Jacinda Ardern speaks at the Melbourne Town Hall delivering her speech on ‘Why does good government matter?’ Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern speaks at the Melbourne Town Hall delivering her speech on ‘Why does good government matter?’ Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

PoliticsJuly 23, 2019

Jacinda Ardern and bringing the people

Jacinda Ardern speaks at the Melbourne Town Hall delivering her speech on ‘Why does good government matter?’ Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern speaks at the Melbourne Town Hall delivering her speech on ‘Why does good government matter?’ Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images

In Melbourne last week the New Zealand prime minister addressed a crowd of Australian residents desperate for a little ordinary humanity in a politician. But Joe Nunweek found one passage a little too typical of what we’ve seen and heard from our leaders before.

Thursday, 18 July: a big night for New Zealanders in Victoria, a huge night for fans, friends and family of “ANZSOG” (no, I had to google it as well) as Jacinda Ardern delivers an address at Melbourne’s Town Hall. The joint is packed, and not just with emigrēs fanging to hear “Don’t Dream It’s Over” and “Royals” thundered out at 10 minutes a piece on the place’s huge and ancient pipe organ. There’s a row of schoolgirls sitting behind my group; a set of elderly pensioners in wheelchairs and scooters in front of me. People who were never into New Zealand politics, who never expected to be, are here and in thrall to the New Zealand prime minister.

It’s not just the punters. Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Sally Capp is exuberant, alluding to the significance of Ardern’s leadership at a time when other models of power seem destructive. Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin, giving the prime minister a traditional welcome to county on behalf of the Kulin Nation, tells her that “elders like me feel empowered by you to continue to fight”. It’s incredible praise.

The term “virtue signalling” slipped the bonds of academic behavioural theory ages ago. It’s now a slithering and subjective sort of term that could mean all the right and fine words and not enough of the mahi to back it up, or generally has the sneering implication that caring about certain things is simply all meaningless performance – who can actually be upset about climate change putting the Pacific underwater, or kids dying of rheumatic fever? But when global power in practice is just a series of trite Pentecostal paeans to the status quo at best, violent exhortations to ethno-nationalism at worst, what Ardern signals does matter. These women and the audience aren’t stupid and they’re not fantasists. Jacinda Ardern’s most high-profile acts may have been moments of symbolism, but it would take a bigger cynic than me to say they’re not a respite.

Mostly, the same goes for the big speech itself, high-level stuff for an audience not exactly immersed in the minutae of New Zealand politics. The transcript is mostly worth reading, I think . Ardern notes that the kind of international unrest we’re seeing “is only possible because large numbers of people believe, rightly or wrongly, that their leaders are failing them”. And then she links that to what New Zealand was subjected to from 1984 onwards, and what’s happening now as inequality has widened like never before. Thus the first Wellbeing Budget, thus indictators of child poverty reduction and a rollout of frontline mental health workers and hubs.

We can and should interrogate the effectiveness of these programs and targets, but I think what’s distinctive is that Ardern isn’t appealing to the preservation of what we’ve had until now as intrinsically great and good. Anthony Barnett’s 2017 book The Lure of Greatness contrasted the success of Brexit and Trump to the weak, forced smiles of the Remain campaign and Hillary Clinton’s alike – their refusal to brook critique, and their complacent denial that a lot of people were justifiably angry.

Rhetorically, at least, Ardern isn’t falling into this blase trap. The broad, meaningless word “populist” gives Guardian op-ed column types the vapors – dread visions of Jeremy Corbyn wearing a cloth cap and nationalising something, I guess – but what is this if not diagnosing the social ills of ordinary people due to a bunch of malignant forces, and prescribing the solution: that strong, caring government will right those wrongs, starting today?

I say rhetorically, because it was really the question-and-answer session at the end that gave me reason to pause. Ardern is probably the best political communicator in the Anglosphere at the moment for the simple reason that she actually sounds like a human being when she holds down a conversation – not, say, a Siri readout of her own press releases, or some sort of ersatz familiar reciting the whims of lobbyists and transnational capital, or that particular Trump/Johnson aphasia of the very, very rich. Hearing her talk about the reality of climate change bluntly or even what book she reads at the beach is delightful.

So when she comes out with “I’m an idealist, but I’m also a pragmatist”, the bottom falls out. What does this phrase ever mean? “I want things to get better, except it’s too hard.” “I’m in love with progress, but I want an open relationship.” More than anything, it’s a vacuous, politics-as-usual thing to say. Phil Goff could have said this in a speech. Davids Cunliffe and Shearer probably each did. I haven’t set foot on the Auckland waterfront for about four years, so please fact-check me if I’m wrong, but we don’t paint people on silos for this.

The context of the remark is Ardern’s own well-established upbringing in Morrinsville as part of the Mormon Church, and her own baptism of fire standing for Labour in the staunchly conservative Waikato in 2008. “Back then, when I got up at debates and talked about action on climate change, people would boo.” Now, she reckons, they’re coming on board.

Ardern lost that unwinnable seat, and Labour lost that election and got bumped into opposition for 9 years. She describes a big moment watching Michael Cullen’s dismay as the new National government watered down Labour’s Emissions Trading Scheme and suspended payments to the NZ Superannuation Fund he’d co-created.

“Years of work was just gone like that. Some of those experiences made me realise that you have to build consensus … and what you have done has to stick,” she says.

“I’m OK with the idea that transformation takes a bit of time because if you want anything to stick in a country with a three-year electoral cycle you have to bring people with you.”

My first thought being, okay, who do we mean when we say “people”? The young children being raised in our caravan parks or sleeping in cars on darkened streets where their parents won’t get ticketed overnight know cold, hunger and shame, but as far as I can see they don’t think of political optics and persuasion. Elsewhere in their communities, young people struggling with gig-economy underemployment, low benefits and high living costs aren’t testily harrumphing about the sanctity of the Budget Responsibility Rules.

“People” as a class includes a lot of human beings who can’t vote, or up until now, can vote but haven’t. Like Ardern (usually), I think it’s good to say what you mean: we’re going to have to bring the eligible voters who already religiously vote, every election, along for the ride.

Those people threw Helen Clark’s government out after three terms in 2008, but it wasn’t for want of moderation. Is our current prime minister implying that the lesson here is that Cullen’s pension fund and the ETS were too much, too soon? Both were established international models. The former brought us in line with dozens of developed and wealthy nations and relied on global investment to pay the country’s superannuation bill down the line. The latter was a flexible market-based environmental regulation that would have spared the entire agricultural sector for a good while and offered a soft, technocratic response to what’s effectively human extinction.

Meanwhile, a bunch of other third rail issues like benefits and Māori customary title were left untouched or eroded, as I summarised here in 2017. If the lesson from the fifth Labour government is really “don’t move too fast”, why bother moving anywhere, ever, at all?

On a burning rentier planet, the question of inaction vs action matters existentially. But locally, it matters in terms of Ardern’s commitment that New Zealand be the best place in the world to raise a child. The structural challenge of this is already staggering given that New Zealand, through a combination of enduring welfare guarantees on one hand and a hands-off approach to the economy on the other, is currently the best place in the world to be a boomer. The stats are stark – they’ll turn out in force in 2020, and beyond, amplified all the way by their young fogey fellow travellers in the media and and parliament. They’ll mostly vote National.

This isn’t the piece where I try and parse why many over-60s vote the way they do, finally come up with a fair and accurate definition of ‘boomers’, or try and Destroy Them With Logic. What I’m saying is that a big chunk of the reliable voting population will not easily be placated or enthused by the moderating efforts of an Ardern government (see to date: canning a capital gains tax, sticking to self-imposed austerity rules, steadfastly not increasing benefits) and even if they are, they’ll probably turn around and vote for a conservative option anyway.

As usual when I leave an event like this, I know I’ve got a lot of chat but little by way of solutions, but the first and best practical step would be for Ardern’s government to extend who counts as “people” for the purposes of our triennal democratic project. The Minister of Justice has already announced that from next year New Zealanders will be able to enrol and vote on voting day, but the government should be taking steps to introduce automatic voter enrolment, and (it goes without saying) extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds rather than hem and haw at the idea like it’s some Youth Parliament novelty moot.

What’s harder is crafting an appeal that will mobilise the people who aren’t going to the polls at the moment. Labour’s had a few cracks at identifying and mobilising this “missing million” in the past, each with historically unpopular leaders and with a mixed bag of policies they insisted people would love if they only listened. In Jacinda, they’ve at least fixed the former. She has the political capital, maybe, to be bolder on the latter.

Seeing a lot of normal-seeming people turn up in the cold to hear from a normal-seeming politician is absolutely heartening. The Australians, with literally no Ardern equivalent in sight anywhere anytime soon, love her. But even as I caught the good feeling, I departing wondering what her government is going to signify 20 years from now. In a decade or so, a lot of very outspoken climate change deniers, benefit bashers and doctrinaire moral conservatives, many unbelievably wealthy by historical standards, will begin to pass on, and their opinions on the prime minister’s appearance and family will die with them. What will Ardern’s run mean to the bubs and toddlers of today? Will they prosper as young adults in the country she once led, or will they have not counted enough at the time?

Keep going!