On August 1, a little-known birthday passed for Jacinda Ardern, just like in much of New Zealand.
It was the day five years ago that Mrs Ardern became Labor leader, which led to ‘Jacindamania’ and her wink and you will miss becoming Prime Minister.
However, the milestone did not go unnoticed by Newstalk ZB – New Zealand’s top-rated radio station – where its biggest star, Mike Hosking, had much to say about Ms Ardern’s political future.
“Her best days are behind her… it all goes downhill from here,” he said. “And the downhill part is already in full swing.
“She will face a very tough ride between now and next year to try and revive her chances.
‘I don’t think she can. Labor is toast.
“I doubt she’ll be rolled…but I don’t rule out running away. She looks increasingly tired and out of ideas.
“That will be the story of her premiership: thrown into office and adored at first…the love affair has ended and we’ve seen the anger and frustration build.
“Next year she will celebrate her sixth birthday. But that will be it, I guess.’
Mr Hosking’s sharp criticism is fair, but such bombast is not typical in New Zealand, which has a more nuanced media landscape than Australia, free from the hardening influence of Murdoch-owned outlets.
However, it shows that Ms Ardern is to be re-elected in 2023, with polls placing Labor narrowly behind a resurgent National Party.
And this time it is unlikely that Ms Ardern will be able to speak to New Zealand’s largest radio audience.
The prime minister and the talkback king have been at an impasse for 18 months.
After her election victory in 2020, Ms Ardern shook up her media schedule by swallowing her weekly spot on ZB and only making herself available occasionally.
Hosking’s response was to ban the prime minister, who he said is “running for the hills” from his difficult interrogation.
‘I don’t want her back. She called and she can live with it,” he said.
Colin Peacock, presenter of Radio NZ’s Mediawatch, says the move was a major break from tradition.
“It wasn’t with ZB,” he told AAP.
“For more than 30 years, the prime ministers of both parties, the red and the blue, had agreed to continue every week.
“A lot of people told her to come forward… even if Mike is rude, aggressive, or hostile. If you can’t handle his questions, are you in the right job?’
Coincidence or not, ZB’s attacks have since gained momentum. Ferocious criticism comes in daily.
New Zealand’s COVID-19 response has been “hopelessly disorganized and chaotic” in which “madness abounds”.
Mr Hosking often focuses on the Prime Minister’s communication style, saying “If you follow Ardern she says one of two things. Nothing…or blergh”.
When Labor expelled a MP, Mr Hosking described them as “Machiavellian, fundamentally dishonest and about as shallow as a puddle”.
A trade mission to Singapore and Japan “failed” and a similar trip to Australia, which marked a breakthrough in deportations, was awarded a 1/10.
On Australian politics, Mr Hosking reaffirmed his beliefs with a column entitled “I want ScoMo to win”.
Not that his tendencies were questionable.
Hosking considers Sir John Key the best prime minister of his life and says Kiwis New Zealand had “great prospects for the future as long as you keep them in government”.
Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson – who has continued his regular job at ZB – says Kiwis know what they get when they call in.
“There is a clear editorial line with a number of presenters. That is clear to everyone,” he tells AAP.
While Newstalk ZB has always leaned to the right, private Labor figures are baffled by the editors.
One told AAP that Mr Hosking was “increasingly unhinged”. Others offered “disturbed” and “dishonest”.
Janet Wilson, press secretary to two national leaders during Ms Ardern’s reign, says vitriol has increased.
“Her decision not to go to the show… allows them to become even more partisan,” she says.
“It’s the way that kind of partisan broadcasters work.”
Ms Wilson and Mr Peacock say the focus has been on the government’s COVID-19 response, including unpopular lockdowns and mandates.
Partisan or not, ZB rules New Zealand’s sending state.
In its most recent ratings it had 719,000 weekly listeners compared to Radio NZ’s 579,300.
The Mike Hosking Breakfast is the most popular show in the country, with 424,000 listeners from Morning Report’s 403,300.
“And here’s the problem for Ardern,” says Ms. Wilson. “If you’re not in the game, you’re not in the game.
“If you only talk to RNZ, you will lose a large part of your megaphone.
“We know she is fantastic under pressure. We know she can perform. So why isn’t she?
“It’s very disappointing that she’s giving up, to be honest. She missed that opportunity.”
ZB’s attacks on Helen Clark’s Labor government – which ended in 2008 – were equally harsh, Peacock says, but the station’s reach is now greater.
With the same owners as the NZ Herald, ZB Opinions ultimately share the 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 the strengthening of Sky News in Australia.
“Things the hosts say can be turned into clickbait news stories…and they are active against the 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,” says Ms. Wilson.
“She will have to keep those centrist voters, her survival may depend on it.”