With Jacinda Ardern as prime minister, New Zealand has a chance to rebrand itself as a dynamic country where interesting things happen, says Wayne Mapp, the former National government minister of defence.
Well, we now have a new government with Jacinda Ardern, as New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in 160 years. People, both those who voted for her and those who didn’t, will be excited at the prospect of the new. And if she does well she will be rewarded with further terms in office.
I recall after Helen Clark had become prime minister that Sir Doug Graham predicted (in an allusion to Hillary Clinton talking about Bill) she would be a hard dog to move off the porch. And so it proved. From what I have seen of Jacinda, during the campaign, and also prior, the same will be true of her.
So what sort of government are we going to get? Will it be similar to the last, except with a new hip generation leading it?
The answer is “yes” and “no”.
Don’t expect the end of neo-liberalism, which seems to mean whatever anyone wants it to mean. For instance the new government is not about to re-impose tariffs and bring back import licensing. They are not going to end the floating dollar. They are not about to nationalise swathes of the economy. And due to Labour’s Rules of Budget Responsibility and the coalition deal, they will not be increasing taxes, or bringing in a capital gains tax, or a water tax, at least not before 2020. The new government has already said they are going to have budget surpluses, or at least that is the intended plan.
The total will probably be around $3 billion extra per year, which is significant enough. Provided it does not mostly go into increased salaries, there will be new things that can be done. As finance minister, Grant Robertson will need to be on his mettle. He is going to have to say “no” to many of the state sector union demands, if the government is to get meaningful new spending.
The New Zealand First role means we can expect a lot more spending on infrastructure for the regions, especially in the North. In truth that can’t come soon enough.
It will be in the atmospherics that the biggest changes will come. And these will really mean something. Even today there are people who remember the optimism that Norman Kirk bought to New Zealand. Jacinda has the chance to remake the narrative of our country. This is less about the hard core of policy and more about the image we portray to ourselves and to the world. Prime ministers can embody the spirit of a nation. Jacinda Ardern will convey a sense of New Zealand as a dynamic young country where interesting things can happen.
What of National, now that they are in opposition? Expect some senior people to go, either quite soon, or at the end of three years. If the government looks like it is succeeding, that could include Bill English. A successful government will not be defeated in three years. Only two governments in the last 75 years have only done three years. In both cases they were killed by a failing economy and a resurgent opposition. There is a depth of talent in the caucus, including some of the youngest, that will provide a ferocious opposition, able to capitalise on every government failing.
The one odd aspect of Winston Peter’s press conference is that he was changing the government because he expected bad economic times ahead. One would have thought that put a premium on experience, rather than on an untested team. Helen Clark was fortunate to have nine years of continuous growth amidst a buoyant international economy. Despite Winston’s fears Jacinda may also have the same luck.
Helen Clark’s most difficult challenge was 9/11 and New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan. It was enough to blow the Alliance Party apart. Should there be an untoward international event of the same magnitude, or even greater, then the new government has the same risk. The Greens will not prove to be a reliable partner in such a circumstance.
Winston obviously thought it was worth such a risk. Such events only occur every decade or two. Notwithstanding President Trump, there is a good chance that nothing of such significance will happen in the next three years or so.
In any event most New Zealanders, irrespective of their political allegiances, will want their new government to succeed. They will be excited at the prospect of new, young, vibrant prime minister. She will have her honeymoon, and if there is a guide from her predecessor but one, that could last for very many years.