Kiwi Politics: Progressives, Pandemics and Possibilities – Part One

Seldom do political events from down under reach the northern hemisphere, but in the last year, both Australia and New Zealand, two Anglophonic countries quite literally on the other side of the world, have featured in major world affairs. Of these two countries, one has let itself down, the other has shown itself to be adept. New Zealand, the latter of the two, led by Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s coalition government has faced its fair share of challenges that constitute atypical trials for a New Zealand government but has consistently and reliably shown itself to be capable of meeting the issues of the day. In this article, I’ll be taking an exploratory look into the world of New Zealand politics, reviewing Jacinda Ardern and her term as PM.

Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern & the NZ Labour Party

Where better to start when looking at the politics of New Zealand than with Jacinda Ardern? She has become a household name across the English-speaking world for not just her politics, or her handling of the pandemic, but her charming and charismatic character. Born in the city of Hamilton, on New Zealand’s North Island, Ardern was first elected as an MP in 2008. New Zealand utilises my preferred electoral system, Mixed-Member Proportional Representation, in which MPs can be elected to the house either by winning a constituency seat or via the party-list system, which pertains to the proportional vote share a party receives nationwide (more details here). Ardern was elected via the latter route, after being appointed to contest the National Party’s safe-seat of Waikato, she was elected to parliament as the 20th placed candidate on the Labour Party’s party-list.

However, being an elected MP was not Ardern’s first taste of politics. Living in London, she had worked as a Senior Policy Advisor to Tony Blair’s Labour government, as well as in the Home Office, reviewing policing in England and Wales. Nevertheless, her election at 28-years-old made her the youngest MP to sit in the NZ Parliament at the time.

Ardern would go on to contest the Auckland Central seat in 2011 and 2014, losing each time, but remaining in Parliament as a party-list candidate. In 2016, she put herself forward to contest the Mount-Albert by-election, a small seat in Auckland, which was only being contested by the Green Party. Providentially, Ardern’s electoral fortunes changed, and she was elected in a landslide victory on the 25th of February 2017, collecting 76.89% of the vote.

Just twelve days later, Ardern was unanimously elected to the role of Deputy Leader of the NZ Labour Party, and soon became the Leader of the party on August the 1st 2017 after the resignation of Andrew Little, whose approval ratings were so abysmal that contesting an election with Little as the party leader was seen as futile. As I noted earlier on, however, Ardern’s natural charisma made her popular overnight. So popular, in fact, that the media coined the phrase Jacindamania to describe the Kiwi public’s adoration for her relaxed, neighbourly charm.

Thrown in at the Deep End

On top of the Jacindamania, Ardern’s political priorities, particularly her stance on social issues, resonated with women, the youth, graduates and urbanites. She is a passionate advocate for the LGBT community, as well as for women’s rights, and has been very forthright about mental health issues, even stating that she has suffered from anxiety and self-doubt herself – something which, in more toxic political climates, may cause the electorate to discount a candidate. Overall, it would be fair to conclude that Ardern’s outlook on social issues is largely liberal.

Furthermore, as a Labour Party representative and a self-identified social democrat, her economic policy combines state interventionism, welfarism and progressive taxation with the principles of an albeit restrained, but still dynamic free market. If you’re raring to place her on the left-wing spectrum, I like to think of her as left of Blair, right of Sanders. These sorts of economic policies, as you will find anywhere in the western world, are far more popular in urban areas than in rural areas, and tend to rest on the same traditional liberal-conservative social schism we know all too well.

The results of the 2017 New Zealand General Election saw the following seat distribution:

· The National Party (Moderate Conservativism): 56 (-3)

· The Labour Party (Social Democracy): 46 (+14)

· New Zealand First (Nationalist-Populism): 9 (-3)

· The Green Party (Environmentalism): 8 (-6)

· The Association of Consumers and Taxpayers (Right-Libertarianism): 1 (0)

· The Māori Party (Maori Left-Nationalism): 0 (-2)

You may be looking at that and wondering how the Labour Party managed to form a coalition government that could reach the requisite 61 seats for a majority. Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party managed to come to an agreement with the Green Party, but that still kept them 7 seats short of a majority. This meant that all power lay with New Zealand First and they had the final say over who to partner with. Stunningly, they decided to join the left-wing parties over the National Party, meaning that Jacinda Ardern became the PM of New Zealand, with a rather precarious coalition government – but a government, nonetheless.

Ardern with New Zealand First Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters

The Trouble Begins After You Win

Upon being sworn into office, Ardern became the world’s youngest female leader. Her big message upon the opening of Parliament was that her government, and her premiership, would be “focused, empathetic and strong”. Knowing what we know now, that is about as close as one can reasonably expect without possessing a crystal ball.

The biggest issues Ardern identifies in NZ is child poverty, which she intends to halve within a decade. In order to do this, the NZ government has laid out a vast package of plans to aid low-income families and reduce their financial burden, including free school meals, increases to child benefits and increases to parental leave. Alongside this, Ardern’s government has been steadily increasing the national minimum wage, which led to further income tax revenue being created, allowing the government’s spending to expand.

Two issues that have caused massive debate in New Zealand are that of cannabis legalisation, and euthanasia, both of which Ardern has promised to hold referendum’s on, which are now scheduled to take place together with the upcoming 2020 General Election.

Finally, when looking at Ardern’s domestic policy, it is worth noting that New Zealand is 16.5% native Maori, the country’s largest minority. New Zealand’s Maori population is also overwhelmingly younger than the national average, with an average age of 24.6 years, compared to the national average of 38.1 years. The Maori’s are predominantly left-leaning and constitute an important part of the Labour electoral coalition. Therefore, it is vital that Ardern acknowledges the native Maori customs and traditions. In doing just that, she spoke from the Marae, the highest place of worship in Maori religion, which was received well by Maori leaders – unlike many of her predecessors.

Foreign Affairs

Throughout her three years in office, Arden has had to face numerous issues on the international stage. She made headlines in the United States when she criticised Donald Trump’s controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. Moreover, she has been one of the few western world leaders to openly criticise China’s Xinjiang Re-education Camps, which are for all intents and purposes, concentration camps. (Side note: John Bolton’s new book, The Room Where It Happened, claims that Trump encouraged Xi Jinping to build these same concentration camps, claiming it “the right thing to do”). There has been a clear deterioration between Kiwi-American relations since the Ardern and Trump came to power. Although, even when pushed, Ardern attempts to remain diplomatic.

Ardern Taking Questions at a NATO Summit, of Which New Zealand Is Considered a 'Contact Country'

Arguably the biggest difficulty facing Ardern’s government has been its relationship with its antipodean neighbours, Australia. There has been a long-running issue in Australia of New Zealander immigrants settling in Australia, only for their Visas to be rescinded on what is dubbed ‘character’ grounds. This means that if New Zealanders living in Australia without citizenship are sent to prison for a period in excess of 12 months, they are deported. Over 1,300 New Zealanders have been deported under this system, many of which have been done so under dubious circumstances. Both Ardern, and Andrew Little, now Justice Minister of New Zealand, have criticised the law, warning that it is ruining their bonds of “mateship”.

Christchurch Mosque Shooting

Arguably Ardern’s crowning achievement as PM of NZ was her response to the Christchurch Mosque Shooting, which demonstrated a stark contrast between the American response. On March the 15th, an Australian far-right terrorist killed 51 people, injuring 49 more. His actions were politically motivated, evidenced by his 74-page manifesto which detailed conspiracy theories of a coming white genocide, his praise and admiration for Norwegian terrorist Andres Breivik, and noting Donald Trump as a symbol of renewed white supremacy – although not as a policymaker or a leader.

The NZ government and parliament's response were, however, strong. Within a week, a bill banning the sale, possession and distribution of weapons capable of causing this destruction were banned, voted through with 119 votes for, 1 against. Ardern spent much of the period following the incident denouncing the terrorist, consoling the victims’ families and organising her government to prevent these shootings from happening again.

The Coronavirus Pandemic

Two Very Different Leaders, With Very Different Outcomes

If overseas onlookers had not been aware of Ardern following the Christchurch shooting, they will have heard about her country’s success in containing COVID-19. Ardern made no issue about locking down on the 15th of March – a whole 9 days before the UK locked down. As a result, New Zealand managed to keep its total number of cases at a minimum, recording only 4.5 deaths per million citizens. In contrast, the UK, who have had 306,862 cases and 43,230 deaths, currently have a per million rate of 650.18.

As a result of Ardern’s strong leadership throughout New Zealand’s fight against COVID-19, her approval ratings have soared to an unprecedented 59% approval, which bodes well for the impending General Election in September.

The Politician Independent Newspaper, created in 2020