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Leaders to set political scene

Opinion Piece

A long wait now begins in earnest for Bill English, starting with his first “state of the nation” address tomorrow as leader of the Opposition, while his successor Jacinda Ardern gives a major speech on child poverty — her first big set-piece address of the year.

For English it is all about establishing himself in a completely new role. The former long-time finance minister and then prime minister’s skills are steered more towards governance than Opposition, and he has an unenviable task given Ardern’s popularity — which was boosted further by her recent announcement that she is pregnant.

Opposing such a popular politician is awkward, as Labour knows from the difficulties it had for much of John Key’s time in power. English will not want to look like a Jeremiah, and in many ways his best tactic may be to wait.

National’s obvious hope will be that the relationship between the three parties making up the government begins to fracture. There are no signs of that yet, although there are some marked philosophical differences that will eventually come to the surface.

National will be frustrated by the fact that, so far, Ardern has not put a foot wrong. Her self-declared first 100 days deadline expires next Saturday and she has made a strong start on all the key planks she carried into the election.

Last week saw major developments with the announcement of a mental health inquiry, changes to labour laws — including the 90-day trial period — and progress on a revised TPP agreement, while tomorrow Ardern will release more details on her cornerstone child poverty policy.

Also this week she will turn her attention to Maori issues with a five-day visit to Waitangi focusing on housing, unemployment, Maori incarceration and child poverty.

The 13 Maori MPs in the caucus of this sixth Labour government are expected to be an influential bloc with an agenda that is, in part, their own. Ardern was a star at the Ratana anniversary last week and will want to build on that.

English has shown he has a cool head in a crisis and has demonstrated patience in the past. He will need it even more now.