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Out on the hustings for her first prime ministerial election, Jacinda Ardern is hard at work stirring a cavernous vat filled with steaming vegetable soup. “The goal is to keep it from sticking to the bottom,” she says, wielding an oar-shaped paddle in front of reporters and kitchen staff. It’s a photo op for a food programme that she is promoting and a charity for which she has for years quietly been an ambassador. “I have to keep stirring.” 

Later, once the soup has been packed into trucks for delivery, we follow her across Auckland to one of the primary schools that benefits from the programme. There she takes questions from students, is mobbed as she poses for photos, conducts rounds of hugs and then settles down on a tarpaulin alongside the schoolkids for a bowl of soup herself. It’s a whistle-stop campaign tour ahead of the election and, despite the hectic schedule, Ardern likes to linger a little longer than most.

In less than a month as leader of New Zealand’s opposition Labour party she has lifted its polling by 13 percentage points and attracted large sums of donor funds, not to mention a small legion of new volunteers. Local media, accustomed to the beige landscape of Kiwi politics, have breathlessly called it “Jacindamania”.

After nine years of being a politician as a party-list MP, including a stint as Youth Affairs spokeswoman, Ardern’s ascent has happened swiftly. In February the 37-year-old won a by-election in the inner Auckland seat of Mount Albert to become the local MP. Within a week, a resignation made her deputy leader of the Labour party and then, in late July, the incumbent party leader also resigned. Ardern suddenly found herself in the top job.

“It all happened so quickly; there wasn’t a lot of time to process it,” says Ardern over tea and scones at her electorate office, where she is yet to properly settle in. (There’s no nameplate on her door, just a Post-it note.) “This is the most energy I’ve seen in local politics at any time since the 1980s,” says political commentator Bryce Edwards. “The Jacinda factor is huge and it has really changed this campaign by producing a leader who has deeply resonated with the public.”

The daughter of a policeman, Ardern was born in Hamilton, near Auckland, but spent her childhood years in two small towns that were dominated by the forestry and dairy industries. The 1980s was a time of great economic upheaval in the country – state assets were sold off, trade barriers opened up – and she witnessed the disruption up close. “A lot of people in that region lost their jobs and the community felt the effects. I remember kids not having shoes, not having lunch and having to learn about suicide.” Ardern joined the Labour party in her teens as a volunteer.

New Zealand is facing some big challenges. The country can already see the effects of climate change striking its neighbours Kiribati and Tuvalu. “We will see climate refugees in my lifetime in the Pacific unless we do much more to act,” says Ardern. Her party is keen to follow the UK’s lead on climate-change laws and introduce carbon budgeting.

Ardern has always kept a close eye on the UK, having spent time working as a senior policy adviser in Tony Blair’s cabinet. That, she says, was an enormous affair that involved a vast number of people. At the time Blair was transitioning out and his successor, Gordon Brown, was moving in. “I remember the exact shift in the power dynamic. It was a fascinating time to be there.”

Ardern took in the political shift and realised quickly that her country’s small size gave it one significant advantage: the ability to be nimble. “In New Zealand if you want to resolve a political issue you can’t predict what will happen around the cabinet table because they go in there, have a meeting and a decision is made there and then,” she says. “In the UK I remember scripting some of what was going on and spending half a day setting up a phone call between two cabinet ministers. Our size comes with a benefit and that’s something I appreciate about the pragmatism of our democracy.”

Ardern’s electorate is the inner Auckland suburb of Mount Albert, a traditionally lower-middle-class area that has more recently welcomed a sizeable immigrant population, particularly from China and India. It’s a place that aspirational young professionals might look to buy their first home. But there’s a caveat: Auckland has some of the least affordable housing in the world, with the average home price now more than nz$900,000 (€550,000). Income growth has also stalled and homelessness is on the rise. “Housing is a right; everyone should expect to have a warm, dry, decent home,” says Ardern. She admits that changes are needed to the taxation system to help boost home-ownership rates, as well as ambitious building schemes. “My generation aren’t buying houses now and if they retire without home ownership they will retire in poverty. So I’m determined to change that – even if it means I’ll court controversy.”

It’s a move that constituents welcome, though they warn that the hyperbole surrounding the Jacindamania should not mask her inexperience. “She has only been in her position for a few weeks and is suggesting all sorts of ideas but there aren’t any policy specifics behind them,” says Auckland lawyer Allen Gordon. “She has the chops to get into the PM role but it’s still a guess as to how she’ll perform – she hasn’t been in a position of power since being in politics.”

However, others see her freshness as a positive. “We’re now seeing more bold and radical policies being put forward,” says Edwards. “We’re seeing a lot about inequality and about the big issues, such as taxation, drug use, euthanasia, healthcare funding and education, and particularly on the housing-affordability crisis. So New Zealand, for the first time since I’ve followed politics, seems more open to radical ideas.”

To take a country from a stable ground into unknown territory in a matter of weeks is an achievement for any politician and would-be leader. But Ardern has grand ideas on a macro level for contemporary New Zealand. She says she wants to drive innovation and entrepreneurship and to find the precarious sweet spot in which economic growth and environmental values are balanced. “We’re a proud country. We like to be seen as independent, thoughtful and responsible but that actually means making calls that sit with our values,” says Ardern. “There’s a real consciousness about our place in the world. We want to be seen as a beautiful, clean and green country. I want to make sure that we are actually living the brand.”

Opportunity knocks?

Despite Ardern’s meteoric rise, her party isn’t likely to form a majority government on its own. So who does it turn to for help?

With the New Zealand election set for 23 September, commentators and pundits are already asking what shape a new government might take. The incumbent leader of the right-wing National party Bill English only took the reins last December after his predecessor resigned. To win his party needs 61 out of a total of 121 parliamentary seats. “It’s unlikely that either Labour or the National party will have enough seats on their own to form government,” says Bryce Edwards.

It’s expected that New Zealand First, the party of notorious populist Winston Peters, will be the kingmaker – or queenmaker – with both parties expected to turn his way to form a coalition. Another minor party to keep an eye on is The Opportunities party. Formed last November by economist Gareth Morgan, the party is calling for tax reform, stricter immigration, the adoption of a universal basic income for 18 to 23-year-olds and for cannabis to be legalised. Aarti Betigeri


Comment

New Zealand’s Nigel Farage and his unlikely success

Writer Andrew Mueller

Imagine you are a budding political leader, possessed of flexible citizenship options. Imagine that you have observed the successes enjoyed worldwide by belligerent nativists and bellicose nationalists and thought, “I fancy some of that.” Imagine that you are looking for somewhere propitious in which to set up shop. What you probably want is a country with unsteady institutions, a rickety economy, a timorous media and a poorly educated population. Basically, you want a country entirely unlike New Zealand.

How, then, to account for the career of Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First? Peters founded the party in 1993 and from its name down has followed the populist playbook with startling success in a country that might be the last place it should work. New Zealand First holds 12 of the 121 seats in the country’s House of Representatives. Polls ahead of September’s election has the party on course to at least maintain that. Peters himself, leveraging New Zealand First’s representation in various coalitions, has ascended to such heights as deputy prime minister and treasurer (1996 to 1998) and minister of foreign affairs (2005 to 2008).

Peters’ masterstroke has been to understand – in the same way that Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage understand – a fundamental truth of our times: that the more fortunate people are, the more eagerly they will respond to being told that they are victims and that any failure to capitalise on their luck is someone else’s fault. There being few folk more blessed than those born in prosperous, secure, orderly and beautiful New Zealand, the reserves of paranoid self-pity available to be tapped for political profit are proportionately large. The absurd fantasies of an overwhelming Asian and/or Muslim influx conjured by Peters and other New Zealand First politicians have found a depressingly receptive audience.

In New Zealand, as in all countries founded on conquest, there is a constituency who have reasonable claim to be aggrieved by the influence of incomers: the local indigenous peoples. Peters is of Maori descent but – arguably admirably – refuses to be defined by that. A key New Zealand First policy is a referendum on abolishing the seven MPs in the country’s parliament who are voted for by a separate Maori electoral roll.

There is a discussion to be had here. Peters is not alone in believing that the Maori seats are tokenistic. There is also a discussion to be had about managing immigration. But like all populists, Peters is uninterested in participating sensibly in any such conversation. Like all populists he is an inflamer, not a solver.


About the writer: Mueller is a contributing editor at Monocle and a regular voice on Monocle 24, where he hosts The Foreign Desk, our look at global affairs. He is the author of three books and presently behind schedule on a fourth.

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