8 things at 8 am: How Ardern's election changes the landscape

Labour's new leader and her deputy face the cameras after a bloodless and competent leadership change. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we look at what yesterday's shock shift in New Zealand politics might mean going into the election.

1. The political landscape just changed

Well that escalated quickly.

Labour's leadership change yesterday appeared to come out of nowhere and be executed with an unusually small amount of blood and a large amount of competence.

The guillotine fell and the crowd cheered.

But a closer look reveals this personnel change at the top of the Labour Party and the potentially transformative effect on the political landscape has been building for months.

On the surface, just one bad poll result and an unusually frank answer to an obvious question seemed to be the catalyst.

The Labour leadership issue had been relatively quiet for months with few signs externally or internally of dissension and a push for a change. This was nothing like the long-drawn-out periods of destabilisation and contests that preceded the elections of David Cunliffe and Andrew Little to Labour's leadership.

But Sunday night's Colmar Brunton poll showing Labour's support had slumped three points to 24 percent and Andrew Little's revelation that he had discussed the leadership with his colleagues was more than enough to get the ball rolling.

Little had been here before. In September last year he dismissed a Colmar Brunton poll showing Labour at 26 percent as a 'rogue' and took the unusual step of releasing Labour's internal polling from UMR polling showing Labour at 30 percent.

But there was nowhere to hide this time.

Newshub's Reid Research poll on Monday night showed Labour had fallen to 24.1 percent and then UMR's polling showing Labour at 23 percent emerged. The icing was Reid Research's finding that Jacinda Ardern's support as preferred Prime Minister had clearly risen above that of her leader.

Little will have known the UMR result when he was asked by Corin Dann on Sunday if he had discussed the leadership. His frank response that he had was an acknowledgement that the questions would not stop. The Greens' pivot to the left has eroded Labour's support, while New Zealand First's success in grabbing votes in the centre has also undermined Labour.

However, a change was no sure thing until as recently as 8.30 yesterday morning. Little suggested he would put up a fight when he told RNZ from Wellington airport that he would not offer his resignation and did not expect a vote of no confidence.

But his hours were numbered when it became clear that a ticket of Ardern and Kelvin Davis had the numbers to win a vote if it was called in Labour's caucus meeting later in the morning.

Rather than risk a publicly damaging fight for the leadership, Little fell on his sword in the next hour or so. Ardern said she received a call to say Little would resign while in the cab on the way to Parliament from the airport.

All that remained was for a clean and decisive coronation of Ardern and for her to grab the moment and start the political honeymoon.

To emphasise the relative lack of blood, Little nominated Ardern for the leadership in the caucus meeting and she was voted in unapposed, along with her choice of deputy Kelvin Davis. Ardern's long-time close colleague and once a leadership candidate in his own right, Grant Robertson, nominated Davis to emphasise the bloodless nature of the change. At one time, Ardern had aspired to be Robertson's deputy leader.

2. A decisive and engaging start

Arden and Davis then held their news conference in the Legislative Council Chamber (the now defunct upper house in Parliament) shortly after midday.

It couldn't have gone any better as a coronation.

Ardern was decisive with her answers, clear with her message, optimistic with her tone and occasionally steely when she needed to be.

She was not afraid to embrace the obviously difficult questions and answered with a wit and a lightness of touch that Little rarely showed on camera.

"Everyone knows I have just accepted, with short notice, the worst job in politics," she said.

Asked how she would unite a potential coalition of the Greens and New Zealand First, she said: "I used the be the President of an international youth organisation that had members from Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. I think I can do this."

That lightness of touch was evident when asked about how she would handle Winston Peters -- a politician who is almost double her age and was elected to Parliament before she was born. Ardern just turned 37 and Peters is 72.

"I like single malts," she said when asked what she would say to him.

The reaction from the media and in vox pops in the big cities has been overwhelmingly positive. Her appeal to a younger and less politically engaged audience is clear, along with her own self-declared "relentless positivity."

She described herself as "not quite young myself, but youth-adjacent."

"We will be talking directly to a new generation of voters. But it won't just be about their own personal circumstances."

3. A tale of two performances

The reaction from the media and from voters in vox pops in the big cities has been overwhelmingly positive.

Newsroom's Co-Editor Tim Murphy contrasted two of Ardern's appearances under the media spotlight -- one three months ago at a Wintec lunch and yesterday's inaugural one as leader.

Tim paints a picture of a politician able to respond well under pressure and convince a sceptical audience with a mix of resilience, positivity and authenticity.

Tim's piece on Newsroom is a useful study of how Ardern might perform in the campaign and why National's caucus are more worried about an Ardern-led Labour than they were about a Little-led one.

Prime Minister Bill English acknowledged as much when talking to reporters in Parliament yesterday morning.

He said Labour was in disarray, but he cautioned against complacency among his supporters.

"The basic problem is not really the leadership it’s just that they don’t have a positive view about what New Zealand can achieve," English said.

"But we’ve got a lot of hard work to do, because they will select a new leader. The polls indicate that we still don’t have enough support to form a strong Government after the election, so it’s going to be a tough competition," he said.

Asked about the likely mood in the National caucus meeting, he said: "I think it will be a bit subdued. These are the consequences of making poor political judgments, not having policy, for the Labour party. It’s got to deal with those consequences, but there will be no complacency in our caucus because we don’t yet have the levels of support that we need to have to be an effective, positive sort of Government after this election."

The one common picture in the three sets of polls that dealt the fatal blow for Little yesterday was that they all gave a Labour-Green-New Zealand First combination the mathematical lead over National and its current partners.

4. So what will Jacinda do now?

One feature of yesterday's news conference was Ardern's repeated comments that she wanted to spend 72 hours thinking about Labour's policy positions going into the election campaign.

She had been asked whether she might change Little's preference for no capital gains tax and no extension of the age of eligibility for New Zealand Superannuation.

Newsroom's Sam Sachdeva and Shane Cowlishaw took a closer look yesterday at how Ardern might shift Labour's policy stances.

It was clear in an interview on RNZ this morning that she is prepared to take bold action.

"Now I have the chance to place my stamp on the leadership," she said.

Sam and Shane look at the various permutations of policy change, including whether Davis will be able to further tweak Labour's opposition to charter schools (which he favours) and a move to Maori prisons.

Another little-seen quirk of yesterday's reaction was an olive branch offered to Ardern by Maori Party Co-Leader Marama Fox. Little had described the Maori Party as the 'last cab off the rank' for Labour, but the change of personnel may make a combination more palatable for both.

See Sam and Shane's full analysis here on Newsroom Pro, where it was published first yesterday.

5. Numbers of the day

1.6 percent - QV reported this morning that nationwide house values rose 1.6 percent in the last three months to the end of July and were 6.4 percent higher than a year ago. This was the slowest annual growth rate since February 2015. Auckland values were flat over the last three months and up 5.3 percent from a year ago.

7,933 - There were 7,933 new property listings measured by Realestate.co.nz in July, which was a record low for July since this data series started in July.

6. Quotes of the day:

Andrew Little on his time as Labour Leader:

"In the end as leader you have to take responsibility, and I have and I do."

Jacinda Ardern on the likely style of the campaign:

"There will be nothing blancmange about this campaign."

Labour veteran Trevor Mallard compared Ardern's performance yesterday to the policy depth of Helen Clark and the wit of David Lange.

"I haven't seen that level of competence in a potential Prime Minister for a very long time. She is fiercely intelligent, very much like Helen Clark in that way, but I think she has also got the advantage of youth and vibe, and an ability to connect - probably better than Helen did before Helen was PM."

7. Coming up...

Reserve Bank Deputy Governor and Head of Financial Stability Grant Spencer will deliver a speech this morning titled “Banking Regulation: Where to from here?” It will be published this morning.

Statistics New Zealand is scheduled to publish June quarter Labour Force figures later this morning. They are expected to show 0.7 percent jobs growth in the quarter and a slight fall in unemployment to 4.8, along with continued modest wage growth.

8. Some fun things

Tweet of the day had to go to Helen Clark, who tweeted in response to Newsroom Co-Editor Tim Murphy citing comments from Matthew Hooton on RNZ's Nine to Noon that Clark and Michael Cullen were calling Labour MPs on behalf of Jacinda Ardern:

"Complete and utter rubbish as you surmised. Fake news in the real sense."

There were also plenty of Jacinda memes doing the rounds. This one merging Jacinda and Wonder Woman was fun, as was this one of Jacinda as Uma Thurman in a Quentin Tarantino movie which is also...er...provocative.

And finally, the reaction to David Seymour's following tweet: "To resign as party leader less than two months before an election requires enormous courage."

From Dave Armstrong: "Don't do it David."

From Popi Mokorarahi: "I believe in you, take the step mate."

Maxine Gay: "Be courageous David."

Eds: That's enough.