Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a confidence and supply agreement signing at Parliament on October 24, 2017. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

What is Jacinda Ardern’s big idea?

As the Labour-led government approaches its first birthday, Max Rashbrooke attempts to divine whether there is a coherent ideological direction 

In a speech delivered in January this year, Jacinda Ardern promised to explain the “why” that motivates her government. This sounded exciting: a chance to understand her core reasons for entering politics and the basis of her long-term ambitions. What followed instead was a grab-bag of challenges (“the growing prison population”), laments (“our contribution to international issues has eroded”), and vague desires (“we must be a government that is transformative and accessible”).

Does this lack of clarity matter? We are all biased towards our own interests: writers overestimate the value of intellectual rigour, just as athletes overemphasise physical strength. Previous governments with clear ideologies have done great harm; much good can be done addressing problems pragmatically.

But ideology still matters. A clear intellectual framework helps ministers govern coherently. It gives citizens predictability, a sense of what is to come. And it lends underlying cohesion to the messages and narratives that politicians pitch to the public.

These questions of philosophy were simpler, of course, for the previous Labour-led government, which came to power at a time when the centre-left had a clear vision. Helen Clark, like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, followed the ‘Third Way’, accepting the primacy of the market but softening its rough edges with policies like Working for Families. This idea of tackling so-called market failures, underpinned by the work of thinkers like the British sociologist Anthony Giddens, gave government a reasonably solid rationale. (Though this picture may be clearer with hindsight than it was at the time.)

Now, famously, no-one knows what exactly the recipe is for the centre-left. The government that Ardern leads has, in any case, three parties with three different worldviews. And many of its leading lights – figures such as finance minister Grant Robertson and education minister Chris Hipkins – had their political formation in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when the centre-left was on the defensive and had to spend much of its energy winning concessions rather than formulating a coherent alternative.

So it perhaps not surprising that this government is more easily defined by what it is not than by what it is. Except in the fevered dreams of Stuff commenters, it is not obviously a socialist administration, nor even a democratic socialist one, as, say, a Corbyn government in Britain might be. There are no renationalisation or co-operative plans on the table. Despite New Zealand First’s influence, and a few policies limiting immigration and foreign house-buying, it is not consistently nationalist. And regardless of what the Greens might say, it is not a deeply environmentalist government.

Perhaps the most dominant trends in modern political theory are deliberative and participatory democracy, ideas that stress the importance of democratic discussion and direct citizen involvement in decision-making. Neither appears to have had much impact on a government addicted to traditional, expert-led, top-down reviews. The AUT academic David Hall has argued that this might be a ‘civic republican’ government, driven to remove all forms of domination from people’s lives. To a certain extent this is true. But aside from some signature outbursts by Shane Jones, the government has shown little appetite for a prolonged confrontation with economic power.

Ardern speaks occasionally about community, and her small-town background probably helps her understand the importance of local ties better than previous Labour leaders. But nothing she says deeply evokes the virtues of close-knit social bonds or unchosen community commitments. Labour’s large Maori caucus would be able to fill in such a vision, drawing on concepts like whakapapa and manakitanga, but appears not to exert that level of influence.

That is not to say, however, that this is a government without purpose. From Ardern’s speeches and from policy work overseen by Robertson and others, an outline of an intellectual vision can be discerned.

Feminist thinking clearly drives some sections of this government. Moreover, a phrase the prime minister often uses is that she wants New Zealand to be “the best place in the world to be a child”. This is a simple enough statement, but the policy implications flowing from it are profound, because to support a child properly is to bring to bear most of the apparatus of government.

Famously, Ardern also stresses kindness as a governing philosophy, in sharp contrast to her predecessor, Bill English, who once told a Wanaka arts festival that government “stands in the way of” care and compassion. That is not to say that his government was heartless, or that he never spoke in a softer tone. But the relative emphasis is still telling.

In her recent set-piece speech – or, if you prefer, TED talk – Ardern confusingly claimed that she wanted New Zealand to become “the country that we are already pretty proud of”. But she made the point much more clearly in her speech to the Justice Summit earlier this year, when she said, “I want us to simply be the country we already believe we are.” On questions of poverty, inequality and our ‘clean and green’ image, she suggested, a yawning gap exists between practice and vision.

Again, this apparently simple statement conceals a formidable challenge to the country, this time on moral grounds. Without appearing to upbraid anyone, Ardern is reminding New Zealanders that two of their most cherished beliefs – that this is both an environmental and an egalitarian nation – no longer bear much resemblance to reality.

But is there anything to give coherence and rigour to Ardern’s aspirations? The nearest thing this government has to a clear ideological framework is the wellbeing policy that the Treasury is developing under Robertson’s watchful eye. Part of the decades-long push to move beyond GDP growth as the main measure of success, it argues that the public’s ‘wellbeing’ relies on a whole host of issues, including non-material factors like their community connections, their state of health and how safe they feel, as well as material measures such as income and wealth. It also stresses that these things need to be achieved not just for some but for all.

Underlying these simple statements is the thinking of the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who argues that people should be able to lead “lives that they value, and have reason to value”. Governments cannot guarantee this outcome, but they should provide the wide array of services – such as health, education and welfare – that give people, in Sen’s terms, the ‘capability’ to lead such lives.

This approach, if done well, can be an inspiring one, with echoes of Aristotle’s argument that government exists to ensure people do not just survive but also flourish. And Sen is the perfect thinker for a progressive but non-radical government. He is both philosopher and economist, so his work translates easily into policy. He provides a clear critique of the utilitarian or satisfaction-maximising approach that has underlaid the crudest economics of recent decades. And he is firmly within the liberal tradition with which Ardern, Robertson and others are familiar.

That is not to say that wellbeing is without its problems. There are growing concerns that the Treasury’s policy will not properly recognise women’s work, and that a distinctively Māori perspective is going to be bolted on rather than being at the heart of the project. Moreover, government departments have long pursued the targets likely to be included in a wellbeing strategy; it is not clear that simply collating and reporting on them centrally will change much.

And while Robertson was trumpeting this approach well before last year’s election, his colleagues appear to be much more recent converts, if they are converts at all. So there is a danger that the wellbeing framework will be asked to do too much of the heavy lifting – to provide coherence in a way that is beyond its reach, or to substitute for a genuinely comprehensive worldview.

Nonetheless, it seems that what we have is a wellbeing government: an administration that seeks to implement kindness, to hold us to our ideals and to use the whole apparatus of the state to nurture children, under a slowly developing framework for flourishing lives. Whether kindness really can or will be made flesh is yet to be seen. And wellbeing is not quite the comprehensive ‘new idea’ that some would seek and that may or may not emerge in coming decades. But, in an uncertain and often unkind world, it might be enough for now.


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