Fran O’Sullivan: Jacinda Ardern needs to convert spin into action

OPINION:

The Prime Minister’s personal brand has become so intertwined with crises – think the Christchurch terrorist attack which was again memorialised this week – that she has readily been able to capitalise on her exposure at the 1pm media conferences during this lengthy Covid-19 pandemic.

But Jacinda Ardern’s strength is also her weakness.

Ardern is not the ‘one trick pony’ that she is painted as by some in media.

She has considerable depth and raw political talent that surpasses most in the New Zealand Parliament. Those who have been ‘in the room’ with her know that Ardern is a quick study and like her early political mentor former prime minister Helen Clark she invests in mastering the detail.

If events had conspired so that New Zealand had been able to hold this year’s Apec Leaders Summit in person, Ardern’s qualities would have come to the fore – in public.

While she is buried in domesticity – appearing to manage every aspect of the Cabinet’s response to Covid-19 with an “abundance of caution”- traction is fast building in Indo-Pacific capitals and in Singapore to open for business this year as vaccination programmes are bedded down.

Is her caution well-placed?

The go-to expert on Covid, Professor Michael Baker warns that even forming a transtasman bubble comes with risks; that MIQ places will be opened up to people from other nations who may be more at risk of carrying the virus.

Another way of looking at it is to say it will open up MIQ places to those the business sector needs.

Other leaders, like Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, are facing those risks head-on and are exploring work arounds.

This week the ground shifted from under her.

She lost close to 25 per cent of her support as preferred prime minister in the One News Colmar Brunton poll this week; down 15 percentage points from her stellar showing of 58 per cent in last December’s poll to 43 per cent.

This is a major drop.

Labour itself was off just 4 percentage points to land at 49 per cent retaining commanding support against its political competitors.

Ardern has discernible gaps – think housing and child poverty where she still needs to convert her spin into action and where NewstalkZB’s Mike Hosking exposed a raw nerve by pulling her up when she had no answers.

She should find those answers and get back on that horse, in my opinion.

Ardern’s political brand has been built on empathy – “kindness” – and transparency.

Missteps during the latest lockdown, where she publicly reamed out a Covid-infected KFC worker for failing to self-isolate and took far too long to get the point with announcements on alert level changes, punctured that image of competency.

There is a growing perception that she strings out the Covid announcements to capitalise on the exposure she gains through the media conferences.

Like all perceptions, this is a hard one to counter.

But as other world leaders take further steps towards opening up their nations the PM’s very caution may cost her regional relevance.

This week the leaders of the “Quad” – US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison – launched what they said was an ambitious effort to help end Covid-19.

“Together, we pledge to expand and accelerate production in India of safe, accessible and effective vaccines,” they wrote in a joint article in the Washington Post.

The quartet pledged to partner up to ensure that vaccines are administered throughout the Indo-Pacific region into 2022, saying they would combine their scientific ingenuity, financing, formidable productive capacity and long history of global-health partnership to surge the supply of life-saving vaccines.

This would be in close collaboration with multilateral organisations including the World Health Organization and Covax Facility. The initiative was to be guided by a Quad Vaccine Experts Working Group bringing together the sharpest scientific leaders from Australia, India, Japan and the United States to meet the region’s pressing needs.

Crucially, Biden, Modi, Suga and Morrison added that although the pandemic prevented them from meeting in person they would do so before the end of 2021.

There was much more besides.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Llong said in a BBC interview that there was hope that many countries could have substantial proportions of their populations vaccinated by later this year. And that “we will be able to have the confidence and to have developed the systems to open up our international borders to travel safely again.”

Llong and Morrison are looking to establish a travel bubble between their two countries. It will possibly be in place by July.

There is now plenty of rhetoric coming from Australia suggesting New Zealand may just miss the bus.

If so, there will be many disappointed New Zealanders.

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