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Jacinda Ardern still haunts New Zealand Six months on, the Labour Party remains visionless

The post-Ardern boom is yet to materialise (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

The post-Ardern boom is yet to materialise (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)


July 3, 2023   5 mins

New Zealand’s prime minister, Chris Hipkins, had a bumpy ride on his recent trip to China. Not only because of technical issues with his official plane — the defence aircraft used by the PM keeps breaking down, so the delegation flew to Beijing with a back-up — but also because of what he has, and hasn’t, been saying.

On the eve of last week’s trip, Hipkins declined to follow Joe Biden’s lead in calling Xi Jinping a “dictator”, awkwardly claiming that he couldn’t offer an assessment because he hadn’t met him yet, before adding that if the Chinese people wanted to change their system of government, then “that would be a matter for them”.

While in China, Hipkins was fĂȘted by his host, who praised the “great importance” of the relationship with its “friend and partner”, and remarked that other countries in the region were following the visit closely, a not-so-subtle dig at the more combative Australian approach to the relationship. Hipkins returned the favour by toning down his criticism of the human rights situation in the country, especially the treatment of the Uyghurs, sparking criticism from advocacy groups.

Be that as it may, using the kind of megaphone diplomacy employed by the likes of Australia or America is questionable for a small country like New Zealand, which has little to gain and a lot to lose from openly antagonising Xi. With almost 30% of the country’s exports — primarily agricultural products — going to China, New Zealand has been anxious to avoid becoming the “New Australia”, which has seen its goods hit with tariffs in response to its calls for an international inquiry into the origins of Covid-19. Accordingly, Hipkins has played a straight bat, remarking that “trade is a centrepiece for the trip”, bringing 29 business executives with him, and signing new deals on trade, agriculture, forestry, education and science and innovation. As he remarked, such deals are “bread and butter” for a trading nation like New Zealand.

This is certainly a change from his predecessor, Jacinda Ardern, who was hailed as the conscience of the world during her prime ministership, not afraid to tackle big moral issues on the global stage. This was always a bit of a misconception: commercially astute when it came to trade deals, Ardern was careful to tread a fine line between its traditional security partners in the West and its biggest export market. Her government resisted Western pressures to securitise the relationship, and urged Australia to “follow us and show some respect” to China.

Nevertheless, the contrasting tone between Hipkins and his predecessor is not an accident. Since taking over in January, he has been conscious of toning down the inspiring rhetoric, and switching the focus onto issues preoccupying Labour’s more traditional working-class base. Unpopular initiatives, such as water governance reform, mandating bio-fuel usage or stopping the merger of the public broadcasters, have been thrown on the “policy bonfire”, while the minimum wage has risen and government payments to middle and lower-income households were increased by $2 billion.

Not yet six months into his premiership, Hipkins has constantly emphasised a single-minded focus on “bread and butter issues”, such as fixing the economy. And New Zealand’s economy certainly needs fixing. Like the rest of the world, the country has been struggling with inflation, which averaged 7.2% in 2022 and 6.7% in the first quarter of 2023. In response, the country’s hawkish central bank moved rapidly to raise rates, from 0.75% at the start of 2022 to 5.5% today, above even the 5% rate in the US. While the Federal Reserve still hopes to engineer a “soft landing” by cooling price rises without sparking a recession, New Zealand’s economy has already crashed. GDP contracted 0.8% in the December 2022 quarter, and a further 0.1% in the following three months.

And while unemployment remains low for now, the prognosis isn’t good as consumers rein in their spending and businesses start defaulting on their loans, with experts predicting the recession might well continue into the middle of next year. Even New Zealand’s housing market, long-rivalling Australia’s for wild price rises, has taken a hit, with house prices dropping by 18% since November 2021, wiping more than $6 billion from household wealth.

This cycle of post-Covid inflation and rate hike-induced recession is not unique to New Zealand, with many other Western states experiencing similar scenarios. However, these come in the context of problems that have plagued the country for decades. Consider the housing market. New Zealand is the sixth-least affordable country in the world to buy a house, with an average household taking almost 12 years to save for a deposit, and spending around half of its gross income servicing their mortgage.

Restrictive planning regulations, insufficient rates of housing construction and a tax and regulatory regime that favours property investors over owner-occupiers have all created this crisis. And on each of these factors, successive governments have failed to conjure remedy. As a result, young people are priced out of the market, and a record number of citizens — almost 1% of the population — are homeless. Meanwhile, the top 10% of the population control 50% of the wealth, while the bottom 20% hold 1%. No wonder some commentators are warning that New Zealand is becoming a country of “the landed gentry”.

New Zealand’s problems are not limited to housing. The country experiences shamefully high rates of child poverty, its health system struggles with perennial staffing shortages, its infrastructure faces a $210 billion funding deficit, and its waterways are among the most polluted in the developed world, with nearly 60% of rivers carrying pollution above acceptable levels. The persistent failure of the country’s leaders to address these problems led to Ardern’s election in 2017, as she promised to tackle these deep-seated sources of disadvantage; her failure to do so spurred her already declining popularity before she resigned earlier this year. Once Hipkins took over, many hoped his back-to-basics approach would finally see some progress, and he was initially rewarded with a boost to his, and his government’s, popularity.

However, six months later, this glow is fading. Labour is essentially tied in support with the centre-right National Party, ahead of an election due in October. Undoubtedly, tackling the deep-seated problems plaguing the country is a long-term task — but so far it is not clear whether Hipkins will fare any better than his predecessor, his “working-class” persona notwithstanding.

Indeed, perhaps his greatest source of strength is the uninspiring state of New Zealand’s opposition. Only recently, National Party leader, former businessman Christopher Luxon, was caught on tape complaining that New Zealand is a “very negative, wet, whiney and inward-looking country” that has “lost the plot”. And amid rumblings about a potential challenge to his leadership, only 18% of voters describe him as their preferred prime minister.

On the policy front, meanwhile, the party offers little more than a reheated version of its usual agenda: tough on crime, miserly on spending and beating up on beneficiaries. Failing to grasp that these are the same policies that contributed to the country’s current malaise, exasperated National supporters have taken to blaming the media or denying the polls are accurate to explain their low levels of support.

In this context, Hipkins’s straightforward approach might be just enough to get him across the line in October. Either way, it doesn’t look like New Zealand’s problems will see any solutions any time soon. Six months later, the post-Ardern boom is yet to materialise.


Tom Chodor is a Senior Lecture in Politics and International Relations at Monash University.

TomChodor

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Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

Jacinda Ardern, “the conscience of the world 
 not afraid to tackle big moral issues on the global stage”? The same Jacinda Ardern who locked her country up for months on end, stopped people travelling home, relentlessly bullied people in to useless face masks, and vindictively persecuted the “unvaccinated”, doubling down on the “safe and effective” narrative even as it collapsed all around her? The same Jacinda Ardern who refused to engage with any critical voices in the media, who shut down debate, and who claimed her captured, deluded government was the only source of truth on public health matters? That one?

Honestly it makes me nauseous that this sanctimonious, unthinking, self-parody of a plastic, rudderless, manipulated politician is still lauded by people who should know better as some sort heroic paragon of progressive virtue. No wonder then she wants to “show some respect” to the CCP – like them, the only thing she really seems to really value is power. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

anna m
anna m
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

She lit a match, burned our country down, and walked away with a smug smile on her face. I’m not sure I ever really, properly loathed a person until I had the misfortune of being a citizen under her governance.

anna m
anna m
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

She lit a match, burned our country down, and walked away with a smug smile on her face. I’m not sure I ever really, properly loathed a person until I had the misfortune of being a citizen under her governance.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
1 year ago

Jacinda Ardern, “the conscience of the world 
 not afraid to tackle big moral issues on the global stage”? The same Jacinda Ardern who locked her country up for months on end, stopped people travelling home, relentlessly bullied people in to useless face masks, and vindictively persecuted the “unvaccinated”, doubling down on the “safe and effective” narrative even as it collapsed all around her? The same Jacinda Ardern who refused to engage with any critical voices in the media, who shut down debate, and who claimed her captured, deluded government was the only source of truth on public health matters? That one?

Honestly it makes me nauseous that this sanctimonious, unthinking, self-parody of a plastic, rudderless, manipulated politician is still lauded by people who should know better as some sort heroic paragon of progressive virtue. No wonder then she wants to “show some respect” to the CCP – like them, the only thing she really seems to really value is power. A wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 year ago

Jacinda Ardern – dreadful woman, representative of a dreadful political elite including Nicola Sturgeon, Justin Trudeau, etc.

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 year ago

Jacinda Ardern – dreadful woman, representative of a dreadful political elite including Nicola Sturgeon, Justin Trudeau, etc.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

Not entirely sure what this article is to do with Ardern to be honest, except to say the new leader has prioritised different areas of policy to those of his predecessor, something that happens with any change of leadership in any country.
It’s a strange article that seems to state that NZs housing is too expensive (it is) whilst simultaneously complaining about falling house prices. He’s correct about the lacklustre opposition however, the only policies they’ve released so far are ones that will push up house prices even further, whilst making it easier for investors to outbid first time buyers and avoid paying capital gains taxes

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

And many articles in many countries report on change in policy between predecessor and successor and success thereof.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

And many articles in many countries report on change in policy between predecessor and successor and success thereof.

Last edited 1 year ago by Lesley van Reenen
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

Not entirely sure what this article is to do with Ardern to be honest, except to say the new leader has prioritised different areas of policy to those of his predecessor, something that happens with any change of leadership in any country.
It’s a strange article that seems to state that NZs housing is too expensive (it is) whilst simultaneously complaining about falling house prices. He’s correct about the lacklustre opposition however, the only policies they’ve released so far are ones that will push up house prices even further, whilst making it easier for investors to outbid first time buyers and avoid paying capital gains taxes

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Nicknamed by my Kiwi mates ” Bird brained Beaver” with a ” Don’t let her chew all the trees in your stream to make a lodge”…

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

Living in NZ I’ve never once heard that saying, and I’m not entirely sure what it means. Seeing as we don’t have beavers it would be a strange analogy so I’m not sure it’s entirely correct

David George
David George
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I’ve not heard it either Billy, may be a thing among Kiwi expats. She was widely and deeply loathed towards the end so plenty of other choice descriptors, though probably best not repeated here.
We’re now more divided, poorer, sicker, less well educated and housed, infrastructure failing and crime through the roof . Her reign was a disaster on every level. The essay above doesn’t cover half the monumental c**k-ups and failings.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  David George

Are we really though? Housebuilding is at record levels, wages have increased by 25% in 6 years, we now have more doctors and nurses per capita than we did 6 years ago. Even though I wasn’t a fan of the Covid policies, the fact is we spent less time in lockdown than most other developed nations and inflation is much less than America, UK or Europe.
While socially she was bit too lefty for my tastes and far too timid to take on the vested interests in the property market, I certainly came out of he reign better off than I did John Keys

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  David George

Are we really though? Housebuilding is at record levels, wages have increased by 25% in 6 years, we now have more doctors and nurses per capita than we did 6 years ago. Even though I wasn’t a fan of the Covid policies, the fact is we spent less time in lockdown than most other developed nations and inflation is much less than America, UK or Europe.
While socially she was bit too lefty for my tastes and far too timid to take on the vested interests in the property market, I certainly came out of he reign better off than I did John Keys

David George
David George
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

I’ve not heard it either Billy, may be a thing among Kiwi expats. She was widely and deeply loathed towards the end so plenty of other choice descriptors, though probably best not repeated here.
We’re now more divided, poorer, sicker, less well educated and housed, infrastructure failing and crime through the roof . Her reign was a disaster on every level. The essay above doesn’t cover half the monumental c**k-ups and failings.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

Living in NZ I’ve never once heard that saying, and I’m not entirely sure what it means. Seeing as we don’t have beavers it would be a strange analogy so I’m not sure it’s entirely correct

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Nicknamed by my Kiwi mates ” Bird brained Beaver” with a ” Don’t let her chew all the trees in your stream to make a lodge”…

Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
1 year ago

“Restrictive planning regulations, insufficient rates of housing construction and a tax and regulatory regime that favours property investors over owner-occupiers have all created this crisis. And on each of these factors, successive governments have failed to conjure remedy. As a result, young people are priced out of the market, and a record number of citizens — almost 1% of the population â€” are homeless. Meanwhile, the top 10% of the population control 50% of the wealth, while the bottom 20% hold 1%. No wonder some commentators are warning that New Zealand is becoming a country of “the landed gentry”.
New Zealand’s problems are not limited to housing. The country experiences shamefully high rates of child poverty, its health system struggles with perennial staffing shortages, its infrastructure faces a $210 billion funding deficit, and its waterways are among the most polluted in the developed world, with nearly 60% of rivers carrying pollution above acceptable levels. The persistent failure of the country’s leaders to address these problems led to Ardern’s election in 2017, as she promised to tackle these deep-seated sources of disadvantage; her failure to do so spurred her already declining popularity before she resigned earlier this year. Once Hipkins took over, many hoped his back-to-basics approach would finally see some progress, and he was initially rewarded with a boost to his, and his government’s, popularity.”
And here is me thinking that people emigrated from UK to NZ for a better life, not to endure the exact same problems! Have they had 13 years of Tory misrule as well?

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

No, but we did have almost 10 years of Osbourne style austerity which unfortunately was implemented competently, and in many ways was actually worse.
The previous government sold off the railways for not being cost effective, so all freight was then moved by road. This was done at the same time as a reduction in the highways budget so the roads fell into disrepair.
The state/council houses were sold on the cheap to investors and no new one built which led to people living in cars and motels. A lack of capital gains taxes meant capital flooded into property pushing prices out of reach of workers. Immigration was used to suppress wages and farmers were given the green light to let tonnes of nitrates leach into the rivers without having to contribute to the clean up costs. All the while the government borrowed money to give a tax cut to high earners by slashing the top rate, and hit the poor by increasing GST (VAT).
The biggest failure of Ardern was her cowardice in tackling these problems. Despite be given a large majority she squandered the goodwill by simply tinkering around the edge and sticking rigidly to a Blairite centrism. She had a few victories such as an increase in wages, more apprenticeships and record numbers of houses being built but it simply wasn’t enough

Last edited 1 year ago by Billy Bob
David George
David George
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Sorry BB, you can’t just go making stuff up to suit your agenda.
The railways were sold in 1993 and re-nationalised in 2004 – nothing to do with the previous government and at no time was “all freight moved by road”
The Ardern government’s promised 100,000 new homes; just one of the many fails. NZ Herald June ’22: “Kāinga Ora, the government’s housing arm has demolished more houses in 2022, than it built, according to data from the department.
Information from the Government Housing Dashboard reveals 202 houses have been demolished since January, while just 193 have been built, a net loss of nine homes.” Genius!
Meanwhile folk are praying Kainga Ora don’t put their tenants next door and completely fail to deal with the consequent carnage. NZ Herald:
“Failed marriages, deteriorating mental health and terrifying threats of violence and death. These are the harrowing stories from innocent Kiwis whose lives are being destroyed by nightmare state house neighbours.
A Herald investigation has highlighted the plight of countless homeowners and renters around the nation whose once peaceful lives have been turned into living hells.
Gangs, drugs, obscenities, police callouts and savage beatings have become daily fodder for hardworking families or law-abiding state housing tenants unlucky enough to be living next to our most unsavoury and anti-social citizens.
Some have spoken of armed police callouts, murder investigations and chronic drug use. Others have detailed grievous threats, unbearable noise hygiene issues and hoarding”
There isn’t a single thing that isn’t much worse. Sorry.

David George
David George
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Sorry BB, you can’t just go making stuff up to suit your agenda.
The railways were sold in 1993 and re-nationalised in 2004 – nothing to do with the previous government and at no time was “all freight moved by road”
The Ardern government’s promised 100,000 new homes; just one of the many fails. NZ Herald June ’22: “Kāinga Ora, the government’s housing arm has demolished more houses in 2022, than it built, according to data from the department.
Information from the Government Housing Dashboard reveals 202 houses have been demolished since January, while just 193 have been built, a net loss of nine homes.” Genius!
Meanwhile folk are praying Kainga Ora don’t put their tenants next door and completely fail to deal with the consequent carnage. NZ Herald:
“Failed marriages, deteriorating mental health and terrifying threats of violence and death. These are the harrowing stories from innocent Kiwis whose lives are being destroyed by nightmare state house neighbours.
A Herald investigation has highlighted the plight of countless homeowners and renters around the nation whose once peaceful lives have been turned into living hells.
Gangs, drugs, obscenities, police callouts and savage beatings have become daily fodder for hardworking families or law-abiding state housing tenants unlucky enough to be living next to our most unsavoury and anti-social citizens.
Some have spoken of armed police callouts, murder investigations and chronic drug use. Others have detailed grievous threats, unbearable noise hygiene issues and hoarding”
There isn’t a single thing that isn’t much worse. Sorry.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Philip Burrell

No, but we did have almost 10 years of Osbourne style austerity which unfortunately was implemented competently, and in many ways was actually worse.
The previous government sold off the railways for not being cost effective, so all freight was then moved by road. This was done at the same time as a reduction in the highways budget so the roads fell into disrepair.
The state/council houses were sold on the cheap to investors and no new one built which led to people living in cars and motels. A lack of capital gains taxes meant capital flooded into property pushing prices out of reach of workers. Immigration was used to suppress wages and farmers were given the green light to let tonnes of nitrates leach into the rivers without having to contribute to the clean up costs. All the while the government borrowed money to give a tax cut to high earners by slashing the top rate, and hit the poor by increasing GST (VAT).
The biggest failure of Ardern was her cowardice in tackling these problems. Despite be given a large majority she squandered the goodwill by simply tinkering around the edge and sticking rigidly to a Blairite centrism. She had a few victories such as an increase in wages, more apprenticeships and record numbers of houses being built but it simply wasn’t enough

Last edited 1 year ago by Billy Bob
Philip Burrell
Philip Burrell
1 year ago

“Restrictive planning regulations, insufficient rates of housing construction and a tax and regulatory regime that favours property investors over owner-occupiers have all created this crisis. And on each of these factors, successive governments have failed to conjure remedy. As a result, young people are priced out of the market, and a record number of citizens — almost 1% of the population â€” are homeless. Meanwhile, the top 10% of the population control 50% of the wealth, while the bottom 20% hold 1%. No wonder some commentators are warning that New Zealand is becoming a country of “the landed gentry”.
New Zealand’s problems are not limited to housing. The country experiences shamefully high rates of child poverty, its health system struggles with perennial staffing shortages, its infrastructure faces a $210 billion funding deficit, and its waterways are among the most polluted in the developed world, with nearly 60% of rivers carrying pollution above acceptable levels. The persistent failure of the country’s leaders to address these problems led to Ardern’s election in 2017, as she promised to tackle these deep-seated sources of disadvantage; her failure to do so spurred her already declining popularity before she resigned earlier this year. Once Hipkins took over, many hoped his back-to-basics approach would finally see some progress, and he was initially rewarded with a boost to his, and his government’s, popularity.”
And here is me thinking that people emigrated from UK to NZ for a better life, not to endure the exact same problems! Have they had 13 years of Tory misrule as well?

Horace Rumpole
Horace Rumpole
1 year ago

Can I just say how delighted I am that I am not the only kiwi unherd reader!

Horace Rumpole
Horace Rumpole
1 year ago

Can I just say how delighted I am that I am not the only kiwi unherd reader!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Ahh.. Hipkins mi. Mr Carstairs has confiscated your conkers for playing with them in Maths class…

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

Ahh.. Hipkins mi. Mr Carstairs has confiscated your conkers for playing with them in Maths class…