New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks at a Labour Party Election rally at the Michael Fowler Centre on October 11, 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Lynn Grieveson - Newsroom/Newsroom via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

New Zealand’s election & the nation’s mother

ACT’s former leader explains why in Saturday’s general election the free market party is likely to see its best ever result

New Zealand adopted proportional representation in a referendum in 1993. We chose the Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system that Germany has had since World War II. I won’t explain how it converts votes into members of parliament. That would take up most of my available space. All that matters here is that MMP is supposed to make it almost impossible for any party to gain a parliamentary majority and govern alone. Yet, according to the latest polls, the Labour Party could be on course to achieve this in Saturday’s general election.

I say “the Labour Party” but it would be more accurate to say Jacinda Ardern. It is the Prime Minister’s personal popularity that explains Labour’s 50 per cent support. She is a charming woman; I met her a few times when I was leading New Zealand’s ACT Party into the 2014 election. And she can translate that charm into effective public speaking.

Three crises have struck New Zealand since she became prime minister: the mass murder at a mosque in Christchurch, the eruption of a volcanic island (killing 51 people), and the Covid-19 pandemic. Her management of each has contributed to her status as Aunty Jacinda, an endearment that Maori use to register a woman’s importance. And she is admired not only in New Zealand but around the world. Guardian readers could hardly love her more.

Her ascent has been astounding, not only in its height but in its speed.

Ardern took over the leadership of the Labour Party just six weeks before the 2017 general election, aged 37. Under the leadership of her predecessor, Andrew Little – a lumpen former trade unionist and lawyer – Labour was headed for a heavy defeat. She lifted Labour’s support from the mid-20s to 37 per cent in the election. Since the governing National Party had achieved 44.5 per cent, however, it seemed unlikely that Labour would form a government.

Yet they did. Ardern negotiated a deal with the Green’s and New Zealand First.

The latter is led by Winston Peters, a politician who has been around since the days of Robert Muldoon, New Zealand’s populist authoritarian prime minister from 1975 to 1984. When MMP was introduced, Peters quit the National Party, which had become too economically liberal for his tastes since Muldoon was ousted in 1984, and formed his own party.

Because NZ First consistently wins more than five percent of the party vote – the threshold for parliamentary representation – and Peters is willing to enter a coalition with either of the main parties, he has often been the “kingmaker”.

It was unsurprising that he made Ardern king in 2017. On economic policy, NZ First and Labour agree that the government should play a bigger role. And they both disapproved of the open immigration and free trade policies that the centre-right National Party had pursued. Culturally, however, it was an awkward fit – a bit like a coalition between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump. And the tension between the Greens and NZ First is even worse, a problem ameliorated by the Greens getting no cabinet positions.

The Greens did, however, get policy concessions. One of Ardern’s first actions as Prime Minister was to ban all offshore oil and gas exploration and, as in the UK, New Zealand now has a net zero emissions target for 2050.

NZ First also got want they wanted, namely, a NZ$3 billion regional development fund which they could allocate to enterprises that would buy them many votes – sorry, that would promote the economies of unfairly neglected parts of the country. It didn’t do them any good. The whiff of cronyism, combined with a party funding scandal, mean that NZ First is languishing at two per cent in the polls and is unlikely to have any MPs after election night.

The Greens are also struggling, partly because of a scandal over a bung they engineered for a green private school, but also because, as one of their co-leaders James Shaw put it, Ardern’s popularity is “blocking out the sun”. The Greens may yet surpass the five percent threshold, but it’s going to be close.

Meanwhile the National Party has been in disarray. It was led into the 2017 general election by Bill English, the Minister of Finance under the popular John Key, who had stepped aside a year earlier. English had led National to its worst ever election result in 2002. But his reputation had been restored by his competence as Minister of Finance and by his decent and no-nonsense, if uncharismatic, demeanour. Winning 44.5 per cent of the vote is a good performance, and he must have considered himself unlucky not to become prime minister.

Most of the population positively yearns to have its liberties removed

In any event, he stood aside when Ardern formed her coalition government and was replaced by Simon Bridges. He was young and Maori, which made his colleagues think he could be a winner. But he too closely resembled a used car salesman, and when he spoke it was often hard to remember that he had studied law at Oxford. By May of this year, he was on only 4.5 per cent as “preferred prime minster” and his party was stuck on 30 per cent. So, he was “rolled” by his parliamentary party, as we put it in New Zealand, and replaced by Todd Muller, a social conservative who few New Zealanders had heard of. The job was too much for Muller. He quit just 53 days later, admitting that he had been suffering from acute anxiety.

National is now being led into the election by Judith Collins, a long-serving MP whose nickname is “Crusher” and whose political hero is Margaret Thatcher. The contrast with Ardern, who oscillates between smiling the world’s biggest smile and furrowing her brow because she feels your pain, is stark. Collins is apparently unconcerned by the prospect of hurting people’s feelings, perhaps because she wouldn’t notice if she had. Her memoir is called Pull No Punches.

Ardern’s hokey style isn’t to everyone’s taste. But Collins feels a bit like a throwback; a tough and talented woman who probably got the job 10 years too late. The National Party remains stuck on 30 per cent in the polls.

Nor is National’s problem merely one of comparative smiles. They have been a pathetic opposition. Following the atrocity at the Christchurch mosque, Labour rushed legislation restricting freedom of speech and gun ownership through parliament. National backed them. After seeing her hugging the families of the victims and wearing a headscarf, who could resist? Only one party, as it happened: my own beloved ACT.

New Zealand will continue to languish under the incompetent authoritarianism of Ardern

“Party” may be an exaggeration. ACT has only one MP: David Seymour, who won the seat of Epsom (in Auckland) at the 2014 election and succeeded me as leader of the party after I failed to win us enough party votes to get myself into parliament. In the 2017 election, he did no better than I had. But since being removed from government (ACT had been in a coalition with National) he has been a superstar. He is smart, principled, combative and witty. And he’s been the one-man opposition to the cult of smiling authoritarianism over the last three years.

His reward is that ACT is now polling eight per cent and may get 10 or more MPs (in a 120-seat parliament), which would break the previous high of nine MPs.

Alas, with National polling 30 and Labour 50, there is little chance of Seymour becoming Collins’s deputy prime minister – which, for those of us who believe in private enterprise and individual choice, would be the most exciting thing to happen since the transformational liberalisations of the mid-1980s. In all likelihood, New Zealand will continue to languish under the incompetent authoritarianism of Ardern’s Labour government.

Apart from banning things, it is hard to think of anything this government has achieved

And the incompetence is serious. Introducing a capital gains tax was one of Labour’s big policies in the 2017 election campaign. It didn’t happen (thankfully). Another big idea was to address New Zealand’s terrible house price inflation though a scheme called KiwiBuild that they promised would create 100,000 new homes in 10 years. In its first year, the scheme produced fewer than 100 houses and in 2019 it was abandoned. House price inflation has continued unabated. Nor has any appreciable progress been made on Labour’s promise to eliminate child poverty. Apart from banning things, it is hard to think of anything this government has achieved.

But that doesn’t seem to matter. As in the UK, most of the population positively yearns to have its liberties removed, provided they can believe it is being done to protect them, that it is being done by someone who truly cares. Though adults, they yearn to be pushed around by a loving mother. And in Jacinda Ardern, they have what they yearn for.

Jamie Whyte is a former leader of New Zealand’s ACT party.

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