Jacinda Ardern’s personality, relative youth and air of doing things differently are winning over the centre, but she needs to get moving on climate change, writes former National minister Wayne Mapp.
In 2017, the day after Winston Peters had chosen which of the two major parties would be in government, I wrote a column about why new prime minister Jacinda Ardern would be a popular choice with many New Zealanders. It was not a column that endeared me with many of my former colleagues.
The first two political polls of 2019 have confirmed my views of 15 months ago. So why is Jacinda so popular?
There are several reasons.
First, it is her personality and her relative youth. She does represent a new generation taking power and she has a different language to her predecessors. More optimistic and more idealistic, just as many of her generation are.
Second, she has proven to be a safe pair of hands. Sure, not everything is sunny under her leadership, but most aspects of New Zealand life are going OK. There is enough change coming about to satisfy most of her supporters. At the same time there has not been the implementation of a radical and risky project to transform New Zealand, the promised changes are more incremental than that. Yes, there is the language of transformation, but the actual policies are more modest. One would expect the Tax Working Group report on Capital Gains Tax to be substantially pruned back. Jacinda Ardern seems to be in the same mould as John Key on the spending of political capital: It is not to be squandered but is to be kept in reserve to win elections. The post-1987 political and economic settlement is being modified, not overthrown.
Thirdly, there is nevertheless a sense she might really transform things with an agenda that reaches beyond the traditional left/right paradigm. Much of her current support, not just within the left but that which is broader-based, seems to vest this hope in her. Over summer I talked to a lot of family and friends who are not particularly focused on politics but whose sympathies lie in the centre, and there seemed to be a view among them that Jacinda might do things a bit differently. It will be something that unifies the country, not divides it.
The prime minister frequently says climate change is her generation’s nuclear issue. But so far there has not been much substance beyond the rhetoric. Certainly oil and gas exploration has been stopped, and conservation has got more funding. Meanwhile James Shaw talks a lot about climate change, and many of his suggestions scare the right of New Zealand politics. In any event if climate change is a central issue the policy can hardly be driven by a minor party. The leadership has to come from the top, from the prime minister herself.
Is there an opportunity to develop a set of climate change and environment policies that will genuinely take New Zealand into a new future? Not policies that set one section of society against the other but are seen as much more uniting than that? Such policies can’t be primarily about telling us how bad we are, but rather need to appeal to our more optimistic natures.
There are indications that a unifying approach is possible. Todd Muller of National, a supporter of the Climate Change Commission, seems to envisage that. Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, has spent his life thinking about these things.
In other countries such as Denmark, Finland and Israel, where the innovation challenge was thought about much more seriously than in New Zealand, there was a unified approach that lasted beyond any one government. But the principal credit belonged to the prime minister who was in charge at the inception of the challenge and who was seen as the principal motivator and organiser of the key policies.
It is already clear that the same opportunity exists with climate change and the environment. Most New Zealanders know things have to change, and they are comfortable with the notion that New Zealand should be a leader, not a follower. It is part of our nation’s ethos.
A real test of a nation’s commitment is the amount of money that is spent to advance policy. On the environment, in all its aspects, it is a little over $1 billion. It is made up of $450 million for the Department of Conservation, $140 million on forestry, $64 million for the Ministry of Environment, $50 million on energy conservation, and around $350 million in the Crown Research Institutes that are environmentally focused.
$1 billion is less than 2 percent of government spending. The defence budget is more than three times greater, at over $3 billion.
When there is a $5.5 billion surplus, you might expect a more serious government commitment, say doubling the environment-focused budget to $2 billion. Sure, there are lots of competing priorities for the surplus, but the prime minister has put climate change and the environment among her highest priorities.
Part of the elevation of this issue could be the creation of a super ministry bringing together all the departments and ministries that are directly connected to the environment and sustainability. A very senior minister would be in charge with supporting ministers for each specific part. It would be a bit like what National did with the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
Voters are looking for a clear signal of where the government’s priorities lie. Not just in rhetorical terms, but a real plan of action that will actually change things for the good.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.