Cat MacLennan: Jacinda Ardern’s prime ministership is a tale of two leaders

Cat MacLennan: Jacinda Ardern’s prime ministership is a tale of two leaders

Jacinda Ardern’s prime ministership is a tale of two leaders.

In times of crisis, Courageous Jacinda takes centre stage, acting boldly and drawing both domestic and international acclaim.

But, in normal times, it is Cautious Jacinda who is to the fore, stepping warily and advancing slowly. The problem with this is that, often, the progress is so incremental it appears we are standing still.

Part of the reason that Ardern’s international reputation is so high is the number and severity of the emergencies she has faced during her time as leader of Aotearoa New Zealand have meant that Courageous Jacinda has had ample opportunity to emerge. On those occasions, she has been almost faultless and richly deserves the admiration she has won.

The March 15 mosque shootings last year left 51 people dead and 40 injured, and shocked the country to the core. Courageous Jacinda was swiftly in charge, her compassion and empathy so plainly apparent that not only kiwis but the global community applauded her response.

Ardern embraced the Muslim community, wearing the hijab, providing solace through touch as well as words, and asking United States President Trump to provide “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities” as a way of supporting this country.

And it was not only in the initial period that the prime minister was unhesitating. She acted speedily to pass a law banning semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles, and won international support for the Christchurch Call to end the use of social media for promoting terrorism and violent extremism.

Following the Whakaari/ White Island eruption in December 2019, Ardern was again a calm and reassuring presence, travelling to Whakatāne and demonstrating her impressive grasp of facts as she spoke repeatedly to the nation and to affected people in other countries.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also seen Courageous Jacinda at the helm, with the Government closing the borders and putting the country into a tight lockdown with the aim not merely of flattening the curve, but boldly seeking to eliminate it.

The world has watched on with admiration as the prime minister has taken the country with her, explaining clearly what needs to be done and asking all kiwis to play their part.  And people have largely done what the Government requested and strongly supported its actions.

The only polls published during this period, by social media polling company Stickybeak for The Spinoff, found in late March an 80 per cent positive rating for the Government’s response to the pandemic. By mid-April that figure had risen to 83 per cent, while a third poll in late April saw 86 per cent rate the Government positively on its Covid-19 actions.

A leaked private UMR poll publicised on 1 May showed Labour sitting at 55 per cent support, with National on 29, New Zealand First at 6, the Greens at 5 and ACT at 3 per cent. Ardern herself was in the stratosphere of 65 per cent as preferred prime minister.

Those results appear to show that the country appreciates Courageous Jacinda.

But, in more normal times, it is Cautious Jacinda who is at the helm. Ardern took the portfolio of child poverty reduction when she became prime minister, and the Government made much of its pledge to tackle the housing crisis. On both counts the administration has failed, despite a surplus of $7.5 billion for the year ended June 2019.

In November 2017, the Government set up the Tax Working Group to make recommendations to improve the fairness, balance and structure of the tax system in the coming ten years. In a nutshell, the group was expected to provide the justification for the Government implementing a capital gains tax to dampen the kiwi obsession with property as an investment.

Chair Sir Michael Cullen and the other members did their bit, releasing a final report in February 2019 that supported a capital gains tax. Ardern and her government then sat on their hands for two months, remaining silent and making no effort to sell the merits of the proposal.

The vacuum was filled by National and other opponents of such a measure, who prophesied economic doom if a capital gains tax was implemented.

After two months of this, Ardern ruled out bringing in the tax – not only at that time, but for as long as she remained leader. Cautious Jacinda said that there was no mandate – and no consensus – for a capital gains tax.

Actually, we did not know whether or not there was a mandate. What we knew was that hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders were locked out of the housing market, but that New Zealand First did not support a capital gains tax.

We will never know whether there would have been a mandate for the tax if Courageous Jacinda had emerged and spent some of her large stock of political capital on promoting capital gains.

Similarly, it was Cautious Jacinda who received the Welfare Expert Advisory Group’s report in May last year. The group was set up in May 2018 to report on how to deliver a social welfare system to ensure that people had an adequate income and standard of living, enjoyed dignity, and could participate meaningfully in their communities.

This was not a hard job: pretty obviously, raising benefits to liveable levels and improving the way Work and Income deals with people would sort out most of the problems. The advisory group duly made those recommendations, and Cautious Jacinda disregarded them.

That, and the failure to roll out a living wage to both employees and contractors in the state sector and then rapidly expand it further, mean that Ardern has no hope of significantly denting child poverty. Children are poor because their families are poor.

Families are poor because benefits and the minimum wage are not enough to live on.

There is nothing complicated here: both the problem and the solution are obvious. Once again, Ardern could have chosen to use some of her political capital to take decisive steps towards her child poverty reduction goals, but did not do so.

Perhaps the most baffling example of Cautious Jacinda was her refusal to condemn the discredited gay conversion therapy. A parliamentary select committee last year decided not to recommend a ban and Ardern was asked for her view.

Instead of roundly criticising the practice, she described it as part of some people’s freedom of expression within their religion. This was bewildering. To whom among those who would normally vote for Labour and Ardern was such a statement meant to appeal?

Gay conversion therapy is banned in Malta, Ecuador, Brazil and 19 states in the United States, and nine other jurisdictions are looking at outlawing it. Why would the prime minister not simply condemn the practice?

Ardern grew up in the small Waikato town of Morrinsville, population 7000.  Morrinsville is only 55 kilometres away from another tiny Waikato settlement, Te Pahu, where former Prime Minister Helen Clark grew up.

Ardern began her political apprenticeship by working for Clark. Despite both women being Labour leaders, they share a conservative streak. To know what Ardern will do in some situations, it is only necessary to wonder what Clark would have done.

The pair’s caution enables them to build and maintain broad political support – Clark led Labour to three election victories. Ardern has the potential to do the same.

But the question to be asked is: at what price?

When Ardern launched Labour’s election campaign in 2017, she described climate change as her generation’s nuclear-free moment. The clear implication was that a government she led would be decisive in tackling the climate crisis.

However, the reality has been that the current Government has done virtually nothing to address the looming climate catastrophe. Asked last year about becoming a vegan, Ardern flippantly responded that she was from the Waikato and “I don’t know that I’d be allowed to go home if I became vegan, and I love cheese.”

That was an easy and popular answer, but it ignored the fact that a move to a plant-based diet would reduce greenhouse gases from agriculture by 28 per cent and result in 8.1 million fewer deaths a year worldwide.

The Speech from the Throne delivered by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy in November 2017 said that Ardern’s incoming administration would be a government of transformation.

It has not been. Of course, Ardern has been hampered by the dragging anchor of New Zealand First. But she could have chosen to call Winston Peters’ bluff on some occasions, rather than bending to his party’s will.

Only five months are now left until this year’s general election. Ardern should look at the lessons offered by three former leaders and choose a bolder path for herself, her Government and her country.

Object lesson number one is the late David Lange, who enjoyed great political capital when he strode the world stage talking about the nuclear issue in the 1980s. But at home he sat back and let Finance Minister Roger Douglas run a rampant right-wing agenda which harms New Zealanders to this day.

Lange waited until the end to seek to assert himself, and then hoped to be remembered as a left-wing icon. That is not how I remember him.

Secondly, there is Barack Obama. The former American President is a gifted speaker and inspired the United States with his stunning oratory when he was running for president.

But, once in office, he remained silent on many occasions when he could have spoken, and failed to act when he could have been decisive. In his heart of hearts, I doubt that Obama finds it as satisfying having four of the most-liked tweets ever on Twitter as he would find having left a legacy of progressive action.

Thirdly, there is former Prime Minister Sir John Key. He won three elections by being affable, adopting positions that were popular, and having as his key goal winning re-election rather than advancing particular policies.

Courageous Jacinda could do a lot better than this: but she will have to decide to do so.

Ardern to date has chosen not to spend her political capital boldly. She has held to a cautious approach, seeking to achieve her goals incrementally. But the thing about political capital is that it cannot be stored. If it is not spent, it dissipates and is wasted.

Ardern is fortunate that her strong and clear leadership during Covid-19 has replenished her political capital, filling her bucket even higher than previously.

Courageous Jacinda needs to remain in charge from now on. Aotearoa New Zealand faces the prospect of catastrophic unemployment, poverty and economic collapse as the impact of the pandemic continues to bite.

On top of that, climate change has not gone away. The Australian bushfires and the fact that this country’s largest city faces the prospect of running out of water illustrate that the time for cautious steps has passed.

At least 400,000 New Zealanders live in overcrowded houses or do not have houses at all. Some live in cars or garages, with 41,000 people being severely housing-deprived. At the same time, in Tāmaki Makaurau alone, there are 40,000 empty private homes. A visionary leader could put those two sets of circumstances together to solve the housing crisis.

Cautious Jacinda could no doubt win multiple elections by clinging reassuringly to the middle of the political spectrum and refusing to rock the boat, but what will be the point of that if she has no legacy of improving the country to point to at the end of her leadership?

Ardern would do much better to retire her conservative side and aim higher.

The prime minister often asks us to be kind.

I’d like her to be courageous as well as kind.

Cat MacLennan is a journalist and barrister and former political reporter


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