Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government: Style over substance or a guiding light for progressive politics?

Just over three years ago, a few weeks before leaving New Zealand, my friend Rob and I were in Burger Fuel on Cuba Street the hipster trendy part of Wellington. Piko was renting an office space in the old Wellington Trades Hall and we were doing painting and renovations of the space. In our crappy paint-covered work clothes we sat in Burger Fuel when Rob alerts me to who had just walked in the restaurant.

24 hours beforehand, Jacinda Ardern had replaced Andrew Little as leader of the Labour Party. We both knew Jacinda so said hello and talked about the Stand with Pike campaign we had been working on which Jacinda had pledged to support a few hours before. This slightly awkward conversation with the new leader of the opposition did not last long. None of us, I suspect even Jacinda, knew that in a few weeks’ time she would achieve one of the greatest upsets in New Zealand political history and become Prime Minister.

Sixth Labour Government of New Zealand - Wikipedia
Cabinet Minister’s photographed with the NZ Governor General after being sworn into office, October 2017.

In just over a month New Zealand is holding a General Election. A First term Labour Government under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern will be aiming to win a second term in office. Jacinda Ardern is held up globally as a modern progressive leader and is praised throughout the world for her compassion and humility. In her three years as Prime Minister, she has faced terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions and now the COVID-19 pandemic. In all these crises, she not only got the country through but showed the world that she was an articulate and competent leader. Jacinda is a world leader at a time when the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsanaro and Scott Watson are running the show. It is hardly surprising that Ardern is seen as a beacon of hope in contrast, but what has her government really achieved?

Jacinda’s response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic will likely be viewed as her crowning achievement, albeit one which was as much due to the actions of civil servants and the support of the wider NZ public as it was the Government. However, in a world plagued by COVID-19, ending community transmission of the disease in New Zealand is a significant achievement, and one the rest of the world is quite envious of.

However, I believe Jacinda’s greatest achievement was in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shooting where over 50 people were killed. Jacinda Ardern’s immediate response to a targeted attack against the Muslim community was that this was an attack on the whole country. Her words “they are us” sent a powerful message to Muslims both in Aotearoa/New Zealand and throughout the world. A flatmate of mine in London on hearing Jacinda’s words said to me that no UK Prime Minister had ever said that he as a Muslim was part of UK society, highlighting how powerful Jacinda’s message really was. A few weeks later I had a three-week contract in Saudi Arabia and was talking to some of the local labourers over a meal break. On hearing I was from New Zealand these workers were very excited, and told me how wonderful they thought Jacinda’s words after the attack were. The other impressive thing in response to this shooting, was Jacinda’s response the following morning that semi-automatic weapons would be banned. This was a rare example of decisive political leadership in New Zealand politics, which I am sure in years to come will save many lives.

When Jacinda took over as Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in August 2017, many thought her chances of winning the election seven weeks later were slim. Labour was polling at around 24% when Jacinda took over, whereas the right of centre National Government was consistently polling over 40%. When adding the relatively high Green Party polling numbers at the time to Labour’s there was still little likelihood that NZ would elect a centre-left government a few weeks later.

During the election campaign, Jacinda pulled off a meteoric rise in support for Labour that astounded political commentators. In part, this was due to the arrogance of a third term National Government, who a year earlier had changed to a leader who did not have the charisma and eloquence of his predecessor. By contrast Jacinda presented herself as the fresh face of politics, with a message of positivity and optimism.

On election day I had moved to London. I woke up on Saturday morning and watched the results online. Labour had increased its votes, but National was still the largest party in Parliament. Even with the Green Party Jacinda did not have enough seats to form a government. An economically centrist and socially conservative party called NZ First held the balance of power. This party had previously been in government with both National in the 1990s and Labour in the mid-2000s. In the past, it had gone with the major party who got the most votes and had been hostile to the Green Party, who would be needed in a coalition with Labour. However, the NZ Tories made a tactical error during the campaign of targeting the NZ First leader Winston Peters and releasing details of a pension overpayment. After four weeks of coalition talks, Winston Peters announced he would form a coalition government with Labour and the Green’s.

It is fair to say that this coalition has not been easy to manage. The politics of NZ First are quite different from the socially liberal progressive values of NZ Labour and the Greens. NZ First have acted as a hand brake on many policy areas, even on issues wherein opposition they had sided with Labour and the Green Party. An example of this was probationary employment periods, where having opposed them when National introduced them, recently fought to save them when Labour tried to scrap them. A coalition partner that is more interested in self-promotion and being oppositional is far from ideal.

It is easy for both Labour and the Green Party’s to say they could not achieve all they wanted in their first term in government because of a difficult coalition partner. But this can only go so far. There are certain policy areas where the current Labour-led government have simply not yet delivered. At the beginning of 2019, Jacinda Ardern announced that it would be the year of delivery. Yet in policy areas such as decreasing homelessness, or the now ill-fated Kiwibuild program to build houses to combat the NZ Housing Crisis – delivery simply has not happened. Yes, these are difficult policy areas, but they are also policy areas where Labour took a strong stance in opposition. Twenty years ago, homelessness was rare in New Zealand, yet over the last decade, the streets of Wellington and Auckland now compare with cities like San Francisco for rough sleeping. The current government’s handling of homelessness has been described as an abject failure by commentators. I have blogged about the Housing Crisis in the past and pointed out then that politicians the world over have failed to address this issue. Labour’s promise of 100,000 new homes in ten years has now been abandoned and frankly, the government’s record on this issue to-date is little better than its predecessor.

There are other policy areas where the record is much better. On election to government, NZ Labour kept its promise to make the first year of tertiary education free, as a way of trying to reduce student debt. The Government have finally modernised the country’s abortion laws so that abortion is no longer listed in the NZ Crimes Act. The minimum wage has been increased under the NZ Labour-led government from $15.75 to $18.90, bringing it closer to the NZ Living Wage rate of $22.10, that campaigners are currently pushing for. A cynic might suggest that in policy areas where there is a stronger cabinet minister, much more has been achieved.

The attack line of the opposition and much of the NZ media is that this is a government that has only a handful of competent ministers and that the Labour-Led Government are being carried by the popularity of Jacinda. The recent departure of two fairly senior cabinet ministers suggests there is some truth to the claim that certain ministers have not been performing. Further, it seems there are a few cabinet ministers who have picked up larger and larger portfolios when one of their colleagues is forced to resign, rather than new talent being brought in from the backbench. Megan Woods has been brought in both to salvage the Kiwibuild fiasco, and more recently immigration and border control to fix up the mess of an underperforming predecessor. Meanwhile, Chris Hipkins is now minister for Health, Education, State Services and Leader of the House which is in no way a sustainable workload, especially during a global pandemic. It seems a smaller and smaller clique now surround the Prime Minister when there are many other talented backbench MPs who are ready for ministerial portfolios.

The media in New Zealand have been critical of this government. For years the National Party have made a concerted effort to build a close relationship with the parliamentary press gallery, attending every social and ensuring that the right egos were stroked. With some very worthy exceptions, the quality of NZ political journalism is poor and focuses much more on personality than policy. In this context, it is impressive that Jacinda managed to win the 2017 election for Labour. However, it is generally agreed it was very much Jacinda’s popularity as a leader that won Labour the election. The media remain critical of Labour, particularly certain members of its current front bench who were there prior Jacinda becoming Party leader when Labour was consistently polling under 30%. Many on the left claim the media hold a political bias and in the case of “journalists” like Mike Hoskins, this is very true. However, critical reporting of certain ministers and performance in their portfolios is more than justified.

New Zealand changed from the British First Past the Post system to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system based on the German model in 1996. Had New Zealand stuck with the First Past the Post voting system, Jacinda Ardern would not have won the 2017 election. In my series on the 2019 UK election, I pointed out the foolishness of the UK Labour Party’s continued support of the First Past the Post electoral system. When you compare the 2017 elections in the UK and NZ, Labour achieved a similar result in both countries. However, in NZ proportional representation meant it could form a government, though other factors were at play in the UK. The challenge for NZ Labour though, is this is the first time since electoral reform that the party that got the most votes did not form the government. The combined Labour and Green Party vote was higher than National’s meaning the centre-left block has more MPs, but still many have questioned the legitimacy of the government due to this. Psychologically, government ministers may feel this too, possibly explaining a reluctance to be too bold in certain policy areas.

At the start of 2020 polling was neck and neck between the government and opposition in New Zealand. Despite an inept leader, National continued to poll around 40%. The COVID-19 crisis changed things dramatically. Recent polling has Labour on 53% support with National down to 26%, its worst polling numbers in 17 years. The National Party have now changed leaders twice in three months, gone through numerous internal scandals and continue to haemorrhage support. It seems unlikely their new leader Judith Collins will be able to pull things back enough for an upset victory in a months’ time. In a country where the National Party have won roughly two out of every three elections since the Second World War, and who despite losing in 2017 gained over 40% of the vote, the current collapse in support is significant.

The government’s handling of COVID-19 and Jacinda’s strong communication style throughout this crisis has clearly shifted public opinion. That NZ stopped the spread of the virus has meant Labour is polling very well, and Jacinda now holds the record for the best preferred prime minister polling numbers. Whilst it is always risky to pick election results, it now seems unlikely that NZ Labour will lose the coming election in September, despite polling numbers from earlier in the year suggesting this was more than likely.

But Jacinda and her government should not be complacent. Whilst there are undoubtedly areas where this government has performed well, there are other policy areas where there is need for improvement. In a three year term, there is only so much that can be achieved, but this is a government elected on hope, which, as an earlier blog post outlined can be dangerous if you do not live up to expectations. The added challenge now is the COVID-19 crisis and managing the global economic recession that is now hitting. Whilst eradicating the virus has helped the economy as lockdown restrictions could be eased earlier it has also meant the country’s borders have to be tightly controlled. In a country where tourism is a major part of the economic, this is not good news at all.

Critics have dismissed the Jacinda Ardern government as being one of style over substance. This is unfair given the challenges this government has faced and the policy achievements it has had. However, it is a government that has much work to do if it wins a second term. And its over-reliance on Jacinda as party leader is a huge strategic risk, especially when the governments front bench is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be lightweight. If current polling is accurate and NZ Labour win with a commanding majority next month, they will have a real opportunity to not only address these issues but significantly shape the direction of NZ politics for many years to come.

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