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13 June 2012updated 19 Jan 2023 10:07am

The left should look again at New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s domestic agenda

By peter apps

Since the Christchurch mosques shooting, Jacinda Ardern has become a global phenomenon. On Friday, a photo of the 38-year-old New Zealand Prime Minister embracing a survivor of the Christchurch mosques shooting was projected onto the side of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in Dubai. Emirati blogger Sultan al-Qassemi wrote that Ardern had become probably the most popular woman in the Middle East, her image and words shared widely by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

Given widespread despair just about everywhere on the state of current politics, it’s hardly a surprise her has resonated. One Indian colleague told friends on Facebook she should be “president of the world”. “America deserves a leader as good as Jacinda Ardern,” proclaimed the New York Times, particularly struck by the speed with which New Zealand moved to impose new gun laws. The Washington Post said she made Donald Trump’s “empathy gap look like a canyon”.

Even before this tragedy, there was a degree of global fascination. Amongst the youngest national leaders in recent history, she’s also only the second, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto to give birth while in office, bringing her newborn child to the United Nations General Assembly in New York last year. What may prove as important as her personal story, however, is the thinking she and her Labour Party government bring to how to run a modern country and economy.

Ardern became prime minister in 2017 following an inconclusive election – her party came second, but was the most able to form a coalition. Its platform was in some ways reminiscent of the emerging US Democratic Party’s “Green New Deal” and British Corbynomics; in others, though, it was starkly different.

Broadly socially progressive but simultaneously favouring controls on foreign investment and migration, her government is also the first to tear up the convention of focusing economic policy solely on raw growth. Instead, New Zealand’s budget this year is aimed more broadly at promoting “national well-being”, including narrowing the wealth gap, building jobs, protecting the environment and uplifting the poorest and most formidable communities.

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It’s a model that has generated worldwide interest, including from US political commentators and the World Economic Forum – and perhaps in consequence, somewhat less from harder elements of the more radical British and American left. It’s certainly not without its critics, including from both progressives and conservatives within New Zealand. Despite Ardern’s high personal approval ratings, it is still far from clear that her party can maintain its grip on power beyond the next election.

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Still, it is amongst the most innovative new thinking from the left, taking its place alongside that of US “Green New Dealers” like Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, as well as UK shadow chancellor John McDonnell and groups like the New Economics Foundation.

Quietly, multiple disparate ideas – from global tax reform to new ways of managing work, education and resources – are starting to come together in a growing range of countries. It’s an effort still very much in progress, but offers amongst the best hope in an era of nihilism and despair.

Unlike some of her more left-wing counterparts, however, Ardern’s approach has explicitly prioritised compromise. Her positions helped secure a coalition with the much smaller anti-migration New Zealand First party, which is often made the country’s kingmaker by the German-style proportional representation system. Indeed, a cynic might describe Labour’s entire platform as ruthlessly triangulated for a single political moment, with enough environmental focus to also garner parliamentary support from the non-coalition Greens. What is not in dispute, however, is that this approach turned around Labour fortunes after nine years out of power, during which the party got through five leaders.

Since taking office, she and her party have refined their position still further – particularly in last year’s budget. More specifically, that means making sure government spending is ruthlessly prioritised to reduce child poverty, prioritise mental health, build digital access and skills, transition to a low carbon economy and uplift historically marginalised groups such as the native Maori.

In comparison to, say, Tony Blair’s New Labour, Ardern’s approach is totally unapologetic. Making those changes – and more broadly, protecting the vulnerable and making society work – is the priority of government. Perhaps that’s a message that resonates more easily in a small, relatively homogenous country like New Zealand – but that doesn’t mean it won’t have much broader implications.

Perhaps most important of all, it’s now being much more widely noticed. Without doubt, the events in New Zealand this month showed us amongst the worst of this messy modern age. But they also offered a glimpse of a radical, pragmatic, empathic way forward – with a backbone of feminist steel ready for the darkest day.

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