New Zealands liberal champion gets back to basics
AUCKLAND, New Zealand — When the leaders of left-leaning parties are looking for good news these days, they have to turn to a small island nation so remote that its often omitted from world maps. Jacinda Ardern took over as prime minister of New Zealand late last year, just before a hot and dry summer set in. Many people thought she wouldnt last long. They said she lacked experience. Besides, Arderns coalition government seemed somewhat shaky, bringing together her own Labour Party, the populists of New Zealand First and, in a supporting role, the left-wing Greens.
That hot New Zealand summer has long gone but Ardern is still there. Her popularity remains pretty much undiminished. She has kept the coalition together and avoided the kind of major blunders her opponents had predicted. She has also raised her countrys profile abroad — and thats not just because she announced that she was pregnant and was going on maternity leave — the first world leader to ever do so. (The baby, a girl, was born on Thursday.) Or because she wore a cool Maori cloak when she met the queen in Buckingham Palace. Or indeed because she featured in a New Zealand tourism campaign that lobbies the worlds cartographers to literally put the country back on the map.
The real reason why Ardern seems more important geopolitically than her status as leader of New Zealand would suggest is that she makes for an excellent anti-Trump. Ardern is, at 37, comparatively young, extremely agreeable and — as the U.S. fashion magazine Vogue recently put it — “unabashedly liberal.” During her campaign, Ardern promised nothing less than a transformational government that would tackle climate change, social inequality and other ills allegedly caused by the free-market economy. So what has she been up to since? Can frustrated leftists in Europe and elsewhere take their cues from her? Is social democracy going to be reinvented in, of all places, the South Pacific? When Ardern was scheduled to visit Aucklands North Shore Hospital recently, I decided to go and find out.
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North Shore Hospital is located in the northern suburbs of Auckland, an affluent area that has some of the citys best beaches and most conservative voters. Its also got a community of Pacific people who tend to side with Labour. And so, representatives of the Pacific community gathered on one side of the auditorium, Maori leaders on the other; hospital staff and journalists sat in between. The students of a local boys school were warming up for their performance of the Haka, the famous Maori war dance. The audience fell to a hush when told that Ardern was two minutes away. An elderly Maori woman stepped forward and broke into song, launching a powhiri, the welcoming ceremony that initiates many official functions in New Zealand.
Ardern appeared, walking down the steps and sitting down on the stage. She was wearing a pastel-colored dress (a subtly stylish piece of maternity fashion) and ankle boots. This was Arderns first public event after the release of the new governments budget. The journalists were hoping that she would talk about the numbers, a key indicator of where her government is headed politically. When Ardern finally stood up to speak — following more song, speeches and, of course, war dancing — she commented on how people would inevitably liken the budget to her pregnancy because they both took up a lot of her time.
On the face of it, New Zealand would seem to be well-suited to the kind of politics that Ardern stands for.
She also joked about how her staff has been scheduling a lot of appointments at hospitals lately, always making sure she tours the obstetrics ward. This was all light-hearted banter, not a lot of substance. But it did show that Ardern knows how to connect with people. Shes an experienced speaker. And yet her delivery comes across as fresh and authentic, not tainted by routine. Later when making the rounds, Ardern was introduced to a heart-attack patient, an elderly woman who was visibly disconcerted by the presence of a dozen journalists. No need to feel intimidated, Ardern said warmly, and pointed at the people with the cameras and the microphones: “Its just me and a few friends of mine.” The patient laughed.
Ardern and New Zealand are still in their honeymoon period, I was told repeatedly in recent months, the insinuation being that it must end sometime soon. But it hasnt yet. Arderns ascent came quickly indeed last summer when a man inauspiciously named Andrew Little stepped down as Labour leader and asked her to fill in. Much like Germanys Martin Schulz, Ardern miraculously rose in polls. But while the Schulz-Effekt proved short-lived, Jacindamania didnt. Schulz floundered in elections, Ardern flourished, and now its Ardern who gets to travel to Berlin — as she did in April — and to lecture SPD leaders on the future of social democracy.
And why not? Ardern has worked on Labour campaigns since she was a teenager. She met comrades all over the globe when traveling as president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. And she spent years working as a policy adviser to Tony Blairs government in Britain. She should know a thing or two about the difficulties of getting the left back on track.
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On the face of it, New Zealand would seem to be well-suited to the kind of politics that Ardern stands for. Income inequality has risen sharply here in recent decades, much more than in other OECD countries. But thats not how New Zealanders like to see themselves. The countrys identity was shaped by early settlers who left a class-based society to create a better Britain. That egalitarian ethos — which feels more, say, Scandinavian than American — is still palpable in everyday life. Theres little tolerance for public displays of great wealth.
Jacinta Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford pose with their new baby girl | Photo by Office of the Prime Minister of New Zealand Getty Images
Moreover, New Zealand has been exempt from the kind of migratory pressures that have turned left-leaning voters elsewhere into fans of right-wing populists. Geographical isolation — a drawback in some respects — works in the countrys favor here. Refugees from war-torn countries rarely make it to New Zealand shores. Anti-foreigner sentiment tends to be directed at wealthy Chinese or U.S. investors who buy property and drive up housing prizes. Its a narrative that Arderns party can embrace without seeming heartless or racist. When entering coalition talks, Labour and New Zealand First quickly agreed on measures to reduce immigration and to prevent overseas investors from gobbling up real estate.
One would also think that the new government has money to spend. Decades of fiscal reticence, under both Labour and conservative governments, mean that public debt is rather low at 22 percent of gross domestic product. (Household debt is more of a worry.) New Zealands 10-year-bonds have been trading at lower yields than those of the U.S. Treasury, meaning the government can borrow pretty cheaply. Thats why a lot of Labour Party supporters were hoping that Ardern would put the money where her mouth is and go for a big and bountiful budget. But then she didnt.
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Budget days are serious business in New Zealand. Well before the figures were released, the media got excited, covering the whole thing like a major sports event. They had Budget Day live tickers and Budget Day countdown clocks. They also ran a lot of background stories on famous budgets of the past. They wrote about the Black Budget in 1958, when Labour, disastrously, raised taxes on tobacco, petrol and alcohol, and about the Mother of all Budgets in the early 1990s when a hawkish finance minister named Ruth Richardson severely cut spending on health, education and welfare. And they wondered what moniker theyd be giving this years budget.
In January, Ardern gave an inkling of what she had in mind. She talked about her plans for a so-called Wellbeing Budget. For years, economists have been working on developing criteria other than GDP to measure a countrys prosperity. They want to focus on more than just the financials, taking into account cultural, environmental, social and even psychological factors. When Labour started thinking about wellbeing, they studied the OECDs Better Life Index and the Happy Planet Index developed by the New Economics Foundation. And they decided that New Zealand should be the first developed nation to put these things to work in a budget.
Its an endeavor that fits in with a current shift in leftist thought. Battling right-wing populists for hearts and minds, politicians in Europe and elsewhere want to leave the Third Way behind and reconnect with voters. They want to highlight the corrosive effect that free markets have had on communities and societies. They want to talk about the environment, about cultural issues — and indeed about individual happiness. Measuring these things, or so the thinking goes, could change the public perception of what governments should be doing and spending money on. Its a promising idea. But Arderns government decided that it isnt quite ready yet to measure happiness, and so they postponed wellbeing to 2019.
New Zealanders like to think of their country as a kind of social laboratory. More than 100 years ago, they gave women the right to vote.
At North Shore Hospital, I asked Ardern what social democrats in Europe and elsewhere could learn from her government. “Back to basics,” she said, citing investments in health, education and housing. Then she was rushed off to a meeting with business leaders in a five-star hotel. Indeed, more money has been allotted to hospitals, midwives and cheaper doctor visits. New schools and classrooms will be built, additional teachers hired. More state homes are meant to ease New Zealands housing crisis. At the same time, Labour has vowed to keep debt below 20 percent of GDP and plans on running large surpluses in years to come. As a result, Labours budget didnt seem all that different from what the conservative National Party would have done.
Which, in a way, is perfectly understandable. The budget reflects Arderns reluctance to impose her politics on a country that hasnt given her the mandate to so. National came out on top in the elections, after all. (It was only thanks to the kingmakers of New Zealand First that Labour got into government.) Although the economy thrives, business confidence remains low. Ardern and her fellow Labour Party leaders apparently felt it is paramount to show business leaders and other skeptics that they are safe with this government. A Keynesian spending spree would have spooked too many mainstream voters. The same goes, of course, for a Wellbeing Budget.
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New Zealanders like to think of their country as a kind of social laboratory. More than 100 years ago, they gave women the right to vote. The country was one of the first to introduce social-welfare policies such as old-age pensions or unemployment benefits. Then again, in the 1980s and 1990s, governments run by both Labour and National liberalized the economy faster and more radically than others. They deregulated entire industries, cut down on social services and curbed restrictions on foreign investment. New Zealand, relatively small and geographically isolated, has shown in the past that its capable of shifting gears quickly.
Thats why Arderns allies had been hoping that the country, under the spell of Jacindamania, would change direction once again. But at least for now, social democracy isnt being reinvented in the South Pacific. In an opinion piece for Newsroom.co.nz, Bernard Hickey, a well-known commentator, called the governments first budget “the biggest opportunity in a generation wasted.” As for its moniker, Ardern herself suggested the budget should be called the Rebuild Budget. But soon another name was circulating that struck more of a chord. Arderns budget could go down as the Boring Budget.