With six weeks to go to election day, the Labour leader sits down with Spinoff political editor Justin Giovannetti to cast ahead to the world and New Zealand of the post-Covid future.
For a leader whose brand was built on ideas of transformation and an optimistic projection of the future, Jacinda Ardern has spent a large part of her three years as prime minister very much in the moment, tackling the impacts of terrorism, national disaster and a global health crisis.
Six weeks out from election day, with the New Zealand drawbridge firmly up, how does she see the years to come playing out? In the final third of what she has dubbed a “frankly terrible” year, Ardern sees these islands as a relative outpost of calm in an increasingly unstable and chaotic world. But the positivity is decidedly muted.
Speaking with The Spinoff from her office on the ninth floor of the Beehive, Ardern sketched out a vision of the coming years where bleakness is the norm almost everywhere but Aotearoa. A cynic might dismiss that as a sales pitch: vote for Jacinda and avoid the global meltdown. A realist would just point in the direction of the international headlines.
“I think that it’ll be stronger,” she said, when asked to imagine New Zealand in 2025. “That in itself will be a remarkable thing, post a health and economic global crisis.”
That this will be the “Covid election”, as Ardern has christened it, is inarguable. But beyond that there will be Covid years, if not Covid elections, to come. Once the immediate health crisis has faded, the world will face years of economic damage, which will only sharpen a great power struggle between the United States and China. Sitting to the side of this global maelstrom will be New Zealand.
“I think this will be a very destabilising period for the world. I don’t think you can have a crisis like this, that has had such a devastating impact on health and wellbeing and also on economies, that doesn’t also create all sorts of other instability, including political instability,” said Ardern.
The “stronger” New Zealand to which Ardern aspires would see a transition towards renewable energy, building an economy on a brand that is globally recognised as clean and green, while focusing on tackling inequality “and making sure the kids get a great start in life”.
The morning after our Thursday interview, Unicef released a survey that ranked New Zealand near the bottom of 41 countries in child wellbeing, driven by high poverty levels in certain parts of the country. Ardern, who has defined her political mission as tackling child poverty, said the Unicef findings did not reflect recent progress. In the battle against poverty and inequality, was a hike in the top tax rate on the cards for the Labour campaign? She would not be drawn on the question – but neither did she rule it out.
New Zealand has commanded global attention for its response to the Covid-19 crisis. A stringent lockdown followed by a long stretch of normalcy has been broadly popular here. Overseas it has served largely as an inspiration – and for some a cautionary tale of government overreach.
In the before times, Ardern attracted the world’s attention at the United Nations. Two years ago this month she spoke to the general assembly with baby Neve in attendance. If she were speaking to the same audience in 2020, what would she tell the world?
Before answering, Ardern cast a glance at a photo of Neve, taken at the UN, in the corner of her office. “I sometimes forget how small she was,” she said.
“I would say exactly the same thing that I said in different ways both times I’ve been there, with a lot of emphasis on the themes of last time I was there. In the aftermath of [the terror attack in Christchurch on] March 15, I felt particularly inclined to focus on what is our shared humanity and how that should be our starting point when addressing challenges,” she said.
“Covid is going to cause fractures throughout the world. Because that is what economic crises do. It’s a timely reminder that in a period where people feel really uncertain, and that uncertainty leads to fear, politicians have a very important role to unify and provide hope rather than capitalise on it for political gain further exacerbating fear,” she said.
“I think we’ll see lots of displays of that.”
It’s easy to figure out which politicians aren’t on Ardern’s Christmas card list, although she wouldn’t say it out loud. US president Donald Trump, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Russian president Vladimir Putin are unlikely to figure.
New Zealand’s prime minister is among a group of global leaders who command less daily attention but spend a lot of time swapping ideas. Most are on the more progressive end of the political spectrum. Her global best friend, however, is at least technically a conservative leader: German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Which global leader would she beeline to see first? “I don’t think I’m going to surprise you, it’s Merkel,” she said with a laugh.
“I have constantly been around her in this job. Justin [Trudeau] is someone I’ve gotten to know at a personal level. Like anyone else, I’d make a beeline to the people I know,” she said, mentioning Canada’s prime minister. There’s also Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez, who, like Ardern, loves to look at the minutiae of policy. A former member of the club was Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, who was not eligible for re-election after the end of her four-year term in 2018.
Ardern was sipping a “nondescript herbal tea” instead of her usual brew of English breakfast with milk. She’d just finished the final question time before parliament wound up – again – and politicians launched headlong into the campaign. The debate was a lacklustre exchange in an exhausted chamber. The deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, didn’t even show up, having already left Wellington to prepare for campaigning for New Zealand First.
Has the exhaustion gotten to Ardern? In most of the frequent Facebook videos she posts for supporters, Ardern is asked if she’s tired. If she wins this year, would she want to run again in three years, despite the chaos and global dysfunction she’s prepared for?
“You don’t run unless you have an intention of being here. And, you know, you do it for as long as New Zealand is going to keep you in the role. It’s interesting that more people are asking me that than I’d observed with other prime ministers,” she said.
“I wonder if that’s whether or not people think there’s a natural fatigue that comes from quite significant events in a term of office. That’s probably not unfair. I have no other plans other than being here, so I’ll see what New Zealand delivers.”
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.