From sizzle to fizzle? Labour creates sky-high expectations

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"Despite promises of a new dawn in Crown-Māori relations just two years ago, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's anticipated final visit to Waitangi has been marred by protesters preventing Ardern from making it to Waitangi at all. At the heart of the protesters' grievances is a sense of having been misled and betrayed by the Labour-led government, whose actions, in the protesters' eyes, haven't lived up to the rhetoric Ardern used on her first visit in 2018."

While imagining a possible Waitangi Day visit for Ardern going poorly in 2020 is purely a work of speculative fiction, it's not without precedent. In 2002 Helen Clark was widely hailed for a successful visit to Waitangi which received not dissimilar plaudits to Jacinda Ardern's just completed visit.

Clark had had a difficult relationship with Waitangi Day up to that point. Reduced to tears in 1998 and then refused permission to speak in 1999, Clark avoided Waitangi for the first two years of her Government. When she returned in 2002, the tone of reports was largely similar to what we've read over the past week. Clark's visit was seen as a turning point in Crown-Māori relations, and the beginning of a new, more productive relationship between Labour and Māori.

All that goodwill, all that talk of turning a corner in the relationship was gone by 2004. Off the back of the controversial foreshore and seabed proposals, Clark was abused and her group physically jostled by protesters. Despite a last minute decision to visit Waitangi in 2005, Labour would go on to lose four of the seven Māori electorate seats in the 2005 election.

Watching and reading the coverage of Jacinda Ardern's visit to Waitangi, I'm struck with the similarities between 2002 and 2018. Both Helen Clark being escorted by Titewhai Harawira and Jacinda Ardern's BBQ were touted as turning points.

The reality is though, for all the sizzling of the BBQ and the accompanying coverage of what was a fantastic PR event, Jacinda Ardern has set expectations for the relationship between the Crown and Māori at sky high levels. If the Labour-led Government fails to meet them, we could well see a re-run of 2004 in 2020.

In many respects the past week of Waitangi coverage highlights a bigger problem for the Government going forward. In the next 10 years the Government has promised to halve the rate of child poverty, build 100,000 houses, and (between the private sector and Government) plant 1 billion trees. They're all very ambitious targets, and other than the Government's families package, they're yet to make substantive progress on any of them.

Not that there's anything wrong with ambitious targets. It's good to see the Government continuing to challenge itself just as the previous National-led Government did with its Better Public Service targets. Even if Labour falls short on those targets, so long as it's not wildly short, they'll still be able to claim a measure of success.

The problem for Labour is that through all their hype and ambitious targets, they're creating an expectation that they're going to solve all of New Zealand's problems, even if they haven't specifically stated so. One of the best, and most subtle pieces of commentary on this was ventured by RNZ's and Pundit's Tim Watkin.

Newsroom's Tim Murphy also hit the nail on the head too, pointing out that much of the coverage had descended into gushing praise.

There's nothing wrong with people being excited about what was a very successful visit to Waitangi for Ardern's Government. The problem is that we've been here before, and there seems to have been little acknowledgement of the massive weight of expectation that the Government has created for itself, or the pitfalls, especially for the Crown-Māori relationship, if reality falls short of those expectations.

Part of the problem will also be that I can't think of when New Zealand last had a new Government that had stoked expectations and hype to such high levels. When John Key and National came to power in 2008 there were expectations, but they were always tempered by the reality that things were going to get worse before they got better, by virtue of the country being in the middle of one of our deepest and longest ever recessions since the Great Depression, and the Global Financial Crisis still raging. Even in 1999, with the 1998 recession and 1997 Asian Financial Crisis still fresh in people's minds, and the final term of the Fourth National Government being something of a political mess, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen carefully managed expectations throughout that first year until it was clear the economy was roaring back to life.

In that respect, the Government doesn't live up to those expectations, the moment Jacinda Ardern's BBQ ran out of bacon at Waitangi may end up being a metaphor for how this term is office is viewed - started off with plenty of sizzling, ended up just fizzling.