January 20, 2023

No one saw Jacinda Ardern’s resignation coming, though many of her critics have been willing it for years. She has, she says, no more gas left in the tank after her five and a half years as New Zealand’s Prime Minister.

It has been gruelling stint, taking in not only the pandemic, but also the biggest terrorist attack in her nation’s history and a volcanic eruption that claimed 22 lives. Having faced  sustained vitriol from some of her opponents, and with a young daughter born while she was in office, it’s perhaps understandable, if disappointing, that the inspiration for working mothers the world over might now want to leave politics to spend more time with her family.

Ardern insists that she is standing down for personal reasons, and not “because it was hard”. But her political woes must have made that decision easier. Ardern’s popularity has been sinking for over a year, the country faces a crippling cost of living crisis, and her Labour government faces a daunting election this year against a resurgent centre-Right National Party. It is a far cry from 2020, when she was re-elected to become the first NZ Prime Minister to win an outright majority under an electoral system designed specifically to preclude such an outcome.

This is the leader who inspired “Jacindamania” and became an international progressive superstar. How did she fall from grace so spectacularly?

Covid-19 did play a part, but not in the way generally understood. Ardern’s Zero Covid strategy was driven by the cold reality of a health system that wouldn’t stand up to even a mild outbreak after decades of austerity. And contrary to critiques from abroad about “Covid dictatorship” and “never-ending nightmares”, the policy was actually successful. Within three months, New Zealand eliminated Covid, lifted all restrictions except closed borders, and life in the country returned to normal while the rest of the world descended into chaos. No wonder her pandemic management strategy was wildly popular, supported by 75% of the population as late as July 2021.

The problem, though, was the government’s failure to prepare an exit strategy. Complacency meant that vaccination roll out was slow, and the country was unprepared for the next wave: the Delta variant’s arrival, in August 2021, sparked a three-month lockdown in the largest city, Auckland. Once it became clear that the country’s success relied on luck and ad-hoc measures rather than enlightened leadership, Ardern’s popularity tanked.

The plan for re-opening once high vaccination levels were reached was similarly poor. Despite having watched Australia’s failures, New Zealand repeated many of their mistakes, with shortages of testing leading to an explosion of cases at the end of 2021, as well as staff shortages in shops and hospitality, and supply chain disruptions, and a health system still on the verge of collapse.

More controversially, New Zealand relied on vaccine mandates; Ardern described vaccination as “the golden ticket to freedom”. When the mandates sparked a protest movement that occupied the lawns in front of Parliament, the government refused to engage. The weeks-long standoff ended in violence when police moved in to clear the protesters, and it has rent the country’s social fabric, with 64% of New Zealanders believing the country is now more divided than ever.

It is this division, more so than any pandemic mis-management, that ultimately toppled her — it’s a division she was elected to address.

Ardern’s initial victory, in 2017, was based on promises to fix the widespread socio-economic disadvantage plaguing the country following four decades of neoliberalism and post-2008 austerity that would make even George Osborne blush. At the time of her election, over one in five children lived in poverty and inequality was high, with the wealthiest 10% owning 59% of all of the country’s assets, while the poorest half owned 2%. Housing affordability was a perennial issue — the average house would cost seven times the median income — while the country had the worst homelessness rate in the OCED, with almost 1% of the population living on the streets or in shelters.

Yet, almost six years on, what’s changed? Child poverty rates remain unchanged, while inequality has increased. House prices have increased by 58% over the past five years, with the average house now costing 8.8 times the average income. New Zealand, according to one economist, is now a country of “the landed gentry”, which dominates wealth and housing opportunities. Meanwhile, homelessness has worsened considerably, with more than 26,000 people waiting for social housing, up from 5,000 five years ago, as targets to build social housing have been badly missed. Even sympathetic commentators are examining Ardern’s legacy and asking “what was the point of all that?

Undoubtedly, the pandemic thwarted some of her ambition and the government’s response exacerbated some of the problems. Record high inflation won’t have helped. But Labour was struggling to make progress with its agenda well before Covid struck. Indeed, this was the reason it was trailing in the polls in late 2019, which the pandemic masked for a while: a failure of imagination.

On housing, for example, Labour backtracked on closing tax loopholes that only benefit investors and drive up prices, while its grand plans to build 100,000 “affordable” homes in the decade came to nothing, as it struggled to incentivise the private sector to do so. Likewise, the solution to the homelessness crisis has been to put people in emergency housing, usually motels. With scant progress on building new social housing, the average stay in this “transitional” system has increased from 3 to 21 weeks over the past five years. On child poverty, it has relied on inadequate increases to welfare spending, rather than any structural changes that would address poverty and inequality.

This, then, will be the legacy of Jacinda Ardern: a missed opportunity. Ardern recognised the need to address the socio-economic disadvantage brought by 40 years of neoliberalism, and made bold promises of state action to do so. Yet when it came down to it, neither she, nor her government were able to break free of the Blairite Third Way mentality.

Despite talking a big game where the “days of thinking that the state can be a passive bystander and the market will provide…are over”, her government relied on short-term fixes, deferred to the private sector, advanced the interests of the asset class, and tinkered around the edges of child poverty or homelessness. Ardern leaves her country facing a cost of living crisis, and her party with no clear successor with fresh ideas how to address it, or the other social ills crippling it. Despite being hailed as the harbinger of a new, progressive Left, Ardern simply turned out to be more of the same.