Claire Trevett: Labour conference tonic for Ardern, but Covid still gatecrashes the party


After a torrid week being shouted down by anti-vax protesters, dealing with Covid-19 cases popping up in unexpected places and the strain of Auckland’s lockdown, a bit of time in front of the Labour home fires was possibly the tonic Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern needed.

The annual conference was far from the usual party conference for her.

It was the first since she secured a historic win: a majority government.

But there was none of the dramatic staging, no walk-on music, no booming standing ovation or hoopla or gossiping over the savouries.

Instead, the party faithful were in their homes watching on computer screens as Ardern sat in her Allbirds slippers (she calls them shoes) in a small room in Labour’s headquarters in Wellington.

The timing of her speech meant it was inevitable Covid-19 would gatecrash it.

Just before Ardern started talking, the daily update landed with news of a new record number of cases – topping the 200 mark for the first time.

Ardern was asked about that straight after her speech.

But it did at least give her a chance to talk about something other than Covid-19 – and having it all online meant there were no protesters to contend with.

The policy announcement of the day was an underwhelming boost to Working for Families entitlements and the weekly Best Start payment for parents of newborn babies.

Most of that was simply inflation adjustment for the past four years – and it was quickly called out as such by poverty advocacy groups.

The Government is adding an extra $5 a week on top of that inflation adjustment – and that top-up will cost $272 million over four years.

That is small change compared to the $5.3 billion that has gone into business support and wage subsidies during the three months of the Delta outbreak.

It will not be a game changer for child poverty. But it was at least something – a nod toward recognising the impact the rising cost of living is having on those on lower incomes.

It was also something very Labour and a reminder of the policy issue central to Ardern’s manifesto in the pre-Covid days: child poverty.

Ardern’s speech did of course address Covid-19. She told party members that the response was also underpinned by Labour values.

“We will protect our health system. We will keep adapting and evolving but we will always first and foremost protect lives and livelihoods.

“That is the measure of good government. And it’s a measure of a Labour Government.”

She also delivered a checklist of progress against other policy areas – from home insulation to conservation and climate change.

The party also got on with its own business – voting on the means by which Ardern will one day be replaced.

The party members passed a new rule to allow the Labour Party caucus to elect a new leader if an MP had the support of more than two thirds of that caucus. That would mean the wider electoral college vote of party members and affiliated unions was not needed.

It is designed in case Ardern decides to leave while still Prime Minister: to allow a speedy handover to another leader (yes, Grant Robertson, although he was less than keen to talk about what the change in rules might mean).

Nor was there any indication the new rules would come into play anytime soon. Earlier in the day, Ardern had told Newshub Nation she still considered the job to be the greatest privilege of her life – no matter what it threw at her.

“I’m not stopping. I need to carry us through, it’s my job.”

It will be straight back to Covid-19 duties for the PM, who on Monday must decide whether to go ahead with the decision to let Auckland move to level 3 step 2 and open retail outlets. She also has to come up with a way to deliver on her now firm promise that Aucklanders will be allowed out of the city for summer – something she said was “a bottom line”.,

For the foreseeable future, Covid-19 will remain by far the most prominent issue on the Prime Minister’s books. But for an hour or two at least, she got to be just the Labour leader again.

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