Has Ardern earned another term?
Telling people to 'be kind' every time there’s a Covid outbreak isn’t a plan for dealing with the consequences of the pandemic
In May 1945, the month in which World War 2 ended in Europe, British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill had an approval rating of 83% with the British public – a recognition of the fact that he had guided his country through the most significant crisis in its history.
Less than two months later his Government slumped to a crushing defeat – losing to Labours Clement Atlee who won with a majority of 145 seats by appealing to the public’s desire for change.
But as dramatic as these numbers are, those who are clinging to the idea of a similar defeat for Labour and a Lazarus-style comeback for the Nats will almost certainly be disappointed. The most recent polls show support for Labour sitting at 48% and National languishing in the low 30s and while the polls will probably tighten leading into the final weeks of the campaign, it won’t be by enough to make this into a real contest.
This is stunning given that, as recently as 7 months ago you could have been excused for thinking that the Coalition was looking down the barrel of almost certain electoral defeat as Ardern’s Government lurched from one scandal and policy failure to another. In fact, the indicators were so favourable to the Nats that I actually wrote an article about it, back in February, predicting that they would form the next Government, in September.
So what changed? How did Labour go from dead man walking to second term Government in waiting?
The answer is obvious. Covid 19.
Consider the position that Ardern and the Labour Party were in prior to March of this year. After unexpectedly finding herself in power courtesy of one of the flaws of our MMP system of voting, Ardern and Labour spent their first two years failing so spectacularly to deliver on even the most basic of their 2017 Election promises that they were being openly described as the worst New Zealand Government since the 1975-1984 Muldoon administration. Her Governments almost total failure to deliver on policies such as its promises to fix the housing shortage (Kiwibuild), reduce unemployment, address Child poverty and introduce transparency to Government (to name just a few) meant that Labour Ministers were being openly mocked and characterised as inexperienced incompetents and impractical ideologues – despite the desperate attempts to paint them as otherwise by a compliant section of the media.
Then along came Covid-19 and the first lockdown – and everything changed.
No doubt commentators will romanticise this event when the history of Covid in New Zealand is eventually written – but for me, the reasons for the change in public support are pretty obvious:
- People are willing to give up their freedoms in times of crisis.
For the most part, throughout our history, kiwis have craved personal freedom, minimal State intrusion and small Government. Generally, we want our Governments to stay out of our way and keep their own affairs in order. Except in times of crisis. At those times we want leaders who will tell us what to do and who make us feel ‘safe’ – regardless of the financial cost. During these periods personal freedom and our rights take second place to the kinds of things that underpin the ideology of Labour movements: the power of the collective over the rights of the individual, suspension of concern for financial cost, and regulation backed by authority as a way to change behaviour. Ironically, the reality of the ballot box usually causes Labour movements to moderate these tendencies so as to make them electable – but when the nature of the crisis is overwhelming we willingly hand over our independence in exchange for momentary certainty. It happened in the aftermath of the 1929 Stockmarket Crash, it happened during the first and second world wars – and it’s happening again now. That’s not to say that Bridges, Key and English would have been any less capable of stepping up to this challenge – but I suspect that their core belief in the rights of the individual may have made it more difficult for them to embrace State control and unrestrained spending in quite the same way that Ardern has been able to do – simply because these things are second nature to her.
2. Ardern is the poster girl for this moment in history.
While Ardern did a good job of communicating to the public during and after Lockdown – I don’t believe that this, on its own, was what lifted her popularity. English, Key and Clark before her would all have handled lockdown communications with the same reassuring calm – and all three would have done so in a way that also gave the impression that they had some idea of how to get us out of this crisis – something Ardern has failed to do. The difference for Ardern comes down to one thing above all others – she’s a young woman. In this, she appeals to older women who see, in her, the epitome of all that they have fought for; and to younger women who aspire to be her or to be like her. This support transcends traditional party politics in a way that no previous leader – not even Key or Clark – was able to achieve and epitomises, more than anything, the extent to which the political landscape is currently defined by image rather than substance.
3. Ardern made people feel ‘safe’.
To paraphrase ACTs David Seymour – telling people to ‘be kind’ and to go home and put a teddy in the window every time there’s a Covid outbreak isn’t a plan for dealing with the long term consequences of the pandemic. Except for one thing – it seems to have worked. When you ask Arden’s most avid supporters ‘why’ they support her – the answer is usually that ‘she kept us safe’ or a variant of that response. The fact that our low death rate and ability to (largely) keep Covid under control is mostly down to our geographic isolation is irrelevant to these people. To them, ‘Jacinda saved us’ and they don’t want to hear anything which challenges that view.
Presented in this way, Labours high poll ratings make sense. In the aftermath of the initial response to Covid 19 there was an understandable desire, by some, to want to ‘reward’ Ardern by giving the Coalition a second term.
But is that really in the best interests of the country?
The jury is still out on whether the Government adopted the correct strategy to deal with the health aspects of Covid 19 – but even if we assume that they did, we also know that a completely different set of skills will be required to put the country back on its feet. By the time this thing is over the Government will have increased the national debt by tens of billions of dollars and imposed Orwellian controls over our freedom of movement – both things which are within the traditional Labour ideology and worldview.
But does anybody really believe that the current Labour Party has the skills or experience to do what needs to come next? Consider the team that Ardern is surrounded by. These people are no more capable, now, than they were when they presided over the disasters of the two years prior to the Covid crisis. Do we now trust them to deliver? Just as post-War Britain rejected Churchill’s authoritarian style in favour of new thinking – post Covid New Zealand will need strong economic stewardship, a plan to reduce our massive new Government debt as quickly as possible, a pragmatic approach to getting the economy back on its feet, and a blueprint for growth in which we can all have confidence.
Labour doesn’t have a plan to address any of these things. Instead, in an act of unbelievable cynicism, it is going into this election with virtually no policy – having recognised that it failed to achieve what it promised in 2017 it has decided that the best way to avoid this happening again is simply not to promise anything. In this respect, the Labour election slogan – ‘Let’s Keep Moving’ – is actually insulting to the country. Not only has there been no ‘movement’ in any of the areas in which Labour promised there would be back in 2017 – but in the one area in which they have arguably succeeded, the first lockdown, the basis of that success was in telling people to do absolutely nothing for several weeks, during which time the economy crashed.
So if the Governments re-election is the reward for Ardern’s stewardship of the first lockdown, then that reward should now be called into question based on what’s happened in the months since. Leading up to the election, we’re already seeing cracks in the carefully presented veneer of capability around how Covid is being handled. Consider the extraordinary failure of their border control measures; their vacillation over the lockdown rules (including the silly ‘point 5’ rules); their ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the more recent lockdowns which have seen restrictions on parts of the country where they clearly weren’t needed; and the failure to take responsibility for their cock-ups are all developments which should draw the gratitude of even the most partisan voter into question.
We should acknowledge that Ardern served her country well at a moment in which it mattered and during which her skills and ideology had relevance. But leadership isn’t defined by communications skills and profligate spending – it’s defined by vision, experience, wisdom, and the ability to make tough and unpopular decisions. Ardern may well develop these qualities in the years to come – but she doesn’t have them right now when the nation needs them. Indeed, her fellow travelers in the media recognise this and go to considerable lengths to protect her against criticism in these areas because they’re recognised as significant weaknesses for her. References to her lack of skill, vision, wisdom and experience are reframed as ageist or sexist attacks in a form of protectionism which we would not have tolerated had it been utilised to shield any previous leaders performance. Indeed, a recent article talking about how Ardern had been ‘bullied’ on social media epitomises this bizarre protectionist behaviour because bullying is the exertion of a position of power over someone with less power. By definition, there is no one with more power than the Prime Minister – so he or she can’t be bullied.
The path to rebuilding our nation isn’t going to be easy and there is no place for sentiment in the decisions that we will need to make in the months and years ahead. Informed kiwis will need to look past the cult of personality and make an objective judgement based on the entire line up and experience of the political party’s seeking their vote. International notoriety and the cover of Time magazine might make for great political capital during election campaigns – but if celebrity and leadership were the same thing the Kardashians would be running the US.
Ardern has performed as we should expect a leader to perform during the Covid-19 crisis. Whether that should lead to a second term of her Government is another question entirely. If she (and her Government) are to be scored then they get an ‘F’ for their first two years, an ‘A’ for the period of the lockdown, and a ‘D’ for everything since. That’s not a flattering record – nor one which should engender confidence at the ballot box.
That said – the tide of support is in Arderns favour, right now, and I have no doubt that a Labour or a Labour/Greens Government will occupy the Beehive after October.
The Verdict: Despite an almost total failure to deliver on any of the major policy platforms on which she went into the 2017 Election Campaign – Ardern was able to play on the fears of the uninformed and the vulnerable by offering a reassuring mix of state control and carefully crafted messages which saw her popularity, and that of her party, soar following the first lockdown. While the cynical reality is starting to sink in that there is little of substance beyond those initial responses, and no discernible plan to take the country out of the crisis – it is unlikely that the subsequent tightening of support between the parties will be enough to prevent her from winning a second term of office.