As a Kiwi overseas you soon get used to the questions. From trendy Colombian nightclubs, to dingy departure lounges of East African airports and bustling Turkish bazaars, as soon as people hear you’re from New Zealand, they’re eager to share their unbridled enthusiasm for Jacinda Ardern.
“We are so grateful for what she did for the Muslim community,” one middle-aged Somalian construction worker told The Daily Beast while sipping coffee in an open-air market in Djibouti. Her celebrity truly reaches all corners of the globe.
Even NZ’s biggest exports aren’t immune. Sam Neill, the face of the global Jurassic Park phenomenon told TIME magazine: “Wherever I go people say, ‘You think we could have Jacinda this week? Could we just borrow her for a while?'”
Ardern has become celebrated all over the world for her spectacular handling of the coronavirus pandemic and last year’s Christchurch mosque shooting. On Saturday early results were showing her overwhelmingly re-elected with around 50% of the vote.
So will we finally see the transformational government Kiwis have been promised? When she was first elected PM in 2017, Ardern promised a game-changing government that would create a “fairer, more just New Zealand.”
On many of her policy pledges, her government has performed poorly.
So how do you explain the electoral tidal wave that has swept over New Zealand on Saturday? If early results hold, Labour will hold a majority government for the first time in the history of New Zealand’s MMP electoral system. The polls suggested a landslide, but it seems they underplayed it. It is a thumping endorsement of her management of the one issue that has dominated the campaign—Ardern’s leadership in the COVID-19 pandemic.
In New Zealand, life is already back to normal. Kiwis watch the rest of the world with a mixture of horror and pity. Children pile into schools without worry, young people dance and drink their nights away in packed clubs and bars. Thousands just watched the All Blacks play the Australian rugby team in a packed stadium with not a mask in sight. Social distancing measure considered mandatory in the rest of the world are seen as eccentric here.
‘Aunty Jacinda,’ as she’s fondly known, is given full credit for this. She enforced a clear plan that she communicated with efficacy and empathy. “Go hard and go early” was her motto, enlisting the New Zealand population as her “team of 5 million.” Eliminate the virus and we could get life back to normal as quickly as possible.
While many world leaders dithered over their response to the pandemic, Ardern took decisive action. She ordered one of the world’s harshest lockdowns and slammed the borders shut. These tough but effective measures allowed New Zealand to eliminate the virus almost completely. Only tough border restrictions remain.
When a local outbreak in August threatened to undo all of this progress, her government snapped into action, locking down Auckland literally overnight. Again, the virus was quashed. She was praised by the World Health Organization, The Lancet, and feted by media all around the world. Bloomberg called it a “masterclass in crisis management.” She did all of this as a woman in the macho, male-dominated environment of New Zealand politics, and she turned 40 less than three months ago.
Even before COVID-19 hit us, her compassionate and sensitive responses to the horrendous mosque massacre in Christchurch, as well as a volcanic eruption that killed 21 people on White Island, earned her global esteem. It was more than just kind words that marked her responses. Within a week of the shooting she pushed through New Zealand’s most significant gun control bill in a generation.
Even at the lowest moments of her government, her ratings for personal leadership and her reputation for honesty remained high. The conservative National party by contrast has been treated to a mostly dismal year in opposition and cycled through three leaders in less than two months.
Yet her ability to lead in a crisis is matched by a record on public policy that is decidedly mixed. It is hard to recall that less than a year ago, in the same month that she graced the cover of TIME magazine, she fell behind in polls to a deeply disliked opposition leader. Her personal popularity was flagging and major initiatives on climate change, child poverty, infrastructure and affordable housing had floundered. She had promised a ‘transformational’ government that would change the lives of those left behind in New Zealand society.
Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, has some of the most expensive housing anywhere in the world, which has precipitated a large cost of living crisis. As it has accelerated in prices, New Zealand property has become a magnet for well-heeled overseas investors.
In her last election campaign in 2017, Ardern promised strong action on affordable housing. Chief among these schemes was Kiwibuild, a well-meaning if politically naïve scheme to build 100,000 affordable houses in ten years, which has now been abandoned. Construction experts in New Zealand always thought it was a pipe dream, but the promise was politically popular. Another infrastructure project, a light rail system in Auckland, has struggled to get off the ground.
The COVID crisis has allowed Ardern to focus the election on her leadership style, and in a world gone mad, Jacinda’s empathy, pragmatism and frankly her sanity give Kiwis great comfort. Our leader does not suggest that the virus will disappear, maybe with the help of a little bleach. Nor do we have a fiendishly complex set of restrictions that vary so much even the British Prime Minister who makes the rules can’t tell you what they are.
Yet there are also a number of deeply rooted issues in New Zealand society that its international reputation abroad has allowed to be covered up. New Zealand has by far the largest teen suicide and childhood obesity rates in the 41 countries of the developed world. In terms of health and wellbeing, defined by UNICEF as “neonatal mortality, suicide, mental health, drunkenness and teen pregnancy” it languishes with Bulgaria and Chile in the bottom four. These are some statistics you never see in New Zealand’s glossy tourist brochures. The problems affect all of society, but primarily fall on disadvantaged youth from Maori and Pacific Island backgrounds.
In her first election, Ardern promised a $5.3 billion New Zealand dollar (around $3 billion USD) ‘Families Package’ to cut child poverty by 50 per cent over her parliament. Yet the numbers remain stubborn.
There has been no statistically significant reduction in child poverty since Labour took office. Too many of New Zealand’s poorest children still go to school hungry.
There is still the odd Jacinda-skeptic, even if most of the public ones are just the politicians trying to run against her. They grumble that she was playing the pandemic on easy mode—an isolated country with a small, spread out population made it easy to slam shut the borders and eliminate the virus. She was too young and inexperienced they claim, having ascended to lead the Labour party merely four weeks before the 2017 election. This forced her to make pie in the sky policy pledges with little knowledge of how they would play out in practice.
Perhaps Ardern’s biggest self-criticism would be over climate change. A millennial woman seemed ideally placed to tackle what she described as the “crisis of our generation.” Climate change was, she said, “our nuclear free moment.” This meant a clear chance for New Zealand to use its moral leadership on an issue of conscience and be an example to the world. After a series of compromises both with her coalition partners and the National Party, she ended up with a tough sounding Zero Carbon Bill that experts say will do almost nothing to reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. The climate crisis has barely appeared as an issue in the leadership campaign. What three years ago was the world’s great existential crisis has been relegated by more pressing concerns.
Professor Bronwyn Hayward, a lead author on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report and a political scientist at the University of Canterbury, says NZ politicians have chosen to play this election safe. “It isn’t just Jacinda, both major parties have avoided structural reform and are competing for the center ground,” she told The Daily Beast. “By and large the campaign has been very conventional, thinking about economic growth as the driver of the COVID recovery, for Labour an emphasis on investment on education and training with some concessions to low carbon work, and a gradual transition to some greener energy. But policy wise, she is really an incrementalist.”
Ardern has earned global acclaim and serious political power at home with her quick response to the world’s greatest pandemic in a century. Now she has a chance to cure the epidemics of poverty and inequality that have plagued New Zealand society for generations. Professor Hayward says: “After tonight, once we settle the election, the really hard work starts.”