The advent of Jacindamania has prompted hopeful comparisons between Ardern and other photogenic, likeable liberal leaders, including Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron. If that turns out to be true, the NZ left is going to be sorely disappointed, argues Branko Marcetic.
It’s a good time to be the centre-left. The seemingly dreary Andrew Little has been replaced by the young, hip and exciting Jacinda Ardern, leading to an immediate spike in volunteers and donations for the Labour Party and a dramatic jump in the polls, putting the party at its highest point since January 2014.
Labour’s post-Jacinda campaign messaging seems to be a conscious aping of National’s successful nine-year strategy of putting their affable leader front and centre, and turning elections into referendums on his personal popularity. Hence you have the party making prominent use of Ardern’s smiling visage in their social media posts, distributing images declaring, “I’m with Jacinda”, and Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis telling TV viewers the prime minister has the “personality of a rock.”
The party has been aided in this by the media, which has almost unanimously focused on Ardern’s personality instead of interrogating, say, her history, political beliefs or policy vision. Her ascension to the leadership was immediately rewarded with wall-to-wall positive coverage. We soon learnt that Ardern once met Nelson Mandela and is a “total policy nerd,” but haven’t heard anything about those actual policies. We’ve been told that she’s “incredibly likeable”, “has X-factor”, “is clever,” and and “has no baggage,” but have heard little about how her leadership will swing Labour away from its approach under Andrew Little.
Ardern’s rise to leadership has brought a renewed optimism among some of the New Zealand left, who see in her copious amounts of personal appeal an opportunity to retake power and shift New Zealand politics away from the gradual rightward drift of the last nine years. Ardern’s chewing out of Mark Richardson about his moronic comments about employers needing to know if prospective female employees plan on having kids was a flashpoint for this, seeming to show a stalwart, uncompromising attitude to progressive values.
“That’s what happens when you have a leader who makes voters go ‘yes!’” wrote blogger No Right Turn regarding the news of a surge of volunteers and donations. Morgan Godfery was guardedly optimistic that Ardern’s leadership meant the left in New Zealand was no longer “fucked”.
In keeping with this, Ardern’s already won a steady stream of comparisons to Canada’s Justin Trudeau, France’s Emmanuel Macron and former US President Barack Obama. All three were nominally liberal leaders who similarly used their youth, charisma and outspoken shows of social progressivism to bring their respective parties to power. In a piece that, once again, exclusively focused on Ardern’s personality, the Guardian noted that she was the latest in a line of Western “rock-star” politicians.
These comparisons are meant to be complimentary. But for anyone on the left, they should be read as ominous.
If indeed Ardern turns out to be New Zealand’s Trudeau or Macron, then the left in this country is going to be sorely disappointed. Both of those leaders cannily rode their waves of popularity not just to power, but to then paper over policies that were in many ways a betrayal of their core supporters and values.
Let’s start with Trudeau. As both candidate and prime minister, Trudeau had and has a knack for saying all the right things. He called himself a feminist and urged other men to do the same. In office, he unveiled the first woman on a Canadian banknote and made his cabinet gender-balanced. When asked why, he pithily replied, “Because it’s 2015.”
This year, Trudeau enthusiastically took part in Toronto’s pride parade, all the while wearing socks that were both rainbow-coloured and read “Eid Mubarak,” to commemorate the end of Ramadan fasting. He personally welcomed Syrian refugees into Canada; he wept when he met one of them again a year later, and tweeted messages of welcome as Donald Trump put his travel ban in place. You can’t go anywhere on the Web without tripping over an adoring meme of the Canadian PM, who has been called “the new big liberal superhero.”
But what exactly has Trudeau’s record been when it moves beyond symbols and words?
In its March 2017 “feminist scorecard,” Oxfam Canada pointed out that Trudeau’s “bold feminist rhetoric has not yet translated into tangible spending decisions.” Indigenous women continue to go missing or fill up Canadian prisons. Canada’s childcare costs are some of the highest in the world, while it continues to have an enormous gender pay gap that has helped the country slide to 35th in the World Economic Forum’s global gender equality rankings. Other than his cabinet, little has been done on women’s issues. His critics have accused him of “token feminism” and of being a “fake feminist.”
And it’s not been much better in other areas. Trudeau’s been busy approving pipelines to carry out of the country tar sands oil, a type of oil that is not only hastening the boiling of our planet, but is also particularly toxic and difficult to remove when it spills, which it has a habit of doing. Despite Trudeau’s well-publicised welcome of Syrian refugees, Canada takes in fewer refugees per capita than even we do, and in 2017 it quietly capped refugees from Iraq and Syria at 1,000. And Trudeau has happily sold weapons to Saudi Arabia, a country that not only beheads homosexuals and oppresses women, but is almost certainly using those weapons in its depraved war in Yemen.
It’s a similar story with Macron. Like Ardern, Macron campaigned on winning “a positive vote” and convincing the public to go with a “progressive view.” He ardently rejected the xenophobic nationalism of both Donald Trump and his opponent, Marine Le Pen. And following in Trudeau’s footsteps, he declared himself a feminist and, once in power, instituted gender parity in his cabinet.
And also like Trudeau, Macron’s actions in power have been less than progressive. He’s openly pursuing a right-wing economic agenda of massive spending cuts combined with tax cuts for the rich – cuts that, coincidentally, will impact things like women’s refuges. He wants to make France’s repressive state of emergency laws permanent. And there’s no sign France has stopped selling arms to Saudi Arabia, its biggest customer.
Ardern, Trudeau and Macron’s campaign strategy can probably be traced back to a little-known US politician called Barack Obama. He, too, was a young, charismatic, likeable candidate who seemed to promise a return to progressive values. He was articulate and fiercely intelligent. He could dance. Right up until the very end, we were fascinated by his summer playlist and what it told us about him.
In power, Obama shredded his campaign promises to roll back Bush’s “war on terror” excesses and instead embraced and expanded Bush’s national security policies. He did little to rein in the excesses of Wall Street and took aim at entitlement programs. And for all the justified alarm over Trump’s anti-immigration policies, the Obama administration has so far deported people at a quicker pace than Trump has.
This is the danger for the left: that Ardern is simply yet one more young, cool, polished Western leader who talks a good game, but, in power, undermines progressive policy, all while the public remains in thrall to her personal appeal.
Of course, there’s no guarantee Ardern is going to emulate these leaders once in power just because she’s emulating their campaign strategies. But the fact is, voters know little about her, politically.
Ardern has previously called herself a “democratic socialist,” something she repeated in an interview with Guyon Espiner upon becoming leader. But then she also told Espiner she preferred the term “pragmatic idealist.” Her seeming reluctance to now embrace the former label isn’t the most positive sign for anyone expecting a bold progressive vision. Neither is the fact that Ardern suggested to Espiner the Labour policy platform will essentially stay the same. And neither was her rapid throwing of Metiria Turei under the proverbial bus.
Commentators as far afield politically as David Farrar and John Minto have pointed out her thin list of accomplishments and her studious avoidance of policy specifics, as have commentators like Tim Watkin, Andrew Geddis and the Spinoff’s own Simon Wilson.
Child poverty has been one of her signature issues, and Ardern claimed her Child Poverty Reduction Bill would have put New Zealand “up there with the UK and Wales as the only places in the world who had put the battle to end child poverty into the statute books.” But all the bill did was establish a definition and measures of child poverty, required the government to establish reduction targets, and set up a Child Poverty Reduction Board – not nothing, but not exactly inspiring, given its one of her few major pieces of legislation.
Does this necessarily guarantee that once in power, Ardern will betray the left? Of course not. But the examples of Trudeau, Macron and Obama, coupled with what we know about Ardern so far, doesn’t exactly rule it out.
Morgan Godfery is right that Ardern and Labour need social movements to give them the space to move left. But they, like any politicians, also need to be pressured and criticised. The question for New Zealand’s left is how much a Prime Minister Ardern would need to be pushed to move in the direction they want – something that could be answered, were it not for the heady haze of personality politics that currently surrounds her.
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