Jacinda Ardern has described herself as a ‘pragmatic idealist’. In her early forays abroad, the new PM has started to indicate what form that might take – and those hoping to see a new radicalism in NZ politics are likely to be disappointed, argues former National minister Wayne Mapp.
After two international trips, New Zealand is starting to get a real sense of how the new prime minister will govern.
Jacinda Ardern has become our PM in part due to her compelling rhetoric and her positive disposition. This was, at least in part, enough to convince Winston Peters to choose her. He told New Zealand on the fateful night when he announced his choice of government that he had gone for a government of change.
So how much change?
Before the election Jacinda Ardern described herself as a “pragmatic idealist”. It was not clear which of these two words would dominate, though her time in prime minister Helen Clark’s office would surely have indicated the importance of pragmatism. However, in contrast to Helen Clark, there is much more idealism in Ardern’s speeches and interviews. Perhaps that is a product of being “youth adjacent”.
The visit to Australia where she agreed to give Australia time to sort out the situation of the Manus Island refugees showed her initial stance, being careful not to upset longstanding relationships. Though by this week at the East Asian Summit in Manila she had become somewhat more forthright on the issue, even if her actual offer had not changed. One had the sense she felt she needed to do more to burnish her credentials as the new leader in the progressive movement. That of course has its risks. It has looked like Malcolm Turnbull was trying to avoid further formal meetings in Manila with her. Most nations, especially close friends, do not welcome being told off.
But it was not Jacinda that upset the TPP applecart. That role fell to the other neophyte leader, Justin Trudeau. Not that Canada has ever been at the forefront of trade liberalisation. On present indications Ardern would never do anything so rash as to sabotage a vital leaders’ meeting at such a late stage.
Many of Ardern’s supporters have construed both her youthfulness, and the idealism of her speeches, as the harbinger of a new radicalism in New Zealand politics, where New Zealand would not be afraid to upset the international order irrespective of the repercussions. So far that is not how our prime minister has operated, even if some members of the public would prefer it. Consensus building is more her style.
There are at least three reasons why that might be the case.
The first is that there is not nearly the hunger for revolutionary change as in earlier eras. There is not the palpable aura of generational exhaustion that existed in 1972 when Norman Kirk was elected. The 1960s had the promise of the sort that occurs only every 50 years or so. By 1972 there was a real prospect that youth were able to influence a change of direction in society to a much deeper degree than the present. In part this was tied to the protests against the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the first wave of modern feminism, coupled with the flower power revolution that pushed back against the conformism that stretched back into the late 1940s. While there may be elements of that among millennials, it has nowhere near the power that revolutionised society 50 years ago, and continues to have deep echos.
The second is that the prime minister knows she is inheriting a healthy economy. This was all rather well put by Chris Bishop in his recent Spinoff column. I suspect the prime minister intuitively knows that if there is too much change, then the economic gains, not just of the last nine years, but also from the nine years of the Clark era, will be put at risk. Any significant economic setback is likely to result in her being a three-year prime minister.
The third and the most important appears to be the prime minister’s own political instincts. The choice of her senior staff, including Clark veteran Heather Simpson, would indicate a more conservative approach than her political rhetoric might indicate. Perhaps more than anything this may indicate how Ardern’s pragmatic idealism may in fact play out. In the words of Mario Cuomo, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.”
It is therefore not surprising that Jacinda Ardern does not intend to herald a revolution. The descriptions of her in the Australian press immediately after becoming prime minister as a socialist were overwrought.
The early commitment to TPP11 was perhaps the clearest signal that the basic economic settings will not be overturned. When coupled with Labour’s Budget Responsibility Rules, effectively limiting the size of government to around 30% of GDP, and the commitment to have no tax increases, then the scope for an economic revolution is just about non-existent.
These instincts do not mean that nothing changes. Jacinda Ardern will certainly want to leave an enduring mark on our political landscape.
Change is clearly on the horizon. Labour will spend around $2 billion more than National would have, largely due to the cancellation of National’s tax package. A government can do a fair bit with an extra $2 billion, particularly if they are also prepared to borrow more for capital expenditure. But society cannot be transformed with such a sum, though the worst problems can be significantly ameliorated.
So other things will happen. It will be a question of transferring her sense of optimism into a plan of action that captures the imagination, not just in a partisan manner, but in way that is calculated to gain widespread support.
We have yet to see what that means. The new prime minister’s continuing insistence that climate change is the challenge for this generation, most recently stated at APEC, may show the path of the change she intends. New Zealand being seen, not as the social laboratory that we have sometimes been referred to in the past, but as a country that uses innovation and imagination as the driver to adapt to the challenges of climate change. It will need to go beyond what is already announced in public transport and a reformulated Emissions Trading Scheme. The latter will excite no one.
There will need to be something tangible that people can latch on to. Perhaps budget incentives for solar power on all our houses, with a credible buy back scheme. It is the sort of challenge that could interest Elon Musk with his big battery storage systems. Or incentives for electric cars, not just for the wealthy, but for ordinary New Zealand families. Whatever it is, it will signify a prime minister ready to find the popular pathway to put substance to her rhetoric: her form of pragmatic idealism.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.