Ardern's Labour battling the airwaves

·5-min read

On August 1, a little known anniversary passed by Jacinda Ardern, as it did much of New Zealand.

It was five years to the day since Ms Ardern became Labour leader, sparking 'Jacindamania' and her blink-and-you'll-miss-it rise to become prime minister.

The landmark did not go unnoticed by Newstalk ZB - New Zealand's top-rating radio station - however, where its biggest star, Mike Hosking, had plenty to say about Ms Ardern's political future.

"Her best days are behind her ... it's all downhill from here," he said. "And the downhill part is already well underway.

"She faces a very rough ride between now and next year to try and resurrect her chances.

"I don't think she can do it. Labour are toast.

"I doubt she will be rolled ... but I wouldn't rule out her walking away. She looks increasingly tired and out of ideas.

"That will be the story of her prime ministership: thrust into office and initially adored ... the love affair has ended and we have seen the rise of the anger and frustration.

"She will see the sixth anniversary this time next year. But that, my bet, will be that."

Mr Hosking's strident criticism is fair comment, but such bombast is not typical in New Zealand, which has a more nuanced media landscape than Australia, free of the hardening influence of Murdoch-owned outlets.

It does, though, show the uphill course for Ms Ardern to re-election in 2023, with polls putting Labour narrowly behind a resurgent National Party.

And this time around, Ms Ardern is unlikely to be able to speak to NZ's biggest radio audience.

The PM and the talkback king have been locked in a standoff for 18 months.

After her 2020 election win, Ms Ardern shook up her media schedule, canning her weekly spot on ZB and making herself available only occasionally.

Mr Hosking's response was to ban the prime minister, who he said was "running for the hills" from his tough questioning.

"I don't want her back. She's made her call and she can live with it," he said.

Colin Peacock, host of Radio NZ's Mediawatch, says the move was a major break with tradition.

"It didn't wash with ZB," he told AAP.

"For more than 30 years prime ministers of both parties, red ones and blue ones, had agreed to go on every week.

"A lot of people said she should front up ... even if Mike is rude or aggressive or hostile. If you can't handle his questioning, are you in the right job?"

Whether by coincidence or otherwise, ZB's attacks have ratcheted up since. Savage criticism arrives daily.

New Zealand's COVID-19 response was "hopelessly disorganised and shambolic" in which "madness abounds".

Mr Hosking often takes aim at the PM's communicative style, saying, "If you follow Ardern she says one of two things. Nothing ... or blergh".

When Labour expelled an MP, Mr Hosking described them as "Machiavellian, fundamentally dishonest, and about as shallow as a puddle".

A trade mission to Singapore and Japan "produced nothing" and a similar trip to Australia, which brought a breakthrough on deportations, was ranked 1/10.

On Australian politics, Mr Hosking confirmed his persuasions with a column titled "I want ScoMo to win".

Not that his leanings were in doubt.

Mr Hosking views Sir John Key as the best PM of his lifetime, telling Kiwis New Zealand had "bright prospects for the future, so long as you keep them in government".

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson - who has continued his regular slot with ZB - says Kiwis know what they are getting when they dial in.

"There's a clear editorial line among a number of the presenters. That's obvious to everybody," he told AAP.

While Newstalk ZB has always leaned to the right, privately Labour figures are dismayed at the editorialisation.

One told AAP Mr Hosking was "increasingly unhinged". Others offered "deranged" and "unfair".

Janet Wilson, press secretary to two National leaders during Ms Ardern's reign, says the vitriol has increased.

"Her decision not to go on the show ... allows them to become even more partisan," she says.

"It's the way those kinds of partisan broadcasters operate."

Ms Wilson and Mr Peacock say a focus has been government's COVID-19 response, which included unpopular lockdowns and mandates.

Partisan or not, ZB rules New Zealand's broadcasting roost.

In the most recent ratings, it boasted 719,000 weekly listeners compared with Radio NZ's 579,300.

The Mike Hosking Breakfast is the most popular show in the country, with 424,000 listeners to Morning Report's 403,300.

"And here's the problem for Ardern," Ms Wilson says. "If you're not in the game, you're not in the game.

"If you're only talking to RNZ, you've lost a good portion of your megaphone.

"We know she's fantastic under pressure. We know she can perform. So why isn't she?

"For her to be giving up is very disappointing, frankly. She's lost that opportunity."

ZB's attacks on Helen Clark's Labour government - which came to an end in 2008 - were equally harsh, Mr Peacock says, but the station's reach is now wider.

With the same owners as the NZ Herald, ZB opinions end up sharing digital space with the Herald's mainstream journalism.

"Back then, ZB was just ranting on the radio. Now it's on the commercial airwaves as well as on the Herald's website," he says, drawing parallels to Sky News' amplification in Australia.

"Things the hosts say can be turned into clickbait news stories ... and they're actively anti-government."

A spokesman for the prime minister declined to comment.

It remains to be seen whether she will seek a return to the Mike Hosking Breakfast.

"There are centrists who listen to that station," Ms Wilson says.

"She will need to keep those centrist voters, her survival may depend on it."