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Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government: Style over substance or a guiding light for progressive politics?

Written By: - Date published: 8:42 am, August 10th, 2020 - 33 comments
Categories: abortion, bill english, Christchurch Attack, education, election 2020, electoral systems, First Past the Post, greens, housing, jacinda ardern, Judith Collins, labour, law, law and "order", leadership, MMP, national, nz first, polls, terrorism, tertiary education - Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Originally posted on Nick Kelly’s blog

Just over three years ago, a few weeks before leaving New Zealand, my friend Rob and I were in Burger Fuel on Cuba Street the hipster trendy part of Wellington. Piko was renting an office space in the old Wellington Trades Hall and we were doing painting and renovations of the space. In our crappy paint-covered work clothes we sat in Burger Fuel when Rob alerts me to who had just walked in the restaurant.

24 hours beforehand, Jacinda Ardern had replaced Andrew Little as leader of the Labour Party. We both knew Jacinda so said hello and talked about the Stand with Pike campaign we had been working on which Jacinda had pledged to support a few hours before. This slightly awkward conversation with the new leader of the opposition did not last long. None of us, I suspect even Jacinda, knew that in a few weeks’ time she would achieve one of the greatest upsets in New Zealand political history and become Prime Minister.

Sixth Labour Government of New Zealand - Wikipedia
Cabinet Minister’s photographed with the NZ Governor-General after being sworn into office, October 2017.

In just over a month New Zealand is holding a General Election. A First term Labour Government under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern will be aiming to win a second term in office. Jacinda Ardern is held up globally as a modern progressive leader and is praised throughout the world for her compassion and humility. In her three years as Prime Minister, she has faced terrorist attacks, volcanic eruptions and now the COVID-19 pandemic. In all these crises, she not only got the country through but showed the world that she was an articulate and competent leader. Jacinda is a world leader at a time when the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsanaro and Scott Watson are running the show. It is hardly surprising that Ardern is seen as a beacon of hope in contrast, but what has her government really achieved?

Jacinda’s response to the recent COVID-19 pandemic will likely be viewed as her crowning achievement, albeit one which was as much due to the actions of civil servants and the support of the wider NZ public as it was the Government. However, in a world plagued by COVID-19, ending community transmission of the disease in New Zealand is a significant achievement, and one the rest of the world is quite envious of.

However, I believe Jacinda’s greatest achievement was in the wake of the Christchurch Mosque shooting where over 50 people were killed. Jacinda Ardern’s immediate response to a targeted attack against the Muslim community was that this was an attack on the whole country. Her words “they are us” sent a powerful message to Muslims both in Aotearoa/New Zealand and throughout the world. A flatmate of mine in London on hearing Jacinda’s words said to me that no UK Prime Minister had ever said that he as a Muslim was part of UK society, highlighting how powerful Jacinda’s message really was. A few weeks later I had a three-week contract in Saudi Arabia and was talking to some of the local labourers over a meal break. On hearing I was from New Zealand these workers were very excited and told me how wonderful they thought Jacinda’s words after the attack were. The other impressive thing in response to this shooting, was Jacinda’s response the following morning that semi-automatic weapons would be banned. This was a rare example of decisive political leadership in New Zealand politics, which I am sure in years to come will save many lives.

When Jacinda took over as Leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in August 2017, many thought her chances of winning the election seven weeks later were slim. Labour was polling at around 24% when Jacinda took over, whereas the right of centre National Government was consistently polling over 40%. When adding the relatively high Green Party polling numbers at the time to Labour’s there was still little likelihood that NZ would elect a centre-left government a few weeks later.

During the election campaign, Jacinda pulled off a meteoric rise in support for Labour that astounded political commentators. In part, this was due to the arrogance of a third term National Government, who a year earlier had changed to a leader who did not have the charisma and eloquence of his predecessor. By contrast, Jacinda presented herself as the fresh face of politics, with a message of positivity and optimism.

On election day I had moved to London. I woke up on Saturday morning and watched the results online. Labour had increased its votes, but National was still the largest party in Parliament. Even with the Green Party Jacinda did not have enough seats to form a government. An economically centrist and socially conservative party called NZ First held the balance of power. This party had previously been in government with both National in the 1990s and Labour in the mid-2000s. In the past, it had gone with the major party who got the most votes and had been hostile to the Green Party, who would be needed in a coalition with Labour. However, the NZ Tories made a tactical error during the campaign of targeting the NZ First leader Winston Peters and releasing details of a pension overpayment. After four weeks of coalition talks, Winston Peters announced he would form a coalition government with Labour and the Green’s.

It is fair to say that this coalition has not been easy to manage. The politics of NZ First are quite different from the socially liberal progressive values of NZ Labour and the Greens. NZ First have acted as a hand brake on many policy areas, even on issues wherein opposition they had sided with Labour and the Green Party. An example of this was probationary employment periods, where having opposed them when National introduced them, recently fought to save them when Labour tried to scrap them. A coalition partner that is more interested in self-promotion and being oppositional is far from ideal.

It is easy for both Labour and the Green Party’s to say they could not achieve all they wanted in their first term in government because of a difficult coalition partner. But this can only go so far. There are certain policy areas where the current Labour-led government have simply not yet delivered. At the beginning of 2019, Jacinda Ardern announced that it would be the year of delivery. Yet in policy areas such as decreasing homelessness, or the now ill-fated Kiwibuild program to build houses to combat the NZ Housing Crisis – delivery simply has not happened. Yes, these are difficult policy areas, but they are also policy areas where Labour took a strong stance in opposition. Twenty years ago, homelessness was rare in New Zealand, yet over the last decade, the streets of Wellington and Auckland now compare with cities like San Francisco for rough sleeping. The current government’s handling of homelessness has been described as an abject failure by commentators. I have blogged about the Housing Crisis in the past and pointed out then that politicians the world over have failed to address this issue. Labour’s promise of 100,000 new homes in ten years has now been abandoned and frankly, the government’s record on this issue to-date is little better than its predecessor.

There are other policy areas where the record is much better. On election to government, NZ Labour kept its promise to make the first year of tertiary education free, as a way of trying to reduce student debt. The Government have finally modernised the country’s abortion laws so that abortion is no longer listed in the NZ Crimes Act. The minimum wage has been increased under the NZ Labour-led government from $15.75 to $18.90, bringing it closer to the NZ Living Wage rate of $22.10, that campaigners are currently pushing for. A cynic might suggest that in policy areas where there is a stronger cabinet minister, much more has been achieved.

The attack line of the opposition and much of the NZ media is that this is a government that has only a handful of competent ministers and that the Labour-Led Government are being carried by the popularity of Jacinda. The recent departure of two fairly senior cabinet ministers suggests there is some truth to the claim that certain ministers have not been performing. Further, it seems there are a few cabinet ministers who have picked up larger and larger portfolios when one of their colleagues is forced to resign, rather than new talent being brought in from the backbench. Megan Woods has been brought in both to salvage the Kiwibuild fiasco, and more recently immigration and border control to fix up the mess of an underperforming predecessor. Meanwhile, Chris Hipkins is now minister for Health, Education, State Services and Leader of the House which is in no way a sustainable workload, especially during a global pandemic. It seems a smaller and smaller clique now surround the Prime Minister when there are many other talented backbench MPs who are ready for ministerial portfolios.

The media in New Zealand have been critical of this government. For years the National Party have made a concerted effort to build a close relationship with the parliamentary press gallery, attending every social and ensuring that the right egos were stroked. With some very worthy exceptions, the quality of NZ political journalism is poor and focuses much more on personality than policy. In this context, it is impressive that Jacinda managed to win the 2017 election for Labour. However, it is generally agreed it was very much Jacinda’s popularity as a leader that won Labour the election. The media remain critical of Labour, particularly certain members of its current front bench who were there prior Jacinda becoming Party leader when Labour was consistently polling under 30%. Many on the left claim the media hold a political bias and in the case of “journalists” like Mike Hoskins, this is very true. However, critical reporting of certain ministers and performance in their portfolios is more than justified.

New Zealand changed from the British First Past the Post system to a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) voting system based on the German model in 1996. Had New Zealand stuck with the First Past the Post voting system, Jacinda Ardern would not have won the 2017 election. In my series on the 2019 UK election, I pointed out the foolishness of the UK Labour Party’s continued support of the First Past the Post electoral system. When you compare the 2017 elections in the UK and NZ, Labour achieved a similar result in both countries. However, in NZ proportional representation meant it could form a government, though other factors were at play in the UK. The challenge for NZ Labour though, is this is the first time since electoral reform that the party that got the most votes did not form the government. The combined Labour and Green Party vote was higher than National’s meaning the centre-left block has more MPs, but still many have questioned the legitimacy of the government due to this. Psychologically, government ministers may feel this too, possibly explaining a reluctance to be too bold in certain policy areas.

At the start of 2020 polling was neck and neck between the government and opposition in New Zealand. Despite an inept leader, National continued to poll around 40%. The COVID-19 crisis changed things dramatically. Recent polling has Labour on 53% support with National down to 26%, its worst polling numbers in 17 years. The National Party have now changed leaders twice in three months, gone through numerous internal scandals and continue to haemorrhage support. It seems unlikely their new leader Judith Collins will be able to pull things back enough for an upset victory in a months’ time. In a country where the National Party have won roughly two out of every three elections since the Second World War, and who despite losing in 2017 gained over 40% of the vote, the current collapse in support is significant.

The government’s handling of COVID-19 and Jacinda’s strong communication style throughout this crisis has clearly shifted public opinion. That NZ stopped the spread of the virus has meant Labour is polling very well, and Jacinda now holds the record for the best preferred prime minister polling numbers. Whilst it is always risky to pick election results, it now seems unlikely that NZ Labour will lose the coming election in September, despite polling numbers from earlier in the year suggesting this was more than likely.

But Jacinda and her government should not be complacent. Whilst there are undoubtedly areas where this government has performed well, there are other policy areas where there is need for improvement. In a three year term, there is only so much that can be achieved, but this is a government elected on hope, which, as an earlier blog post outlined can be dangerous if you do not live up to expectations. The added challenge now is the COVID-19 crisis and managing the global economic recession that is now hitting. Whilst eradicating the virus has helped the economy as lockdown restrictions could be eased earlier it has also meant the country’s borders have to be tightly controlled. In a country where tourism is a major part of the economic, this is not good news at all.

Critics have dismissed the Jacinda Ardern government as being one of style over substance. This is unfair given the challenges this government has faced and the policy achievements it has had. However, it is a government that has much work to do if it wins a second term. And its over-reliance on Jacinda as party leader is a huge strategic risk, especially when the governments front bench is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be lightweight. If current polling is accurate and NZ Labour win with a commanding majority next month, they will have a real opportunity to not only address these issues but significantly shape the direction of NZ politics for many years to come.

33 comments on “Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government: Style over substance or a guiding light for progressive politics? ”

  1. James Thrace 1

    Scott Watson?

    Judith likely to pull an upset win?

    I think you mean Scott Morrison, and Judith is unlikely to pull an upset win?

    The challenge for Labour if they win (nothing is ever certain) is to be bold, although given Grant's poo-poohing of MMT, I'm not sure they know how to be bold anymore. There's been a lot of talk in terms of maintaining BAU in an After Covid (AC) world.

    BAU simply won't work anymore. Airlines are falling like dominoes. When the pandemic is over, if it is, there's unlikely to be any mass tourism. NZ has for too long been the "end" of a tourism trip. Our freedom crapping allowance has been far too generous. I'd get rid of those converted Toyota Hiace vans from any freedom camping areas and limit them to staying in campgrounds. At the very least, there should be a private toilet and shower on board vehicles allowed to stay in freedom camping spots.

  2. Ad 2

    If Ardern gives us 3 terms she will have done enough.

    I'd be happy with Megan Woods after that.

    Your point about Hipkins and Woods being overloaded shows high pressure is building for a large Cabinet reshuffle. Ardern is already repeating the same mistake as Clark in not bringing fresh talent through.

    Right now however those are mistakes one can live with.

  3. thebiggestfish 3

    Excellent summary.

    My one gripe is that as someone who lives between SF and Auckland, the statement that "the streets of Wellington and Auckland now compare with cities like San Francisco for rough sleeping" is utter hogwash and is simply fake news on an outrageous level. I would invite you to revisit your view on that.

    Both Auckland council and San Francisco county statistics show that on both total numbers and percentage of population this is entirely incorrect. I Just from a simple eye test walking through SF and you would know that Auckland is not even near the spectrum of the scale of rough sleeping and homelessness in SF.

  4. Robert Guyton 4

    You said:

    " It seems likely their new leader Judith Collins will be able to pull things back enough for an upset victory in a months’ time. "

    But surely meant, "unlikely", yes?

  5. Warren Doney 5

    It's no surprise Jacinda doesn't want to bring new people into cabinet just before the election. Just imagine a Labour minister making a mistake like Jacqui Dean did – huge damage.

  6. An interesting summary. However, no mention of our Micoplasma Bovis battle. We would again be one of the only countries to erradicate this cattle disease., and we are on that track. This was the first hurdle for Leadership in hostile territory, with some farmers seeing Jacinda Ardern as "A pretty little communist"

    No real mention of the Dirty Politics of the right with their deliberate attack operations, which initially involved Jacinda's partner, so bad Police had to make a declaration of no case for Clarke to answer.

    No mention of the fact that our homeless have been assisted through covid and supplied with wrap around services, so the comments on that are poor.

    No mention of the child allowance, and many incremental gains.

    Refreshing the team and cabinet may be easier if some excellent candidates get elected.

    There is such a thing as faint praise, but generally the other points are well made and provided a thought provoking read.

    • roblogic 6.1

      TPPA. Housing crisis. Child poverty. Unsustainable immigration levels to keep GDP and housing bubble afloat. CGT failed. Kiwibuild stuck in neutral. Renters routinely exploited.

      Labour (& Grant Robertson) haven't *really* repudiated Rogernomics. “Incremental” gains are not good enough. There is a yawning gulf between rich and poor, and it’s not acceptable in a wealthy liberal democracy like NZ.

  7. Stuart Munro 7

    It's a difficult task, overcoming the inertia that has become entrenched over several decades, and actually getting things done. This is made more difficult by the range of world views within Labour, and the age of members – the tendency with age to stampede to the right, perhaps best exemplified by Mike Moore, hinders attempts at responsible governance, or little matters like rebalancing the economic trend which has created record inequality growth and underlies the present housing crisis.

    The implosion of the Opposition ought to make some things easier – their ability to create credible counter narratives is certainly declining. But actual support and ability could be thicker on the ground, and there seem to be plenty of bad Samaritans either in government or advising that are dying to divert the government off down the neoliberal rabbithole.

    So that although Jacinda is clearly the proverbial energetic woman to Labour's Oblomov, smart predictions try not to run counter to the laws of thermodynamics, which assert the final victory of entropy. Thus we may anticipate the continuation of the long decline New Zealand began when Douglas raided our public assets and thereby licensed the Opposition to loot the remains in their turn.

    • AB 7.1

      "The implosion of the Opposition ought to make some things easier"

      It would be a mistake to think of the National Party just in parliamentary terms. Allegiance to National runs strongly through business, agriculture, media and the professions. As the parliamentary wing of National temporarily falls apart, these other dimensions of the party are starting to go ape-shit over the the prospect of a Labour-Green government. If, for example, Fran can manufacture another 'winter of discontent' in 2021, she surely will, with knobs on. To go against this tide will be harder than it looks, even for Ardern.

      • Stuart Munro 7.1.1

        It would be a mistake to think of the National Party just in parliamentary terms.

        While that's true, their base is nevertheless hindered by the motley troupe in parliament. While they cannot credibly govern the "Throw Labour out" line lacks the clincher of "and bring in …". They have neglected their housekeeping and recruited sneaky little shits instead of people of substance, and of course those haven't lasted. Their older members are not statesmanlike Sequoias or Kauri, but a thicket of deadwood.

        Bruiting about photos of a prospective candidate for presumably licentious reasons exposes their level of dysfunction – they desperately need a few smart charismatic new faces, but are too keen to exploit them to have much chance of getting any through.

        • Pat

          "Their older members are not statesmanlike Sequoias or Kauri, but a thicket of deadwood."


  8. observer 8

    Thanks for this post. A fair summary overall.

    One simplistic take I've seen a few times in the UK is that Ardern did a deal with "NZ's Farage", tarnishing her by association with the far right. It's a cheap shot, and only valid if Farage had been in Parliament for decades, and had been Chancellor of the Exchequer under the Tories (1996) and Foreign Minister under Labour (2005).

    Under MMP, the choice for Labour in NZ is coalition or opposition, something FPP Britons don't always grasp.

  9. Byd0nz 9

    The biggest battle for any leftwing Party and I mean left, not center left which is bad enough, but the poweful owners of the news media will always be biased against the left, the reporters of such organisations use self censorship in order to remain employed, thus being corrupted by the owners policy. So the playing field for the left will always remain uneven. This means that when the left do gain power, they must deliver big time to the support given to them by the voters. This Labour Government has been hamstrung by the more right than center NZF. So if Labour/ Green forms the next Government they better get left policy cemented in place quick smart.

  10. left_forward 10

    Lets face it without any of the BS narrative – NZ has been to date the must successful country in the world at stopping the community spread of Covid-19. This is significant 'substance' to the Government's response to this global crisis.

    • roblogic 10.1

      We've been marketed that way, but Vietnam and Taiwan have been equally successful at controlling COVID

      • left_forward 10.1.1

        No they haven't and even if they had, third in the world is also substantive, independent of any marketing you are making up.

  11. mosa 11

    " modern progressive "

    That is neoliberalisim with a soothing smiling face.

    Nothing more.

  12. Observer Tokoroa 12

    Patricia Bremner – your summaries and clarity are Excellent.

    Unfortunately, "The Standard" has likely chosen to allow incredible abuse of Jacinda Ardern and her husband Clarke.

    You write on the Micoplasma Bovis battle :

    "We would again be one of the only countries to eradicate this cattle disease., and we are on that track. This was the first hurdle for Leadership in hostile territory, with some farmers seeing Jacinda Ardern as "A pretty little communist".

    Too many Farmers ever grudging and insulting. Jacinda ever providing finance. A great mess, as the Farmers from the South to the Waikato didn't know how to count their own stock.

    I cannot see why "The Standard" prefers to hide the magnificent work of Jacinda Ardern. I so wish that Jacinda could be acknowledged by the Farmers and the Citizens whom she dragged from rural poverty.

    How about it Micky?

    • Incognito 12.1

      Depending on how you look at it The Standard is either a Trust or something stored on an electronic device in Lprent’s abode.

      Authors here are volunteers who write about stuff as they see fit. Don’t try to tell Authors what they should or should not write about.

      There is no ‘managerial’ oversight of who writes about what and sometimes two posts appear at the same time on the same topic.

      If you don’t like it, start your own blog.

    • Observer Tokoroa. Thanks, but I would point out that the situation with that abuse of Clarke (and Jacinda) was handled deftly and with sensitivity by The Standard, which in no way repeated the gossip.

      My point to Nick Kelly, author, was he had missed many of the things achieved by this Government and the problems faced, hence his idea Jacinda was "Style over Substance" was flawed in my view.

      I also wondered that coming from a Union background as Nick does, he found the loss of Andrew Little to Jacinda Ardern upsetting, as he implied he knew her. (First two paragraphs)

      Incognito is very patient as a rule, considering some of the hugely personal attacks.

      A helpful tip. Never attack the person, only their ideas. Cheers.

  13. Descendant Of Smith 13

    WEAG and the differing financial treatment of mainly white people in response to COVID will forever remain a blight on this government, in the same way as putting the $20-00 per week back on NZS but not on benefits will remain a blight on Helen Clark's government.

    There was never a clearer opportunity to re-align benefit rates with NZS and have the support of the community in doing so. The significantly differing treatment of those who lost their jobs / were at risk of doing so only re-inforced the neglect of our most vulnerable.

    Two Royal Commissions and then WEAG have recommended significant increases to benefits. Jacinda and her government failed to deliver. The impact on Maori is and will continue to be significant. Both Helen Clark's Labour government and Jacinda's Labour government have treated two different groups, strongly populated along racial lines, quite differently. Under Treaty legislation they are supposed to consider the impact on Maori in all policies. They have failed to do this – just like the previous government failed to do so when creating the toxic environment that was WINZ.

    They suck.

    • greywarshark 13.1

      People falling into worse poverty largely due to the trade in our national house assets which the government have felt unable to slow or stop with huge rising inflation that hits one group of citizens heavily, and benefits another is probably the worst thing to show up from this political term.

      In Muldoon's day inflation hit everybody badly and probably that was at the basis of the running-scared Douglas team. But to have a calculated two-tier response is cunning in the extreme of Labour and doesn't raise them in the estimation of anyone not welded to them.

      I think Labour will get in as they have done some promising things, but promising and trying are words with two meanings, one ironic. While National continue showing their unique balance of perspicacity and perspiration, I think they will do as well as expected.

  14. Observer Tokoroa 14

    So Incognito,

    You are saying I should not ever suggest that a person, whether highly informed or not, younger or older, should ever be invited to give his or her thoughts.

    Whether female or male. I have never forced anybody to write or not write. As you well know.

    Could I put it to you, that the basis of "The Standard" is the writing of those who Comment. During which Readers may agree or disagree. But within the reasonable limits of truth and using appropriate language. Readers may even refer to past issues and events.

    I understand and accept there is no managerial oversight.

    If you don't like what I write, then you are obviously free to avoid me. I wrote on some remarkable work of Jacinda Ardern and the offensive response of some Farmers. Her great work may not be something that strikes you. She was merely 36yrs.

    Jacinda Ardern willingly set about funding and rescuing the huge Stock from Micoplasma Bovis. Superb results.

    • Incognito 14.1

      You can offer your thoughts and ask for opinions but you cannot frame it like telling what Authors should or should not write. You could make a gentle suggestion, carefully word it, and using appropriate language, which is/was the issue with your comment. Indeed, it is a grey area.

      No, you are incorrect that the basis of The Standard is the commentary and commentariat. The basis of TS is the Posts written and put up by Authors and the occasional Guest-Author. They are the grist to and for the mill. There are many more silent readers than commenters on this site. I believe some only read the Posts and can’t be bothered much with the commentary.

      I’d be more than happy to avoid your comments as long as you don’t draw my attention as a Moderator.

      Lastly, please use the reply button. It’s there for good reason.

      • Observer Tokoroa 14.1.1

        To: Incognito

        I have been advised to be gentle. I will.

        In the meantime, I notice the absence of many far better Commentors than me. Where have all the flowers gone ?

        Also, I have been told not to upset the attacker. Very good advice.

        Thank You

        • Incognito

          It’s the middle of Winter; not many flowers in Winter 😉

          • greywarshark

            I've got some nice hell-e-bores in my garden, and recommend them as hardy, frost resistant, perennial of course, and bloody determined. Just the right sort of flowers for me. Just saying.

  15. Observer Tokoroa 15


    hell-e-bores to the rescue.

    I was chided severely by a person recently on the Standard for not addressing you as a Femme.


    Your "greywarshark" identity always rang within me as not Femme but very interesting.

    But as usual, I was given yet another punishment. Not to worry. I was given 6 months by some other unhappy Standard person – for reasons unknown.

    In regard to the Person who recently chided me on your account, I personally think MMp is a game for children .

    First Past the Post is for grown ups.

    [What planet are you on that you make up this blatant nonsense?

    But as usual, I was given yet another punishment. Not to worry. I was given 6 months by some other unhappy Standard person – for reasons unknown.

    FYI, here are your latest two banned comments:



    I now am “some other unhappy Standard person” but for clear and obvious reasons.

    This is your final warning and next time you’ll cop an instant ban until at least after the election; you’ve wasted enough of my time here and tested my patience to its limit – Incognito]

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