The once popular Kiwi leader is crashing in the polls
New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern returned home recently from a series of international trips: giving the commencement address at Harvard, attending the NATO summit in Madrid, swinging by Brussels for trade talks, and being one of the last international leaders to meet with Boris Johnson before his fall.
While the common perception at that last meeting was of a dead man meeting a popular and competent leader, the reality is a bit more complicated. This was highlighted during an interview on the last stop of her trip in Australia, where a journalist pointedly asked what it was like to be more popular overseas than in her own country.
While she brushed off the question, the point remains: things are not going well for Ardern and her second-term Labour government. A recent poll has shown that the opposition centre-Right National and ACT parties would win next year’s election comfortably, while over 50% of voters now believe the country is heading in the wrong direction. This is a far cry from 2020, when Labour stormed home to an unprecedented landslide election victory, while Ardern was being feted as a model leader.
How did it come to this?
The first thing to note is that the 2020 election was itself an aberration. At the end of 2019, Labour was struggling to implement its political agenda, with its coalition partners blocking more ambitious policies around tax and climate change. In addition, extra spending in areas such as child poverty and health were did not yield results, and big schemes to construct affordable housing and infrastructure flopped under incompetent management. Commentators wondered whether Ardern would end up as a one-term wonder.
Then Covid-19 hit. Through a combination of geographical luck and apparently competent management, New Zealand weathered the initial wave, and life largely continued as normal, unless you were a citizen trying to return home. Observing the carnage and mismanagement elsewhere, voters rewarded the government. In this sense, Covid-19 was a welcome diversion, elevating pandemic management above all other issues, and diverting attention from the government’s struggles in other areas.
Yet, the Zero Covid approach was only delaying the inevitable, and once Ardern began shifting to living with Covid at the end of 2021, the shine began to wear off. Stumbles on issues like availability of rapid antigen testing, workforce shortages, or the response to anti-mandate protests showed that New Zealand was a ‘normal’ country, facing the same difficulties in managing Covid as everyone else. It was no coincidence that it was around this time that Ardern’s — and Labour’s — popularity came crashing back down to earth.
However, Covid-19 is not the issue that’s currently dragging her government down. Like the rest of the world, New Zealand is moving on from the pandemic, with even the government is looking to leave it behind in the rear-view mirror. As the country has experienced a sharp uptick of infections during the Southern hemisphere winter, Ardern has been nowhere to be seen, much to the consternation of those who cheered her tough policies.
Instead, the key issues concerning Kiwi voters right now are a cost of living crisis brought about by the highest inflation in three decades, stagnating wages and economic growth, unaffordable housing, a health system running on fumes, and a rise in violent crime. Most of these were there in 2019, and many of them got worse over two and a half years of the pandemic. Whether Ardern and Labour are better placed to address them this time is very much an open question.