It took Winston Peters 26 days since polls closed – and almost his entire post-election negotiations speech – to give New Zealanders the news they had been waiting for.
“We’ve had to make a choice, whether it was with either National or Labour, for a modified status quo, or for change,” the leader of the populist NZ First Party said on Thursday night.
“That’s why in the end we chose a coalition government of New Zealand First with Labour.”
And with Mr Peters’ say-so, Labour’s 37-year-old leader Jacinda Ardern became the country’s new prime minister.
Ms Ardern, a former Mormon, an amateur DJ, and a protégé of former Labour PM Helen Clark, took on the leadership on the eve of the campaign with the party languishing in the polls.
On Thursday night, fronting the media only minutes after Mr Peters dropped his bombshell, Ms Ardern said her government would be a “partner” that ensured the economy “works and delivers for all New Zealanders”.
She said the election had been hard fought and the negotiations were “robust”.
Mr Peters, a former Deputy PM who was first elected to Parliament in 1978, had been offered the second top job and was still considering whether to accept it, Ms Ardern said.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull phoned Ms Ardern on Thursday night to convey his congratulations.
The pair reaffirmed the strength of the Australian-NZ relationship and said they looked forward to working together close to home and around the world.
They hope to meet face to face at an early opportunity.
Labour’s ‘comeback campaign’ based on fresh face
Labour had started the campaign with a record low level of support in the opinion polls.
But almost immediately the party began a comeback that most analysts attributed solely to Ms Ardern’s personal popularity with voters. The surge to Labour was quickly coined ‘Jacindamania’.
Ms Ardern combined an enthusiastic persona, optimistic campaign message (Labour’s slogan was ‘Let’s do this’) and redistributive economic policies, such as free university education, a focus on eliminating child poverty and a pledge to build 10,000 affordable houses a year.
The Labour platform also included plans to reduce immigration, a position that likely proved key in negotiations with NZ First.
As Ms Ardern’s star rose, at least twice it caught the attention of those on this side of the Tasman.
At the start of the campaign, Ms Ardern made news in Australia when she called out a radio presenter who demanded to know whether she planned to have children.
Later, when a NZ Labour politician became embroiled in the Barnaby Joyce citizenship saga, Ms Ardern was forced to respond to Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s suggestion that she would find it difficult to work with a NZ Labour government.
Ms Bishop congratulated the new PM on Thursday night, saying she was “looking forward to working with the new government”.
By election day on September 23, expectations had shifted. Labour had hit the front in some polls.
Still, the incumbent National party government began to expose a perceived weakness around the opposition’s tax plans and remained favourites.
Led by Bill English, and before him John Key, National had been in power since 2008, during which time New Zealand had enjoyed a sustained period of economic growth.
When the ballots were counted, National won the popular vote, claiming 56 seats, with Labour on 46 and the Greens with eight under the country’s MMP system.
As most expected, New Zealand First’s nine seats made them the kingmakers.
Explaining his decision on Thursday, Mr Peters said Ms Ardern had shown “extraordinary talent” during the campaign. He said his party believed “capitalism must regain its … human face”.
Throughout, the government had portrayed her as inexperienced and idealistic. “People can’t go shopping with your values,” Mr English quipped during one television debate.
“I would suggest not to underestimate her because she is tough, empathetic and smart,” Grant Duncan, an expert on New Zealand politics at Massey University, told The New Daily.
He predicted she would skilfully manage her diverse coalition with NZ First, with the Greens offering confidence and supply.
Ms Ardern will become New Zealand’s third female prime minister. She had not known of Mr Peters’ decision until his dramatic announcement on Thursday night.
Asked how she reacted in that moment, Ms Ardern replied: “I felt an overwhelming sense of … being incredibly honoured, privileged and humbled.”