Aotearoa New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s personality is undoubtedly a factor in her appeal. Yet, politically, Ardern represents a form of centrist politics that has failed to address the challenges of our time.
Early in her political career, Ardern worked for former Bristish Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Cabinet Office, and this set the tone for her career. Ardern names her favourite election as the 2005 re-election of the Labour government, while also naming the 2008 election of Barack Obama in the United States as a highlight.
Her government echoes the Third Way philosophy that predominated 20 years ago, but has gone into decline with the rise of right-wing populism. Although Third Way politics may be preferable to Trumpism, this is a low bar — it remains grossly inadequate to address contemporary challenges such as climate change and inequality.
Zero Carbon Act
In November last year, the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act, or simply Zero Carbon Act, passed with near-unanimous support. This established a new Climate Change Commission, a quasi-independent advisory body. Although hailed as a “historic achievement”, the act was fundamentally compromised.
The coalition government could have passed this bill alone, yet decided to seek bipartisan consensus. The opposition National Party successfully demanded many changes to the bill. This was reminiscent of the Obama government seeking a bipartisan consensus on healthcare, despite having a majority at the time.
Methane targets were unchanged, binding legal deterrents were not imposed, the date for the emissions target stayed the same, no explicit commitment was made to divest from oil and gas, and key industries were exempted.
The apparently positive changes — tighter regulation of carbon offsetting and offshore mitigation — embedded an “emissions trading” approach to climate policy, which has created a new market and had little-to-no impact on emissions. Additionally, the new commission is entirely an advisory body, without teeth. Nothing is binding.
Ultimately, the Zero Carbon Act was a symbolic commitment by a government unwilling to pursue the kind of confrontation with extractive capital that is necessary to prevent the impending climate catastrophe.
The struggle over Ihumātao is a perfect example of Jacinda Ardern’s fence-sitting on contentious issues. Ihumātao is a site of historic significance for Māori, which was confiscated in 1863, and purchased by Fletcher Building to construct private housing in 2014. Fletchers’ purchase of the land set off a struggle by local Māori to reclaim Ihumātao, which escalated into a mass struggle in mid-2019, as protestors clashed with police.
The government has been slow to intervene, initially taking the stance that the matter should be privately resolved, then moving to compensate Fletchers after significant public pressure. Rumours indicate that Fletchers will be compensated at a greater rate than they purchased the land for, allowing them to still profit from attempting to expropriate Māori land. Ardern refused to comment on reports of a potential loan of about $40 million for Auckland Council to purchase the land.
Ihumātao activists made the moderate demand that Ardern simply visit the site. In August last year, about 300 people participated in a hikoi (march) to Ardern’s office to deliver a petition with 26,000 signatures demanding she visit the site. Despite advance notice, Ardern was not present to receive the petition.
Ardern’s statements on the topic have been fuzzy and ill-defined. In August last year, she said: “On issues like Ihumātao, the difficult issues, the hard issues, we will be there, we are there in those conversations.” This fairly empty phrase came after months of refusing to take any explicit position on the issue. Iwi [Māori tribal] leader Che Wilson criticised Ardern’s lack of action or political commitment: “You asked us to keep you to account at Waitangi this year. But every big issue with regard to Māori, it appears that you hide away.”
Ardern has said she will not visit Ihumātao until the struggle has reached a resolution. Negotiations are ongoing.
In the 2017 General Election, Green party co-leader Metiria Turei admitted that as a single mother on a benefit, she had lied to Work and Income New Zealand to get additional money to cover expenses. This set off a vicious right-wing smear campaign that resulted in Turei stepping down. Ardern’s response reinforced the smear campaign: “When you’re lawmakers, you can’t condone lawbreaking.” This set the tone for her government’s welfare policies.
In response to the Ardern government’s 2020 budget, welfare advocacy group Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP) said: “The Government’s 2020 wellbeing budget continues to fail low-income people, families and communities with the lack of investment in support for people receiving benefits. It contains no additional increases to core benefits outside of the indexation changes and we keep condemning hundreds of thousands of people to live below the poverty line.
“People should not have to rely on charities or food grants to survive. The $25 increase to benefit levels earlier this year has not reduced the need for food grants from Work and Income. The increased pressure on Work and Income staff because of rising unemployment due to COVID-19 will make it more difficult for people to access hardship assistance.
“The Ministry of Social Development is preparing for up to an extra 300,000 people to apply for a benefit in the coming months which means a huge proportion of our population will be living in poverty. The Government could alleviate the pressure on low-income communities as well as Work and Income by lifting benefits to liveable levels and let Work and Income staff focus on pastoral support, instead of processing food grants.
“We are living in unprecedented times, which we know requires a response which is unprecedented. Too many families have been living in poverty for decades, and this budget further ignores the systemic changes required to change that for communities.
“While people’s employment status shouldn’t determine their right to a life with dignity, we are worried that there are no guarantees by Government to ensure jobs created as part of this budget provide a living wage and decent working conditions. People should not be forced into employment that does not allow them to make ends meet.
“We welcome the investment into Māori housing initiatives such as He Kūkū Ki Te Kāinga and He Taupua, but the bulk of the funding pales in comparison to community housing and transitional housing initiatives. We are calling on the Government to direct more funding into hapu- [community] and iwi-led housing initiatives and return confiscated Crown land.
“Despite the additional funding in public housing, the government is accepting it will not be able to house all of the people on the social housing waiting list over the next few years. The additional funding for state homes won’t cover the burgeoning state housing waiting list, meaning families will still be homeless or struggling to make ends meet in private rentals.
“We are disappointed no changes have been made to our tax system. This was an opportunity to introduce taxes on wealth and speculative transactions so that the wealthy few pay their fair share and the tax burden does not fall on low-income communities in the form of regressive taxes.
“The government has the resources to ensure that everybody has enough food on the table, access to housing, and public services. Given the circumstances of COVID-19 and against the backdrop of the climate crisis, this was an opportunity for us to be courageous and truly transformative as a way forward for all of us.”
The government’s decision to raise the benefits of the newly unemployed, while keeping those on existing benefits below the poverty line, was also condemned by AAAP as creating a two-tier welfare system.
Christchurch terror attack
Ardern was praised internationally for her response to the Christchurch terror attack, when a far-right gunman killed 50 people at two mosques. Prior to that point, New Zealand governments were complacent about the far right. In the wake of 9/11, the Labour government oversaw an expansion of “anti-terrorist” powers that surveilled everyone but the far right – particularly Māori, leftists, Muslims, animal rights groups and environmentalists.
In the wake of the attack, many praised Ardern’s compassion, and images of her wearing a headscarf at the funeral for the victims became internationally iconic. Yet, this is another sign of how low the bar is internationally for political leaders — simply respecting customs at a funeral is now worthy of praise. It’s also indicative of the way praise for Ardern has often centred on personality rather than policy.
Ardern’s government passed gun control legislation in the wake of the massacre — but also armed the police. Immediately after the attack, armed police became routinely visible. The government then launched an official trial of armed police from October 2019 to April 2020. Māori and criminal justice advocates criticised this: even prior to the trial, two-thirds of those shot by police were Māori and Pacific peoples, and Māori were not consulted. Police shootings quickly became a regular occurrence, and three officers were charged with homicide. The trial ended as a result of public pressure, which amplified as the US Black Lives Matter movement triggered thousands to march against racism and police violence in Aotearoa New Zealand.
As with COVID-19, the fact that the government’s initial response to the attack involved increasing police powers indicates their ultimate class allegiance.
Ardern’s Labour government is a competent manager of capitalism. Yet, on policy issues, the government is defined by half-measures and empty symbolic commitments. For better or worse, Aotearoa New Zealand is a bastion of centrist stability in a polarising world.
[Abridged from Fightback.]