Josh Van Veen: The Transformation of Jacinda Ardern

Josh Van Veen: The Transformation of Jacinda Ardern

Will Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern go down in history alongside Richard Seddon and Michael Joseph Savage as a transformative prime minister? Utilising leadership theory, Josh Van Veen argues that Ardern will need to soon seize the historic moment that we are in, to make the country resilient against future disruptions.


When Jacinda Ardern became the country’s 40th Prime Minister in 2017, she promised real change. “The true measure of leadership,” Ardern had said months earlier, “is the ability to confront the anxiety of the people.” And the National Government had clearly failed on this measure. There were too many families sleeping in cars, too many New Zealanders suffering from poor mental health and too many of the country’s waterways polluted. But hers would be “a government of transformation”.

Three years on, there is a consensus that the Ardern Government has done nothing to transform New Zealand. Thousands more children are living in material hardship, the waitlist for public housing continues to grow, and there is yet to be any meaningful action on climate change. Ardern’s decision to rule out a capital gains tax betrayed her true disposition – which is to avoid conflict. The debacles of Kiwbuild and light rail have further reinforced a perception that Ardern is not the transforming leader many believed she was. But is this fair?

The concept of transformational leadership was developed in a seminal book called Leadership (1978) by James MacGregor Burns, the American historian. Burns theorised that there are two types of political leader: transactional and transforming. The first is easily understood. We can think of a politician who appeals to a voter on the basis of what he or she will do to satisfy their needs. In return for your vote, the politician may promise to cut tax or secure funding for a new road. But there is nothing more to the relationship.

The transforming leader is one who can motivate their followers to work towards a collective goal. In doing so the leader brings together people with different interests and outlooks by appealing to their social conscience. According to Burns, the leader and follower are both transformed by this relationship, each inspiring the other to reach higher. But ultimately the success of a leader is judged “not by peoples’ delight in a performance or personality but by actual social change”.

They must actually transform society. Burns acknowledged that, despite their charisma, most would-be transforming leaders fail. Circumstances and timing matter a great deal for those with power. Social change is only possible when there is a fundamental shift in attitudes and behaviour. The historical forces that bring about this sort of change are beyond any individual’s control. However, the transforming leader must know when to seize the moment and offer a radical alternative to the status quo.

Here we can discern two different types of transformational leadership. On the one hand, there are leaders who arouse passion and hope but make no lasting impact. Then there are those who turn that energy into something monumental for posterity. Only the latter can make real, meaningful social change. These leaders are rare. Looking back in New Zealand history, few of Ardern’s thirty-nine predecessors are remembered for transforming the country.

The two names that most often come up are those of Liberal premier Richard Seddon (1893-1906) and the first Labour prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage (1935-1940). Both men came to power during times of national crisis and economic despair. Immensely popular, they enacted major reforms that defined modern New Zealand. Seddon is now immortalised in a large bronze statue on the lawn of Parliament. Savage is still revered among the Labour Party faithful today. His black and white portrait even sits in the Prime Minister’s office.

According to Burns, the success of a transforming leader depends on their ability to see where opportunities lie. They need to have a clear objective in mind. But the leader must also know how to use the resources at their disposal to exploit the social, economic and political conditions of the day. During the 1930s, mass unemployment and poverty caused many to demand social security. But it was the rare and creative leadership of Savage that made the welfare state a reality.

New Zealand will soon feel the economic fallout of Covid-19. Recent unemployment figures belie the reality that much of the country’s workforce now depends on government welfare. Given the situation overseas, it is likely the border will remain shut into 2021. Tourism and international education, two of our most valuable export markets, are now decimated. That is to say nothing of the poverty that existed before Covid-19.

Whereas other countries have prioritised the economy, Ardern has persuaded New Zealanders to sacrifice their freedom and prosperity for the goal of eliminating Covid-19. This is the most compelling evidence yet that she has the ability to transform us. With support for Labour averaging 55% in the four most recent polls, some commentators predict a historic realignment of the electorate. Such a realignment put Savage in government eighty-five years ago.

Indeed, Ardern may have the strongest mandate of any prime minister since World War II. But the reemergence of community transmission this week proves that elimination can only succeed if it is part of a long-term strategy to make the country resilient against future disruptions. That would mean a permanent change to our way of life – one that could lead to a more equitable society, in which child poverty and homelessness are no longer tolerated.

If Ardern does not seize this historic moment to confront our anxieties, it is unlikely New Zealand will see a radical progressive government in the 2020s. The next transformation could instead come from a right-wing National/ACT government. After all, history is full of irony.


Josh Van Veen is former member of NZ First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winton Peters from 2011 to 2013. He has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. His thesis examined class voting in Britain and New Zealand.