New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern: A Star Abroad, Struggling At Home – Analysis


By Richard Shaw*

Following her attendance at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, flew to New York, where she attended a meeting of the UN General Assembly and co-hosted the fourth Christchurch Call to Action Leader’s Summit.

The Prime Minister has history at the UN, first making waves in 2018 by bringing her baby, Neve, into the UN General Assembly Hall. Other milestones on Ardern’s path to international popularity included her leadership following the Christchurch mosque attack, the initial success of her administration’s COVID-19 elimination strategy and her rhetorical framing of the climate crisis as her generation’s ‘nuclear-free moment’.

But a stellar international reputation does not guarantee the same sorts of plaudits back home. The August 2022 TVNZ/Kantor Public poll gave the opposition National Party a four point lead over Ardern’s Labour. While other polls released during the same period were a little closer — Horizon Research had National and Labour neck and neck, while Talbot Mills gave National a single point lead — it is clear that Ardern no longer commands the political heights the way she did a year ago.

Absent Labour’s spectacular performance at the 2020 general election, when for the first time since 1951 a party secured a majority rather than a plurality of the popular vote, these polls can be expected at this point in the political cycle. But Labour’s performance three years ago, when Ardern’s competence stood in stark contrast to the shambles of Judith Collins’ leadership of the National Party, set a high bar. Any fall from this standard was always going to be accompanied by the narrative that Ardern’s domestic star is on the wane.

Since New Zealand has a proportional representation electoral system for parliamentary contests, the real focus in conversations about government formation needs to be on parties other than Labour and National. The two major parties make up most of the electoral running. But since the first mixed member proportionate representation (MPP) election in 1996, with the sole exception of Labour’s 2020 victory, they have needed one or more ‘minor’ parties to get over the line.

For this reason, it is important to analyse the respective polling of the centre-left (Labour, the Greens and Te Pāti Māori or the Māori Party) and centre-right (National, ACT) blocs. Te Pāti Māori, which several recent polls suggest will be pivotal to the formation of the next government, merits particular attention. Te Pāti Māori has positioned itself as part of the centre-left bloc because its co-leaders, Debbie Ngarewa-Packer and Rawiri Waititi, have ruled out any governing arrangement with the libertarian ACT party, whose views on race relations they take serious issue with.

The second reason pundits will be focusing on Ngarewa-Packer and Waititi’s party come 2023 is because the party’s future is likely to hinge on whether or not the latter retains his electorate seat of Waiariki. Under MMP, parties are entitled to list seats in the House if they secure 5 per cent or more of the party vote, so if neither major party secures an outright majority, the ‘coat-tailing’ rule will be critical to government formation.

The issue for National is that none of the latest polls put it in office without ACT. The challenge for those parties’ respective leaders, Christopher Luxon and David Seymour, will be to keep their combined vote share up around the 47 or 48 per cent required to form a coalition majority government. ACT leader Seymour raised the stakes by making a referendum on the Treaty of Waitangi — one of the cornerstones of New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements — a ‘bottom line’ for his party.

All of that aside, Prime Minister Ardern is facing headwinds — which have just become stronger following the results of local authority elections in which centre-right candidates performed strongly. Her administration confronts multiple challenges, including the spiralling cost of living, entrenched income and wealth inequalities, housing unaffordability and an attempt to reform water infrastructure that is proving both divisive and difficult. Policy U-turns (such as rowing back GST levies on KiwiSaver fees) and problems getting major reforms over the line (including to the vocational education sector) have not helped.

Ardern also faces a rejuvenated National Party which, following the selection of Luxon as its fifth leader in four years, has found a focus and discipline it had misplaced. Luxon has his own challenges — not least the lingering questions concerning a recently completed investigation into allegations of bullying and his party’s poor recordon selecting women and Māori candidates — but his party is now behaving as a functional, organised opposition party should.

As a small nation, New Zealanders generally like to see their own doing well abroad, in politics no less than in sport. But they also like to see them focusing on domestic issues when things get tough. While Ardern’s international standing may have been a factor in her success in 2020, as the domestic challenges pile up her status abroad is becoming less salient.

All the same, it wouldn’t pay to write her or her government off just yet. The same polls that have National edging in front also have Ardern comfortably ahead as the preferred prime minister. Finance Minister Grant Robertson has one more Budget to deliver before the next election and the Reserve Bank anticipates some easing of inflation in 2023.

The Prime Minister remains her party’s biggest electoral asset, and if Ardern can line the political ducks up, her appeal at home could once again match her status abroad.

*About the author: Richard Shaw is Professor of Politics at Massey University of New Zealand.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

2 thoughts on “New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern: A Star Abroad, Struggling At Home – Analysis

  • November 4, 2022 at 10:57 pm

    At once a standard assessment of New Zealand’s political situation, the article completely misses the reality of the situation, I hesitate to say realpolitik. This article reads well on both the domestic and international fronts, but focuses on personality and misses the lack of any material difference between Labour and National in the economic system.

    New Zealand is a fob-pocket sized USA supporting NATO, and is a part of the 5 Eyes electronic Spy organisation. For almost four decades Labour and National politicians have effectively implemented the economics of corporate neoliberal government, which in New Zealand includes, the almost entirely international, banking sector, led by ANZBank, and the homegrown Industrial Agriculture Sector headed by Fonterra.

    The Mixed Member Proportional Representation electoral system is strangely ineffective in the country described in the preceding paragraph. It isn’t difficult to understand why, when the country is viewed from a distance using information from sectors other than the politics of personality .

    To know that New Zealand is now supporting NATO by providing “non-lethal” technical advice, and has this year signed a dairy deal with the UK, which will materially and negatively affect green house gas emissions globally describes New Zealand’s real position in the world. Per capita it has one of the largest carbon footprints on the planet. It continues, whether under Labour or National, to have increasing inequality across society, and for over a decade has been unable to solve homelessness.

    As with voters in the USA, the UK and elsewhere, there is little to no chance of change in the reality of the economic-political system in New Zealand. The upward transfer of wealth will continue apace and the most vulnerable will continue to pay the price. Asset owners (home owners) will likely continue to think of themselves a millionaires albeit with increasing mortgage debt as the interest rate rises. Renters, mostly the young and the poor and some older, will continue to be burdened by oppressive rents and rising grocery prices.

    When one considers that New Zealanders are geographically fortunate to possess the ability to live socially just, economically viable, and deliberatively democratic lives in a system that stays within the earth’s planetary boundaries, it is a ‘travesty of all that is good’ to know that Ardern of Labour, Luxon of National, and Shaw and Davidson of Greens together represent business as usual.

    Adding insult to injury has been the end of New Zealand’s valued international position of neutrality between global east and west, global north and south, which was a hard earned benefit of the ‘anti-nuclear years’.

    Political and economic commentators are champions of the siloed and often ‘incremental’ comment. “inflation has fallen”, “export revenues have risen”, and so on and so on. But, the reality is that globally the climate continues to heat, the oceans to acidify, with deaths due to heating, flooding, drought, fire and storm increasing and at accelerating rates. Nothing is happening to change this. New Zealand could be a leader, but it chooses to not be, and to instead focus on the short termism of corporate profits and the electoral cycles of personality politics.

    • November 5, 2022 at 3:57 pm

      New Zealand’s position if neutrality is better described as New Zealand’s position of maintaining an independent foreign policy.


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