Features | Politics | Oceania

Jacinda Ardern’s Re-Election Woes

Will New Zealanders stay with Ardern or succumb to the global rise of populism and nationalism?

Joshua Mcdonald
Jacinda Ardern’s Re-Election Woes

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern talks to reporters at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Nick Perry

In late 2016, few people outside of New Zealand knew who Jacinda Ardern was and she seemed to want to keep it that way.

The then-Auckland Labor MP, in an interview for a local newspaper, told the reporter that she did not envy the “ridiculous hours” or “acute spotlight of media scrutiny” that comes with political seniority. Instead, she spoke excitedly of having recently moved in with her partner and of their plans to soon start a family.

“She can have these things as an MP, but not as the leader of a party [and] sure as heck not as Prime Minister,” the reporter concluded.

But Ardern defied her own hesitations, as well as the reporter’s conclusion.

The following year, the Labor party was racing toward a crushing defeat in the general election. Poll after poll showed a major loss in confidence among voters and so the party’s leader, Andrew Little, resigned – just seven weeks out from an election.

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Ardern, who said she only heard of Little’s decision to step down on her way into parliament that day, was unanimously elected in his stead.

“Everyone knows that I have just accepted – with short notice – the worst job in politics,” she told reporters. “The circumstances may not be what Labor had planned for this campaign, but that has not weakened my resolve, or my focus.”

Despite having previously wanted to avoid the spotlight, Ardern used her time in it wisely. She brought the issues she had always championed, such as child poverty, the housing crisis, social inequality, and climate change, to the forefront of her campaign.

Almost instantly, the party was inundated with donations from the public, reaching NZ$700 per minute at its peak, with the period of enthusiastic public support coined “Jacindamania” or as the “Jacinda effect.”

Within weeks, Labor rose in the polls from a historical low of 24 percent under Little to 43 percent under Ardern – the first time the party had a lead on the then-ruling National Party in over a decade.

While it was an incredible turn around, it wasn’t enough to secure an outright win.

Labor, along with the Greens, won 54 seats, while the National party came out with 57. The close result left New Zealand First, a minor right-wing party that had won nine seats, in a kingmaker position.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters took advantage of the situation to form a government with Labor and the Greens, with himself as deputy prime minister and Ardern as prime minister.

In throwing his support behind Ardern, Peters said, “It’s time for capitalism to regain its human face.”

That made Ardern the country’s third female prime minister, the youngest prime minister in more than 150 years – and, as of June 2018, the second elected leader in modern history to give birth while in office.

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She was already a figure of global influence due to these attributes, but it was her response to a national tragedy that really set her apart from other world leaders.

On March 15,  2019, as Friday prayer rung out on a warm autumn day, an Australian gunman shot dead 51 men, women, and children, and injured 49 others at two mosques in Christchurch.

About an hour later, visibly distraught, yet exerting strength, Ardern addressed the nation from an impromptu studio set up in a rural hotel on the country’s north island.

“Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here,” she said. “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.”

From the outset, her response to the Christchurch massacre paved the way for her to take on the brightest spotlight yet.

Other world leaders have responded to attacks on their countries with threats of war and revenge, Ardern responded instead with compassion and empathy, which won her support from New Zealanders and people the world over.

“I think this whole model of leadership that says you’ve got to be tough, and tough means you can’t be kind, is just wrong,” she later told TIME magazine.

But it was how she would translate her response into action that would ultimately keep voters on her side. Within days of the attack, her government had passed a bill banning all military style semi-automatic weapons and all assault rifles.

Praise rolled in from all quarters – from London to Islamabad to Tokyo. The world watched a woman who just a few years ago had spoken openly of not wanting to be in the spotlight not only ascend to it and thrive, but then challenge a world filled with divisiveness and fear with inclusion and compassion.

“This is what real action to stop gun violence looks like,” said U.S. Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. “We must follow New Zealand’s lead.”

In addition to her gun reform bill, Ardern also began discussions with the leaders of Microsoft, Facebook, and YouTube, as well as France’s Emmanuel Macron, on preventing the spread of online terrorist and violent extremist content online.

Much more quietly, her government has been busy working on a range of other policies, too.

In April, the minimum wage is due to rise to NZ$18.90 from NZ$15.75 when Ardern assumed office. Unemployment has dropped to its lowest rate in 12 years. Paid parental leave has been extended from 18 to 22 weeks. New Zealand became the first country in the world to enshrine its commitment to the Paris agreement into law. Under the Child Poverty Reduction Act her government claims to have lifted between 50,000 and 70,000 children out of poverty and in May 2019 Ardern, to much acclaim, unveiled the “world first” wellbeing budget, in a bid to tackle mental illness, family violence, and child poverty.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing though. Support for Ardern at home has waned, in part, due to her government’s failure to address New Zealand’s housing crisis.

A report by the Economist in 2017 found New Zealand had the most unaffordable house prices in the world, with Auckland prices climbing 75 percent in the four years since 2013.

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In 2018, Ardern’s government banned the sale of existing New Zealand homes to overseas buyers and launched the KiwiBuild scheme, which promised 100,000 affordable home would be built within a decade with 1,000 to be built in the first year alone.

But in September 2019, the government scrapped the scheme after failing to meet targets, saying it was “overly ambitious.” More than 18 months from the date the scheme was announced, only 258 homes had been built.

Ardern remains popular in the polls, but her party does not and it’s likely they will still need NZ First on their side to hold a majority in the next election, set for September 2020. But this relationship has been tested.

While her coalition partner, Winston Peters, ultimately stood by her side in announcing the lifting of New Zealand’s refugee intake quota, the deal was reported to have caused serious strains on their working relationship due to Peters’ steadfast anti-immigration views.

NZ First then struck down a key component in Labor’s “groundbreaking” zero carbon bill. They did, however, support Labor in an array of other targets set under the bill, as well as in cancelling all further offshore oil and gas exploration.

Ardern’s Labor party has also clashed with NZ First on the three-strike law, abortion law reform, and on questions concerning possible Chinese involvement in domestic politics.

It’s a unique coalition. While Ardern has been lauded as a moral savior in the face of rising populism and nationalism around the world, her deputy is a self-proclaimed nationalist.

In 2005, he criticized immigration from Asian countries as “imported criminal activity” and warned that New Zealanders were “being colonized without having any say in the numbers of people coming in and where they are from.”

Peter’s entered politics in 1979 as a National Party MP, but in 1993, following a bitter dispute between himself and other members of the party, he resigned and went on to establish New Zealand First. Almost instantly, his party held the balance of power and has ever since pivoted between the left and right blocs of Labor-Greens and National.

While it appears that Ardern’s coalition of left-wing, center, and right-wing parties has been successful in passing policies, Dr. Jennifer Lees-Marshment, a political marketing expert at Auckland University, isn’t sure whether it will help them in the next election, or whether the parties even plan to campaign as a united front.

“They might just separate completely,” she said. “They need to be careful between now and the election by making sure that they say New Zealand First did this, Green Party did this, Labor did this, not just that it was all Labor.”

“[If they don’t] the minor parties might not seem to have delivered distinctive polices and may actually lose a lot of supporters, and the reality is Labor needs the Greens, if not NZ First as well, to get back in.”

Lees-Marshment said that in any case, Peters remains an unpredictable force ahead of this election.

“NZ First are very pragmatic and will go wherever they’re going to get the best deal,” she said. “Traditionally, they’re more aligned with National but their voter base is both left- and right-leaning, so we do expect they could go either way.”

National leader Simon Bridges recently slammed NZ First, though, telling reporters that he does not trust the party and will not consider forming a coalition with them.

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“This Labor/Green/NZ First Government has failed to deliver for New Zealanders,” said Bridges. “The cost of living has gone up, taxes have been piled on, and there’s no new infrastructure.”

Peters shot back in a statement saying he was unfazed by Bridges’ announcement. “He’s got a lot to learn about politics,” he said. “Narrowing your options can be the worst strategic move you will ever make.”

The most recent Colmar Brunton poll, however, shows that National’s gamble may just work.

Corresponding to seats in Parliament, National, along with ACT, would win 61 seats, which would be a majority needed to form government, while Labor and the Greens would win just 59. Based on these numbers, NZ First would be out of Parliament.

With Ardern scoring 42 percent as preferred prime minister against Bridges at 11 percent, Labor may just be hoping that Ardern’s popularity will get them the votes they need to form government themselves.

By ruling out an alliance with NZ First, the National Party hopes to win an overall majority. It may be attempt at persuading the more conservative NZ First voters to swing National’s way by signalling that another vote for the minor party is simply a vote for Labor and the Greens.

Since being elected in 2018, Bridges has adopted a sort of Trumpian, populist position. Last year, he responded to controversial comments made by a colleague on the subject of abortion by saying “one person’s misinformation is another person’s fact.”

In May 2019, at the height of the Australian federal election, Bridges sent National staff to Australia to assist with the conservative Liberal Party campaign, which was ultimately riddled with misinformation. Bridges has recently suggested that Liberal staff would return the favor ahead of the September election in New Zealand.

Bridges said at the time that he would be running a campaign very much aimed in the same direction and would be targeting the “quiet Kiwis,” echoing a populist term used by Morrison following his election win in Australia.

But the searing question for New Zealand in this upcoming election is whether there are any “quiet Kiwis” to appeal to.

“New Zealanders generally have social liberal values and egalitarian values,” said Lees-Marshment. “But there is this strong sense of people falling behind and that was present in 2014 and it was even stronger in 2017 and I suspect it’s stronger now.”

“People used to commute 20 minutes, now it’s two hours. Even professionals are struggling to rent, let alone buy, then there’s the working poor and the unworking poor and the demand for social housing is just huge. And child poverty is still not being addressed,” she said. “People are stressed and exhausted.”

“Then there’s a thing about the region’s not having enough people and enough stimulation and so there could by an underlying dissatisfaction which is similar to what Trump picked up. New Zealand is a multicultural society, though, and so I don’t think the Trump-like comments will pay off here,” Lees-Marshment added.

“Labor does need to be very careful though. There are middle-class professionals who are finding it tough and there are young people coming out of university who can’t get jobs and so she has to make sure she speaks to them,” she said.

Under Ardern’s leadership, the Labor coalition showed that parties with varying views can effectively govern together, which could perhaps even serve as an antidote to the division that has taken hold in politics in democracies around the world.

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But now, heading into this next election, it New Zealanders will decide whether it has been enough to fend off the rise of populism and nationalism around the world and whether Ardern’s values of compassion, kindness and inclusion will win her a second term.