Speculation is intensifying that she will stand aside before the next election. One commentator has suggested she will be gone by the end of the year – others say her departure will be early next year, before Parliament resumes. All agree on one point, though – that the Prime Minister’s high point was the 2020 election triumph, and that it has been all been downhill from there, so, why would she stick around for an election in 2023 that polls currently suggest she will lose?
However, there are also strong contrary arguments. While it is certainly true that the Prime Minister is appearing increasingly publicly detached from many of the announcements her government is making – compared to the heyday of the pandemic when she was on every television and radio broadcast – she has given little evidence that he is about to move on. But then, neither did John Key in 2016.
It could also be argued that the Prime Minister’s retreat from being the sole public focus of the government is because other Ministers – in particular, her long-standing and close colleagues, Robertson and Hipkins – are now sufficiently established personalities in the public mind to be credible voices for the government. Were the Prime Minister to stand aside, the leadership of the government would pass to one or other of those two.
What is clear is that if the Prime Minister is to stand down, it would need to be before March, at the latest, to allow a successor time to establish themselves and bring together a fresh team of Ministers to fight the election a few months later.
The reality, though, is that were the Prime Minister to stand down, whenever and for whatever reasons, the government would almost certainly be defeated at the next election. This is more to do with history, than any individual attributes of the Prime Minister.
New Zealanders like to feel that their Prime Minister is someone whom they effectively chose when they voted for their party at the previous election. In the last eighty years, only one Prime Minister – the great Peter Fraser in 1943 and 1946 – was re-elected after succeeding a Prime Minister during a term of office. Since then, all seven Prime Ministers (from Holyoake in 1957 through to English in 2017) who took over during a term did not survive the next election. Neither Robertson nor Hipkins is currently in the league of most of these former Prime Ministers, so there is no reason to suggest their fate would be any different were they take over before the next election.
While the historical implications of a Prime Minister standing down are strong, and all point in the same direction, the decision for most Prime Ministers about when to stand down has been an intensely personal one. Factors such as their ongoing personal commitment, continuing enthusiasm for an extraordinarily stressful job, and their personal energy levels weigh far more heavily than do the likely outcome of the next election or the potential lure of overseas appointments. To date, no Prime Minister has given up the role to take on an international appointment. (Helen Clark did become head of the United Nations Development Programme in 2009 – but that was after her defeat at the 2008 election.)
In any case, international vacancies are few and far between at present. For example, the term of the current United Nations Secretary-General does not expire until 2026 and that of the Commonwealth Secretary-General runs until 2024. In both cases, selection is through an exhaustive election process, and is certainly not by anointment. The notion floated by some that the Prime Minister already has her international parachute arranged is fanciful.
The Prime Minister has previously indicated she would leave politics if she were defeated. That would make sense – defeated Prime Ministers lurking on the backbenches, as Sir Robert Muldoon and Mike Moore did, are an unwelcome distraction for any government, but Ardern has never appeared that vengeful.
One way or another, the Prime Minister will soon have to make a call on her future. Will she decide to go in the next few months and leave office as a two-time election winner, but almost certainly consign her successor to defeat at the next election? Or will she stay to fight an election she seems at this stage likely to lose? Either way, she cannot afford to let speculation about her intentions fester and become an albatross around the government’s neck.
With the election clock ticking ever loudly, the distraction of an unwelcome by-election, and a government facing the toughest election in nearly two decades, the next few weeks look increasingly more intriguing. They seem set to decide the shape of our politics over the next year and beyond.
Peter Dunne, a retired Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister, who represented Labour and United Future for over 30 years, blogs here: honpfd.blogspot.com