For those fishing around for a progressive playbook in this fractious world, Biden and Ardern are pretty similar. But Biden appears to be turning the fortunes of the Democrats around but Ardern is currently unrewarded. Is there anything to learn?
Let’s check a few common fields, as succinctly as one can.
COVID 19 Action
Both Biden and Ardern administrations successfully mobilised the largest free vaccination programme in the history of either New Zealand or the United States of America. Arguably the recalcitrance of Republican-controlled states and conservative media cost far more lives in the USA than any resistance in New Zealand. The Biden administration effort got over 75% of U.S. citizens fully vaccinated, and the New Zealand response and population-wide effect was even better.
At the level of gun saturation and gun violence between the United States and New Zealand there is no useful national comparison. But turn to the legislation. The United States passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act that broke a 30-year streak of Federal inaction on gun violence legislation, including everyone under 21 to undergo enhanced background checks. Biden also signed dozens of executive orders to build on this most significant gun violence reduction legislation to pass Congress since the 1980s.
The Ardern government built upon a very strong legislative regime, with the Arms Act 2020, Arms Regulations Amendment 2021, and the big weapons buyback coming just in time to give stronger powers to the Police to combat a massive influx of Australian-domiciled gangsters. The first tranche of changes had overwhelming if not unanimous Parliamentary support while the second were more closely contested. It’s the biggest arms policy shift since the Aramoana massacre 32 years ago.
Under previous administrations, New Zealand influence such as it was in the South Pacific weakened, and confidence in U.S. leadership around the world plummeted to historic lows. Since taking office both President Biden and Prime Minister Ardern have worked to revitalise alliances and restore their respective positions on the global stage (nothing that New Zealand’s advances from ‘undetectable’ to ‘now we know you exist’). Arguably the Russian invasion of Ukraine has provided renewed energy to defensive alliances and sharpened common values between the U.S., Europe, the United Kingdom, and smaller players such as New Zealand.
And now a couple of big divergences.
In the last week of August President Biden signed orders wiping US$10,000 off student loans and US$20,000 from student loans through Pell Grants – under a specific salary income. This is an incredibly popular policy move.
The last time Labour did something big with student loans was in the final weeks of the 2006 election, in which Labour promised to wipe out interest on student loans. There’s political opportunity in students and their parents to harvest if Labour are up for it. Right now Labour’s tertiary training reforms are in chaos. Loans is a great hip-pocket place to improve this perception.
The CHIPS and Science Act
President Biden signed this into law to accelerate semiconductor manufacturing in the United States. The policy focus is on bringing back manufacturing jobs from China to the United States and advance U.S.-led technological leadership. An equivalent for New Zealand would be to target key offshored manufacturing eg requiring Icebreaker, Fisher&Paykel Healthcare, Fonterra and Fletcher Building to bring all their key ingredients and product lines and R&D back into New Zealand rather than being beholden to more fragile Chinese manufacturing and supply lines. One could only imagine the effect if they were required to as Biden has.
Ardern has been remarkably doctrinaire when it comes to industry protection and in-sourcing, and there’s plenty to learn as a very small and very narrow economy to vulnerability to China.
Bipartisan Infrastructure Law
President Biden’s once-in-a-generation transformational investment in repairing bridges and roads, removing all lead piping, upgrading ports and airports, and expanding broadband to all is remarkable in the state system of the United States. It also included the largest federal investment in public transport and the biggest investment in Amtrak since its creation.
Ardern’s government too invested on top of the Provincial Growth Fund with a $NZ60 billion further investment, and nearly a billion further to assist Councils with water network upgrades.
But the key is in the politics. With consistent infrastructure benefit evaluation, and network benefits, whoever is in New Zealand parliament and both sides agreeing on the need for investment in resilient state highways, huge public transport systems, and climate emergency impacts, there is ample room for Ardern to sit down with National and take all-transport-network infrastructure off the political table for good. Indeed it is only internal Labour politics that is preventing cross-party agreement on water and wastewater reform that all agree is necessary.
New Zealand’s socialised – often free and otherwise massively subsidised – healthcare again doesn’t compare well to the United States. But there are key policy moves that are remarkable to both. President Biden’s win has been in the Inflation Reduction Act which goes straight for the U.S. citizen’s hip pocket by allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices for the first time. It’s like a baby step towards Pharmac. There are specific caps to pay for annual prescriptions like insulin. 13 million US Citizens will have their premiums reduced by US$800, and the uninsured in the United States is now at a record low 8.8 million.
What Biden has done that the Ardern government hasn’t been able to do yet – and desperately needs to – is demonstrate how greater national power over the health system will result in lower costs to the public and faster and better treatment to get them well. At some point the NZ targets may well be published, but at this point in the cycle what people need is a dollar-and-cent improvement to what they have now which is chaotic.
All citizens like to think their government has a plan, and the first big one to come out of the Biden administration was simply the American Rescue Plan. This US$1.9 trillion rescue plan paid for the full vaccination programme, family debt relief with mailed cheques to most people, and a new child tax credit that led to the largest-ever one-year decrease in recorded U.S. child poverty.
The Ardern government has been renowned less for its plan for recovery per se than for Ardern’s own daily media briefings. It is s substitute of perpetual visibility for a durable plan. New Zealand’s government expenditure was as a proportion of GDP even greater than that of the United States, but the economic effects have been uneven with unemployment remaining low yet economic growth stagnating.
What hasn’t remained is a sense that the Ardern government is continuing to be guided by a plan, a plan with a visible public shape and direction.
The key differences with Biden’s broad and very bold plans are the focus on costed benefits to citizens, the focus on strong guidance of the whole economy, and translating the legislative and policy wins into fresh political momentum.
Progressives have similarities, but Biden has a performance edge Ardern can learn from.