it up.

But the Government has been issuing a “ramping up” promise for months now – and people are finding they cannot get bookings for months in advance.

The next two months will be critical for the Government, which is still being given the benefit of the doubt.

After that Facebook post, Ardern took off on what was supposed to be a 10-day holiday (it was rudely interrupted by the decision to close the transtasman bubble on Friday).

That would have meant a 10-day gap before Ardern could be questioned on those farmer protests. She was presumably relying on them having faded into the annals of history by then.

Ardern has increasingly been taking a lower profile than in the past, often leaving it to ministers to announce major moves or to front when trouble comes up while she keeps out of the media.

That may be deliberate – a concern of over-exposure or attempt to steer the Prime Minister away from controversy. But it also borders on complacency.

When it comes to persuading people about the need for a tough measure, major reforms, or allaying concerns the Prime Minister is the one best placed to do it. Ardern does that with Covid-19, but not so much other issues.

In the first year of a parliamentary term, vacuums are affordable. There are still two years before the next election.

But a savvy Opposition knows full well a vacuum from the Government offers opportunities to a noisy Opposition.

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