Jacinda Ardern is losing support in NZ, but can the PM's international star power save her? – ABC News

Jacinda Ardern is losing support in NZ, but can the PM's international star power save her?
Jacinda Ardern is polling at her lowest level since becoming Prime Minister as cost-of-living pressures squeeze New Zealand households and the shine of her COVID-19 response wears off.
New Zealand's last election was at the end of 2020 when Ms Ardern and the Labour Party won a clear majority — something that had not happened since the country changed its voting system. 
That election was undoubtedly the "COVID election", but analysts say next year's vote will be about the economy and Ms Ardern now has a challenger who is positioning himself as "the business guy".
In the most recent 1News/Kantar poll, support for New Zealand's Labour government had dropped to 33 per cent, which is behind the opposition National Party, which is sitting on 37 per cent. 
One party that gained ground was the right-leaning ACT, which grew its support by 4 per cent. 
That is a significant change because in New Zealand governments are usually coalitions and, according to this poll, the National Party and ACT have enough support to form government. 
It is a huge shift from the last election when Labour won in a landslide, securing 50 per cent of the vote. 
"On current polling, the left block, so Labour and Greens, and the right block, [which is] National and ACT, are pretty close," University of Auckland political analyst Lara Greaves said. 
"It depends on the poll and depends on the day, so really our 2023 election is looking to be a very close election."
As always, polls are not perfect and some deflation of support for Labour could have always been expected.
The question now is whether Ms Ardern — a leader who enjoys immense popularity around the world — can do enough to stay in good favour at home.   
It might be surprising that a leader who has been invited to Harvard and onto late-night television in New York City could be losing ground, but Dr Greaves said New Zealanders had a different view. 
"I would definitely say there's a discrepancy between brand Ardern on the international stage and what New Zealanders think," she said. 
"We're proud of her being an international superstar … wherever Ardern goes next, I'm sure New Zealanders will be proud, but currently looking at the government landscape there are questions if she would be the best person to lead us after 2023."
When Labour retained office with a sweeping victory in 2020, analysts noted Ms Ardern had picked up National voters who were in favour of the "fortress New Zealand" COVID strategy and who were "rallying around the flag".
In that election, New Zealanders who had never before voted for Labour swung to support Ms Ardern.
But there was always a political risk in moving away from eliminating the virus. And now the electorate is facing new issues and looking at what progress the government has made on old ones.
"[The election in] 2020 was all about COVID [but] 2023 is not going to be … 2023 is going to be about the economy, it's going to be about inflation and it's going to be about inequality," Dr Greaves said.  
"In the case of Ardern, she's really staked a lot of her reputation on being anti-poverty and anti-inequality, and so it's really hard to have that moral authority in 2023 when you're standing on the debate stage and actually inequality has gotten worse.
"We know from various indicators that inequality got worse under COVID and that it's continuing to get worse."
Like every government, New Zealand's is now dealing with the fallout of the pandemic and surging inflation.
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand has been lifting the official cash rate since October, but at the last update inflation was still above 7 per cent. 
Wages are rising too, but not at the pace of inflation. 
"Over the last year to June 2022, the average Kiwi household is spending between $70 and $250 a week extra on just the essentials, so food, rent, power, fuel, and a mortgage if they have it instead of rent," chief economist from Infometrics Brad Olsen said. 
"At the same time, the average worker on the average wage, working a 40-hour week has earned an extra $92 a week before tax.
"People are definitely, in general, still having to pay out more than they are getting in their pay packet." 
New Zealand Minister for Housing and Minister for Energy and Resources Megan Woods told the ABC the government had taken steps to reduce the impact on households.    
"Earlier this year, we raised main benefit rates. We've introduced a cost-of-living payment for people earning less than $70,000 a year … we've taken 25 cents off the fuel excise duty to lower the cost of petrol because we know that was impacting people, and we've also made public transport half price," she said.  
Inflation might be a force Ms Ardern is unable to control, but Massey University professor of politics Richard Shaw said the cost of living would be "the single most compelling issue" impacting support for her.
"I think it's the thing that's really biting people," he said. 
"If she's no longer prime minister after next year's election, at this stage, I would think that virtually everybody in this country would say it's because of the cost-of-living pressures that people are under."
Until recently, the opposition in New Zealand appeared ineffective and plagued by infighting, but with Christopher Luxon at the helm, the National Party has been enjoying a period of relative stability and increasing support. 
"National has gone through a bit of a renewal," Dr Greaves said.
"National has framed inflation as the 'cost-of-living crisis' …so they've managed to frame it not as an issue that's about inequality, but an issue about economic management. 
"If Christopher Luxon manages to score points with the economics there and the crisis gets worse, I think that's a real risk for Labour."
Mr Luxon might be able to win points on economic messaging, but Dr Shaw said there was scepticism about his personal brand among New Zealand voters.
"There is a lot about the National Party that we just don't know at the moment," he said.
"There's nothing substantive in a policy stance that's come out and there are a few signs of concern." 
The Opposition Leader, who is a fundamentalist Catholic, suffered a drop in support in July when the US Supreme Court overturned the Roe v Wade decision and Mr Luxon reiterated his personal position on abortion, telling the New Zealand press: "I have a pro-life stance."
Mr Luxon, with his inexperience and limited recognition among the voting public, will be going up against someone with global star power and a strong track record of leading the country through events such as the Christchurch attack, the Whakaari White Island disaster and the pandemic. 
Despite the polls, analysts say Labour will not be "hitting the panic button" yet, knowing Ms Ardern is a formidable communicator and campaigner. 
The unprecedented result of the 2020 election was a signal New Zealanders were, at that point, happy with the Ardern government's management of the pandemic. 
And the low number of COVID-19 deaths and the speed at which the country's workforce has recovered are testament to the success of New Zealand's approach. 
But to achieve those results, the government brought in some of the strictest infection-control measures in the world, including effectively closing the border to New Zealand citizens, mask and vaccine mandates, and level four lockdowns. 
While a large portion of the population was happy to follow the rules for the greater good, Dr Shaw said that unity was now gone. 
"Everybody felt wonderful about being part of the team of 5 million and that is gone, that's completely gone. Now, the team is just shattered and fragmented," he said.
"And now the far-right faction of New Zealand's political and social spectrum is much more visible and much more open about their dislike for Prime Minister Ardern. 
"It seems as though there is a pocket of people who really hate her, like vehemently dislike her," Dr Greaves said.
"A lot of them are really into misinformation and disinformation."  
Dr Shaw said these forces could impact the election next year.
"That will be the thing, I think, that will mark next year's election campaign. It won't be a blowout, it'll be close, and it'll be really, really nasty," he said.   
New Zealand's next election is still about a year away. 
As is the custom, the Prime Minister will announce the date for the vote sometime at the start of next year. The word is another Kiwi custom means polling day will usually not coincide with an All Blacks game.
Looking at history, it would be highly unlikely for a two-term incumbent government to lose, but Dr Greaves said there was an interesting series of factors at play this time around. 
"In this case, given all those external forces, given inflation, given Labour's failings around housing, given all of their different failures, there is a potential argument there for National being able to take the government out from Labour," Dr Greaves said.  
At this point, the only safe prediction is that it will be very close.
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