It’s true what they say about ill winds. The coronavirus pandemic was a perverse blessing for New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labour-led government. It may mean that for the first time since the country adopted a proportional representation system in 1994, one party will command enough support in the 17 October general election to govern on its own.
In a recent opinion poll, Labour’s support dropped five points to 48 per cent – still a commanding lead over the opposition National party on 31 per cent, and theoretically enough for Labour to govern unencumbered by coalition partners. Much of that support can be attributed to Ardern’s personal popularity, with the same poll showing her holding steady with 54 per cent backing as preferred prime minister.
Ardern’s popularity, in turn, may be partly explained by the fact that the Covid-19 crisis put her in front of the public every day for weeks on end as she fronted live televised press conferences with Ministry of Health chief Ashley Bloomfield. This novel double act, which attracted a large audience eager for the latest Covid-19 statistics, solidified Ardern’s already substantial support and bizarrely made a cult hero of the solemn, bespectacled Bloomfield, whose image turned up on T-shirts and shopping bags. Only in New Zealand …
Politically, the exposure was priceless. Whatever else might be said about Ardern, she’s a very effective communicator, preternaturally relaxed in public or in front of an obligingly uncritical press pack consisting largely of journalists who, like the prime minister herself, are young, female and left-leaning.
Ardern has seized on empathy as her most potent political attribute. It won her a global fan club in the strained days following last year’s Christchurch mosque massacres and it has served her equally well since Covid-19 struck. For every Kiwi repelled by her Madonna-ish persona and her tendency to speak to the nation much as a teacher might address a class of slow learners, there are many more who were enchanted by Ardern’s daily pep talks and swarmed like angry wasps in her defence if anyone dared attack her on social media.
With Ardern, even negatives can be positive. In a feeble attempt to make a show of criticising her for something, the media recently latched onto her failure to maintain social distancing from fans on the campaign trail. The message: Ardern is so beloved that even her police minders can’t keep her admirers at bay.
Beneath the relentlessly personable exterior she’s an astute political manager, yet the depth of talent behind her is pitifully thin. If Labour wins this election, it will be almost 100 per cent due to Ardern. Even more than the formidable Helen Clark, Labour prime minister from 1999 till 2008, she carries the party.
It’s not just the constant and overwhelmingly benign media exposure that has worked to her advantage. The coronavirus has enabled Ardern to frame this election as a Covid-19 election, thus neatly sidestepping scrutiny of Labour’s failure to fulfil its 2017 election promises or promote bold new polices for the next triennium. To put it another way, the virus let Labour off the hook.
In fact Ardern can claim to have managed the country through not one but three crises (the mosque massacres, the deaths of 21 people in an eruption on White Island and Covid-19), any one of which might have been considered career-defining for a prime minister in ordinary circumstances. But all served to work in her favour by deflecting public attention from Labour’s record on issues such as reducing child poverty, which Ardern had pledged to make her personal mission, and an intractable housing crisis.
So far she has also largely escaped scrutiny for the likely economic consequences of a massive blowout in government spending, the cost of which will fall on future generations. In terms of policy gains, Labour’s most notable achievement has been the advance of a ‘progressive’ social agenda in the form of one of the world’s most permissive abortion regimes and a referendum, to be held on election day, on the legalisation of cannabis – the last unticked item on the wish-list of 1960s radicals.
But more insidious and arguably more significant than these gains has been the steady progression under Labour – with its tacit encouragement – of a neo-Marxist ideological offensive promoting Maori separatism, identity politics, white shame, suppression of free speech and the bad-mouthing of New Zealand’s honourable heritage as one of the world’s most tolerant, liberal democracies.
What, then, of the centre-right National party, which has ruled for 47 of the past 70 years and can thus claim to be the natural party of government in New Zealand?
National secured 44 per cent of the votes in the last election, which would normally have entitled it to form a government. It was cut out of the action by the machinations of rogue kingmaker Winston Peters, leader of the small New Zealand Party and a man with a bitter grudge against National, who formed a coalition of losers (as one Australian commentator aptly described it) with Labour and the Greens.
Since then National has not only watched impotently as Ardern amassed political capital despite adverse circumstances, but shot itself in both feet with a series of destabilising leadership changes that resulted in its support collapsing. Under new leader Judith Collins it has re-established some equilibrium, but probably too late to head off another Labour victory.
So New Zealand can expect three more years under Ardern, the darling of chardonnay socialists everywhere. But the news isn’t all bad: the polls suggest David Seymour’s ACT Party, which champions classical (i.e. genuine) liberalism, will benefit from voter disenchantment with National. And even better, it looks as if Peters – a malignant presence in New Zealand politics since 1978 – may be banished forever, the voters finally having had enough of him.
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