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Jacinda-Mania Isn’t Enough for New Zealand’s Workers, Māori, or the Environment

The landslide reelection of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour government is a welcome opportunity for New Zealand’s left. Yet Ardern’s record in office shows that we can’t rely on Labour to bring about progressive changes without pressure from social movements and the Left.

The prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. (NATO / Flickr)

Jacinda Ardern first came to power as the leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in September 2017. Her initial breakthrough came as a shock. The National Party, New Zealand / Aotearoa’s main center-right force, had been in government for nine years. Just a few weeks before the election, they had seemed unassailable.

With only six weeks to go, the Labour leader, former union official Andrew Little, resigned. His party chose Jacinda Ardern, a younger, more media-savvy career politician to replace him.

“Jacinda-mania” swept the country, contributing to an amazing surge in support for Labour. Ardern’s charisma produced a Lazarus-like return from almost certain electoral death for New Zealand’s oldest political party.

While the National Party still gained the largest vote share in 2017, Labour won enough seats to form a coalition government with the center-right populists of New Zealand First on one side, and the left-wing Greens on the other. The new coalition promised a “transformational government” that would tackle child poverty, homelessness, and mental health, while making climate change “the nuclear-free moment of our generation.”

A Transformational Government?

Today, the hype is still going strong. Yet a number of Ardern’s proposals have either failed to materialize or have turned out to be milder than expected.

For unions, the government announced a workplace relations reform called Fair Pay Agreements (FPAs). FPAs were supposed to allow workers and unions to negotiate minimum standards across whole industries, alongside existing enterprise bargaining. With their assistance, unions hoped to rapidly expand membership into new sites while increasing pay for tens of thousands of workers by increasing legally enforced minimum wages.

However, the introduction of FPAs was first delayed and subsequently referred back to the Business Ministry for further consultation.

On welfare, the government convened a working group including veteran anti-poverty campaigners. This was long overdue: in recent years, poverty rates have skyrocketed. Today, there are more than 660,000 Kiwis living in poverty. Yet the working group’s report was mothballed and almost all of its recommendations ignored. Instead of the proposed 47 percent increase to benefits, Ardern only granted a measly 3 percent rise.

The government announced light-rail projects in Wellington and Auckland — but shovels have yet to touch soil. Ardern also set up KiwiBuild, a state-backed program to build affordable housing for first-home buyers. The project, which also relied on private developers, has failed to meet any of its targets. By August 2020, only 452 homes were built — well short of the thousands promised.

Even on climate change, New Zealand’s new “nuclear-free” moment, progress was hit-and-miss. While Ardern banned future oil and gas exploration, she hasn’t touched existing permits that are decades away from expiry. Instead, her government has focused on the Zero Carbon Amendment Act (ZCA), pushed by Greens leader James Shaw.

The ZCA does nominally commit New Zealand to a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and net-zero by 2050. Yet it cedes responsibility to an “independent climate commission” which will “advise” future governments. It’s a far cry from a Green New Deal–style overhaul of industry and infrastructure. Rather than making changes today, the ZCA defers to the wise technocrats of tomorrow.

Crisis Management

Ardern’s multiple failures to deliver on promises have gone almost unnoticed, however. Instead, the public has understandably focused its attention on Ardern’s response to a series of unprecedented crises: a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, and a pandemic.

On March 15, 2019, a white supremacist attacked worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, livestreaming the massacre on Facebook. Fifty-one people were murdered and another fifty wounded. The attack was met with immense shock and grief, and Ardern’s response stood as an important rejection of racism and xenophobic politics. As well as expressing genuine concern for the victims, the government banned military-grade firearms and called for more intervention from social media companies allowing extremist content online.

Then, in December, the volcano Whakaari / White Island erupted while forty-six tourists and guides were visiting the island. Twenty-six people were killed, and the rest suffered horrific burns. Again, the government moved quickly to support victims and their families.

Finally, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Ardern took swift action. The government implemented a hard lockdown, a mandatory quarantine at the border, and a national contact tracing system. Ardern led the effort with daily updates.

The combined strategy proved highly effective, especially in comparison with the record of other countries. New Zealand is now free from community transmission, while other countries are still in the grip of massive outbreaks. On the economic front, Ardern introduced a wage subsidy scheme and other forms of stimulus, keeping unemployment much lower than originally projected.

Ardern’s successes heaped pressure on the opposition National Party, compounded by their own failings. For example, in the days before the Christchurch massacre, the National Party website hosted a petition against the UN migration pact. The Christchurch gunman explicitly referenced the pact in slogans written on firearms used in the attack. This fueled tensions in the National caucus between liberal elements, embarrassed by the association with anti-migrant rhetoric, and the party’s right wing, who were indifferent to such concerns.

The pressure of a looming election and a popular Labour Party finally broke the unity of the National Party, triggering a series of leadership shuffles. First, the caucus deposed the unpopular Simon Bridges. In his place, they installed Todd Muller, a more socially liberal business executive. After a few weeks of media gaffes, Muller also resigned, citing mental health issues. He was replaced by a longtime leadership aspirant, Judith “Crusher” Collins.

Crusher’s bizarre campaign didn’t go well. She spent the final weeks defending her husband’s questionable Twitter use, declaring that obesity is a problem of “personal responsibility,” and launching unprovoked attacks on the Australian state of Tasmania.

“A Red Tsunami”

Ardern led a popular Labour government and was opposed by a National Party out of ideas and at war with itself. She won in a historic landslide.

Amid a broad swing to the left, the Labour Party itself achieved the most impressive result. On the basis of preliminary counts, Labour is set to win sixty-four seats (out of a parliament of 120) — an outright majority. This is the first time one party has won a majority since New Zealand moved to a mixed-member proportional electoral system in 1996. Previously, major parties have relied on the support of minor parties to form stable governments.

Consequently, New Zealand First, led by the eclectic center-right populist Winston Peters, has traditionally served as kingmaker. More suited to opposition than responsibility, Peters’s stint as a junior coalition member exacerbated internal tensions in his party. Its vote dropped below the threshold of 5 percent, meaning New Zealand First will lose its foothold in parliament altogether.

For its part, the National Party saw its vote cut almost in half and its caucus reduced to thirty-four — although this was mitigated somewhat as the NP’s traditional support party ACT, a hard-core libertarian party, increased its vote to 8 percent (up from 0.5 percent in 2017.)

Not everything went Labour’s way. However, the party only lost presumed-safe seats to challengers from the Left. For instance, in Auckland Central, Green Party candidate Chloe Swarbrick won following an insurgent, volunteer-focused campaign. Against almost all expectations, she swept to victory with an unapologetically left-wing platform, which included stronger rights for renters and a proposed wealth tax. The national Green vote also increased, to the surprise of many, given Labour’s popularity and Ardern’s profile.

The Māori Party is an indigenous sovereignty party, founded in 2004. It grew following a mass movement against attempts by the then Labour government to strip indigenous Māori of their collective rights over the seabed and foreshore. Although the Māori Party’s policy platform has always aligned more with the traditional left, between 2008–2017, the party’s MPs lent support to National Party governments. The result was a series of damaging splits and a collapse in grassroots support, after which they were voted out of parliament in the 2017 election.

The Māori Party used its time out of parliament to reassess and rebuild, returning in 2020 with a policy platform to the left of Labour. It may have paid off — in the Māori seat of Waiariki, the reborn Māori Party appears to have prevailed against the incumbent Labour candidate.

An Opportunity for the Left

Media attention has so far focused on Jacinda Ardern’s uniquely charismatic personality. Although she is an undeniably competent political leader, the results in Auckland and Waiariki show that the result is more than a personal victory. It’s a win for the whole political left, one replete with possibilities for further victories.

New Zealand’s radical left is not united in one organization. Rather, it is comprised of independent activists and social movements as well as networks in the trade unions and the Labour and Green Parties. But these groups should now go forward with confidence.

Indeed, Ardern’s last term can help draw up a road map for the future. While many Labour promises were not fulfilled, when working people mobilized, they won significant victories. The union and Māori sovereignty movements were crucial to this.

Little progress was made on health funding until nurses took strike action in 2018, for the first time in decades. They achieved immediate concessions. The final settlement dramatically improved nurses’ pay and added hundreds more staff to wards.

In 2019, both primary and secondary schoolteachers took action, winning better wages and reduced workloads. Bus drivers went on strike in Wellington, Hamilton, Dunedin, and Auckland. Their combined pressure compelled Labour to introduce a national living wage for all bus drivers.

The strike wave has since grown, drawing in workers in logistics, hospitality, retail, early childhood education and manufacturing. Many of these disputes are ongoing. In fact, since Ardern’s 2017 election, more than a quarter of union members have been involved in some form of industrial action. Union membership has surged, with more than fifty thousand workers joining up. This rising union tide will be critical to winning greater reforms.

This new spirit of militancy isn’t confined to the workers’ movement. In Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau, Māori activists launched an occupation at Ihumātao. Ihumātao is an area home to some of the earliest human settlements in Aotearoa / New Zealand. It has immense historical and spiritual significance to its rightful owners, whose land was confiscated in 1865.

The government then gave the land to settlers who farmed the area, before selling it in 2016 to residential developers. The campaign was initiated when young members of the local Iwi opposed to the destruction of whenua (“land”) founded “Save Our Unique Landscapes” (SOUL) and launched a protest occupation.

When developers group Fletchers attempted to move forward with construction, the occupation exploded in popularity. Tens of thousands participated in marches, concerts, and the occupation itself. After minor confrontations with police, the government intervened to pause construction. While the issue has yet to be resolved, the government has agreed to work out a resolution which will see the land and its historical sites preserved.

These examples prove that working people, Māori, and environmental campaigners can win under the incoming Ardern government. But the experience of her last term shows that conventional lobbying won’t work. The Left can’t afford to wait and hope that progressive reforms will come as a matter of course. Ardern’s 2020 win has left the door to radical change ajar — now it’s time for popular mobilization to push it wide open.