Jacinda blue background

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 6, 2020

Jacinda Ardern, conservative

Jacinda blue background

The prime minister is no free-market ideologue or social traditionalist, but there is a conservative streak to her leadership, and that delights committed conservative Liam Hehir.

Jacinda Ardern has advised us not to expect a whole lot of big promises from Labour this year. The announcement was undoubtedly frustrating for her more left-wing supporters. Regular voters, on the other hand, are much less likely to be bothered.

Which leads us to the question of why Jacinda Ardern and her government so popular? Part of it comes down to excellent communication and political skills on the part of the prime minister. The warm afterglow of New Zealand’s victory against the first wave of Covid-19 almost certainly plays a part.

Another factor, in my view, is the relative conservatism of this government. This is not to say that Jacinda Ardern is any kind of free market ideologue or social traditionalist. But in an older, more fundamental sense of the word, the prime minister has taken a surprisingly conservative approach to leading Her Majesty’s government.

There really is not a lot that can be said to be “radical” about this administration. There have been no decisive breaks with the past. To the extent that reform has been successfully completed, these have been of a gradual nature rather than anything revolutionary.

When you boil it all down, Ardernism comes to the idea that kindness is good. It can be tempting to make fun of this and too many on the right try. They probably should not since most normal people would agree that being kind is good.

It is just not a particularly transformational political ideology.

There are some who will object that the lack of bold policy from this government is down to the presence of NZ First. And this is correct to a point. But only to a point.

For example, NZ First scotched the idea of a capital gains tax and there was not much that Ardern could do about that. What she did not have to do, however, was announce that she would never countenance a capital gains tax while leader of the Labour Party. Her pledge reflected an unwillingness to persist with abstract notions of fairness in the face of entrenched political difficulties.

Another useful example is Kiwibuild. This was arguably Labour’s most socialistic policy given it was predicated on the idea that problems with the housing market could be best resolved through a government department directly supplying private residences for sale. The policy quickly fell apart, as we all know, for all the reasons that the public provision of private goods nearly always falls apart.

Has Ardern come out swinging in defence of the policy, the need to persist with it and give it more resources? Of course not. That would be a triumph of ideology over pragmatism. So instead the policy has been allowed to quietly wither on the vine and die even as house prices continue to surge to record new highs.

Labour is handed a healthy balance sheet and the biggest economic crisis since the great depression and instead of implementing the UBI it was talking about a few years ago, the response is a budget so conservative that Bill English could have delivered it.

And on and on it goes.

Here’s the thing: Jacinda Ardern does not have an anti-establishment bone in her body. She is an outstanding politician and has had many years to hone her craft. She worked for Helen Clark and Tony Blair, entered Parliament through an extraordinary good list placing and became party leader by acclamation. She was then made prime minister by Winston Peters, who had then served in three governments and was the most experienced person in politics. It is hard to think of somebody who less establishment than Jacinda Ardern.

Then there is Ardern’s very high personal approval ratings.

As a politician seeking election, this is a great thing to have. It is probably the best asset that somebody seeking to hold and retain power can have. It is also something of a prison.

On any given subject, there will always be more people interested in defending the way things are than there will be people dedicated to overturning the way things are. This is because the benefits of the status quo are concentrated while the costs are diffused. And this means that it is easier for those threatened by change to make trouble for a reformer than it is for the reformer to stir the masses to her side.

Put that together and what do you get? Somebody already disposed to moderation and a political brand built around being popular. On the right, that gives you John Key. On the left, it gives you Jacinda Ardern.

Key and Ardern share two things: crossover appeal and few true policy monuments. It is probably going too far to say that we are currently living through the fourth term of John Key’s premiership. The basic framework of the nine long years, however, remains very much intact at a fundamental level.

Don’t get me wrong – our prime minister is not in any meaningful way “right wing.” She is an avowed supporter of a mixed economy and has taken steps to buttress the safety net. But she also falls squarely within existing structures and has little inclination to overthrow them. She is as politically conservative as Labour leaders come.

I offer this analysis not as a lament but with a sigh of relief. As a political conservative, I naturally would prefer a National Party government. In 2017, however, I wrote of the fact that I was not “fearful of a Labour government” because it was clear that there would be no “revolution” against our way of life or the basic set out of policies that have generally held us in good stead.

Tell me that I was wrong.

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