The government’s handbrake


Like many people I have frequently wondered what it is that drives Jacinda Ardern. She entered parliament here through the Labour Party after working for the UK government led by notorious war criminal Tony Blair.

She rose to lead Labour in 2017 without ever campaigning on anything. On her way up her name was not associated with any particular issue as it is with almost any other three-term member of parliament anyone could name.

She reached the top without touching the sides.

She has said she came into politics because of child poverty but even here there is no sign of significant policy change, despite three years in the top job. As Judith Collins has rightly pointed out, in perhaps the most important measure of child poverty – children living in severe material hardship – the numbers have become worse under Ardern. And her goal to halve child poverty in 10 years is simply embarrassing.

I suspect the answer to the puzzle from my first line is that Jacinda Ardern wants to be popular. That may seem harsh and I’m sure it’s not the full picture but it’s the dominant feature of her political ambition. She wants to leave a legacy of populism, like John Key, rather than a political legacy of transformation.

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If seeking popularity was her style as a way to drive desperately-needed reform that would be fine but there is no sign of that.

She says she wants to “build consensus” and “lead the country for all New Zealanders” but I suspect these are excuses to avoid adopting transformational policies which would be unpopular, particularly with the rich and powerful. Her refusal to say which side of the cannabis issue she was voting on is a case in point. More importantly, her refusal to consider a capital gains tax or wealth tax has tied her government’s hands and neutered any possibility for transformation. In this context “leading the country for all New Zealanders” means maintaining the status quo for the 1%.

I think the focus for this government will be on social/cultural changes which will be popular with Labour’s middle-class activists – just as Labour in the 1980s kept its activists happy with issues such as homosexual law reform and anti-nuclear policy while it decimated working class communities and drove tens of thousands into poverty.

The ”T” word will not be a happening thing in this government because the biggest handbrake on transformation is the Prime Minister herself.


  1. My thoughts exactly and the situation now is a recapitulation of 2017. Ardern is nothing but big toothy smile hiding a vacuum, with not a little cynicism behind it too. Blairite spin and good vibes is all she has.

  2. John,

    Spot on analysis. This 3 years will be, for the left as the second term of John Key was for the right. Over the next 3 years pure temple followers on the left will be aghast. Right at the time that there is arguably the most mandate for transformational change, the result will be the most timid. Establishment parties in western democracies are creatures of power first and foremost and almost exclusively power is held with the middle voter. The cult of personality, like with Key pending any major crisis handled poorly and/or scandal will get Jacinda at least another term, possibly 2. Therein lies the long term risk for Labour. Just like Blair/Brown the only real successor, Robertson will be tarred with the same brush and arguably will create a vacuum.

    This can become an almost terminal issue if this cult of personality masks underlying structural issues with the party. Case in point National right now.

  3. There is an element of truth there John but we hope she will honour her promises made to deal with climate change as her generations “Nuclear moment as we need to deal with it even to save “the rich and powerful”
    Read here what the UN says to world governments now and we know that Jacinda respects the UN right?

    We hope Jacinda gets this UN message.

    UN News

    ‘Staggering’ rise in climate emergencies in last 20 years, new disaster research shows

    OCHA/Danielle Parry
    Extreme weather events are devastating many countries, including Fiji which was hit by a cyclone in 2016.

    12 October 2020
    Climate Change
    The first 20 years of this century have seen a “staggering” rise in climate disasters, UN researchers said on Monday, while also maintaining that “almost all nations” have failed to prevent a “wave of death and illness” caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
    In an urgent call for countries to prepare better for all catastrophic events – from earthquakes and tsunamis to biological threats such as the new coronavirus – data from the UN Office on Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) indicates that wealthy nations have done little to tackle the harmful emissions that are linked to climate threats which make up the bulk of disasters today.
    Short odds
    “Disaster management agencies have succeeded in saving many lives through improved preparedness and the dedication of staff and volunteers. But the odds continue to be stacked against them, in particular by industrial nations that are failing miserably on reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Mami Mizutori, UNDRR chief, and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction.
    According to the UNDRR report – produced with Belgium’s Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at UCLouvain – there were 7,348 recorded disaster events worldwide, during the last two decades.
    Approximately 1.23 million people died – approximately 60,000 per year – with more than four billion affected in total; many more than once.
    These two decades of disaster also caused $2.97 trillion in losses to the global economy, with data also indicating that poorer nations experienced deaths rates more than four times higher than richer nations.
    By comparison, the previous 20-year period (1980 to 1999) saw 4,212 reported disasters from natural hazards, with 1.19 million deaths, more than three billion people affected and economic losses totalling $ 1.63 trillion.
    Climate danger spike
    Although better recording and reporting of disasters may help explain some of the increase in the last two decades, researchers insisted that the significant rise in climate-related emergencies was the main reason for the spike, with floods accounting for more than 40 per cent of disasters – affecting 1.65 billion people – storms 28 per cent, earthquakes (eight per cent) and extreme temperatures (six per cent).
    “This is clear evidence that in a world where the global average temperature in 2019 was 1.1 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial period, the impacts are being felt in the increased frequency of extreme weather events including heatwaves, droughts, flooding, winter storms, hurricanes and wildfires,” UNDRR reported .
    Despite the pledge made by the international community in Paris in 2015 to reduce global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, Ms. Mizutori added that it was “baffling” that nations were continuing knowingly “to sow the seeds of our own destruction, despite the science and evidence that we are turning our only home into an uninhabitable hell for millions of people”.
    COVID-19 exposure
    Turning to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has “laid bare many shortcomings in disaster risk management (despite) repeated warnings”, the UNDRR report recommended urgent action from Governments to better manage such overlapping disasters.
    These hazards included known “risk drivers”, such as poverty, climate change, air pollution, population growth in dangerous locations, uncontrolled urbanization and the loss of biodiversity.
    Chronic needs
    By way of an example of chronic weather risks which should be the focus of better national preparedness measures, the agency pointed that shifting rainfall patterns pose a risk to the 70 per cent of global agriculture that relies on rain and the 1.3 billion people dependent on degrading agricultural land.
    Despite the fact that extreme weather events have become so regular in last 20 years, only 93 countries have implemented disaster risk strategies at a national level ahead of the end-of-year deadline, Ms. Mizutori said.
    “Disaster risk governance depends on political leadership above all, and delivery on the promises made when the Paris agreement and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction were adopted,” she said. “But the sad fact is that we are wilfully destructive. And that is the conclusion of this report; COVID-19 is but the latest proof that politicians and business leaders have yet to tune into the world around them.”
    She added: “It really is all about governance if we want to deliver this planet from the scourge of poverty, further loss of species and biodiversity, the explosion of urban risk and the worst consequences of global warming”, in a joint statement with UCLouvain’s Professor Debarati Guha-Sapir.
    Although the UNDRR report indicates that there has been some success in protecting vulnerable communities from isolated hazards, thanks to more effective early warning systems, disaster preparedness and response, projected global temperature rises could make these improvements “obsolete in many countries”, the agency warned.
    Currently, the world is on course for a temperature increase of 3.2 degrees Celsius or more, unless industrialised nations can deliver reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 7.2 per cent annually over the next 10 years in order to achieve the 1.5 degree target agreed in Paris.

  4. Well done John for commenting on the state of our “Emperor’s” clothes. The PM has admitted never finishing a book on her shelf by French academic Thomas Piketty, who typically issues mild rebukes of capitalism and finance capital.

    She plainly does not have a class left world view and neither does her Caucus or party. So how to make urgently needed progress then for the working class, and underclass, created by Roger’n’Ruth?

    I am not going to grump about the election result because it provides 3 years in which to organise and build community support for direct action on all the critical issues. The Greens should stay clear of Govt and be part of a campaign that builds to 2023 as the time to roll back neo liberalism once and for all. In the interim let the Climate Strikes continue, solidarity movements build and occupations (e.g. Ihumatao) continue for some Iwi wins on the board.

  5. Well said John, although you would be in a long list of media with the same message. Well done Jacinda for winning a landslide election and most important keeping the Natz/Act out of power. I voted Green for their policy around Poverty, Housing and Tax. All 3 are the same issue, welded together. I fear Labour will do S.F.A
    about all 3. Tinkering won’t do it. Jacinda has sold the promises now she needs to deliver. I am concerned about her need to be popular at all costs and siding with ex Natzo voters to keep them happy is just another kick in the guts sellout. Substance time Labour, put up or shut up. The signs are dismal. I hope the Greens stay the hell away from them and poke pins into their little doll.

  6. A populist, as I understand the term, is a politician who pushes somewhat repugnant policies in the knowledge that they will appeal to popular prejudice. I think I would see Jacinda as pragmatist rather than a populist. It seems odd that she said that she believed in CGT but then ruled it out (she would probably have said the same about wealth taxes had they been on the cards at the time), but she probably sees these tax initiatives as a minor, but very divisive, distraction from more more important targets like AGW, housing and inequality.

    As a pragmatist she has moved against gun ownership in the wake of the Chistchurch attack, and dealt very effectively with the coronavirus outbreak.Moves against climate change and inequality seem more timid, but they by no means non existent. Labour has probably built as many houses as resources allow and they have moved against overseas ownership. Their recent campaign promised various initiatives under the heading of what they called ‘progressive ownership’.

  7. ” She rose to lead Labour in 2017 without ever campaigning on anything ”
    The same could not be said of Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders who fought all their political lives for a more fair and balanced progressive vision. Both men have been neutralized and kept at a safe distance. We can’t have that kind of all encompassing transformation because it was never advanced by wealthy corporate business and media interests. Every decision on the direction this country takes are based on the following.
    The economy , profit , greed and self interest , and control and influence. Poverty and material hardship is always being discussed and acknowledged but will never be eradicated because to survive the market must have a deprived low wage workforce so the finance companies can have their cut when you need a car , the ” we are here to help “banks with their evil 13% interest rates on their credit cards and their overdraughts , the supermarkets that legally extort people who need to eat and feed their children. And so it goes on.
    We won’t get this bullshit transformation because Labour is beholden to her new best friends , corporate business who prefered Robertson to Goldsmith and her new constituency who gave them their majority to keep the Greens out. She could have said we are here to govern for all those who are disadvantaged by the market economy and need and deserve something better.

  8. I say hire that farmer with his “she’s just a pretty socialist ” placard from the 2017 election. Get him to stand on the steps of Parliament to remind her what she ised to be.

  9. ‘I think the focus for this government will be on social/cultural changes which will be popular with Labour’s middle-class activists – just as Labour in the 1980s kept its activists happy with issues such as homosexual law reform and anti-nuclear policy while it decimated working class communities and drove tens of thousands into poverty’.

    That’s a bit rough John. You may well be right about the popularist intentions of Jacinda Ardern but I don’t think the current Labour govt can be compared to the Fourth Labour Govt of 1984, where neoliberalism was introduced as the Trojan Horse. As the late Bruce Jesson reminded us, the purpose of these ideologues was surely mad – and the consequences extremely divisive and destructive. To be true, the current Labour govt have no intention of dismantling neoliberalism. Dismantling neoliberalism and all it stands for would really be transformational. Perhaps the best that they can do is course the middle ground. That’s what centralist govts do. Are the new generation of Labour politicians – even those right of centre- not aware of the legacy of the neoliberal changes of the mid-80’ and the subsequent decade under National. Even Sir Geoffrey Palmer – one of the original ideologues in favour of neoliberalism – is on record on having doubts. I would like to think they are. But as always actions speak larger than words.

  10. I think you will find the issue with a Capital Gains tax wasnt about popularity with voters but more about more than half of politicians having investment properties themselves, she said it was “politically unpalatable” in other words, she was unable to get the numbers to pass anything.

    • Yes. A CGT exempting the family home should have been palatable. But this too can be difficult when MP’s themselves are the first to wriggle like maggots around their “family homes” viz Bill English long domiciled with family in Wellington, trying to claim the old Dipton farm; I think Phyllida Bunkle with a property up the coast, after being domiciled in Thorndon throughout her tenure at Victoria University.

      Voters may see it as a simple issue, but it is the legislators who know every trick in the book. Ardern ruling out a CGT while she was PM was not to appease middle New Zealand busy with the daily grind of their own lives, but to curry favour with the powerful few. It also sounded like the dictatorial power of one.

      • We can’t know what she “really” thought about capital capital gains taxes. A good case can be made against them on rational grounds, as opposed to grounds based on “vested interests”.

        A cynic might claim that her statement, that she believed in the tax, was designed to appeal to its supporters while ruling it out appealed to others with vested interests. But we really don’t know.

  11. The other issue that comes to mind were comments around Winston pulling out of deals at the 11th hour after months of reviews on particular subjects, it was most frustrating for Labour and the Greens to have such an unstable coalition partner.

  12. The right are still sad that Key did not remake us as a neo-liberal libertarian state. To them he was just old National, keep Labour out. But did we on the left see it that way?

    Well this Labour is predicated on keeping National out. You will say they do not use their mandate to even make the effort to make us a social democratic within this term. But will the right see it it that way, or will they see a drift left each and every year of every term?

  13. Labour may well, at some time beyond the present 3-year term, move on Capital Gains Tax and/or wealth tax once it is clear that they have clear public support for it. At some point, given the divide between a shrinking very wealthy class and an ever-increasing class of renters, actions that are dismissed as ‘socialist’ will surely, as under the first Labour Govt, once again command public support. Act before that support is in place, and the effect may be to install a National/ACT Govt before substantial change can be made. I do think, given the totally unexpected way that the past three years panned out, that it was unfortunate that Jacinda, once Peters stood in the way to acting on the Tax Committee’s recommendations, ruled a CGT out while “I am PM”.

    It seems possible that Judith Collins did herself in by her warnings over the Greens proposed wealth tax issue. Labour may have done better than predicted in the polls because some potential National voters switched their votes to Labour, in order to limit the ability of the Greens to have a say on such issues.

    Ways do need to be found to encourage investors to switch their attention from buying existing houses to funding the construction of new dwellings. Enforcing high standards for existing rental properties, as well as setting up funds for new building that can attract private investment, can help in this. Maybe, also, there can be an element of shaming investors into more ethically responsible behaviour that limits the effect on inflation of property prices. Rates should increase dramatically, to finance investment in infrastructure (including new housing) and be at an annual level that is at least what renters can expect to pay in a two month period of time. For those for whom this creates difficulties, payments can be deferred until the property is sold. There is a desperate need for a more even playing field.

    Focus then on imaginative approaches that stay within the limits that the new Govt has placed on itself, and push them hard. They do need to make progress, on housing (which is at the root of a lot of other social evils), on child poverty, and on reducing the wage gap, in order to be able to make a strong case for continuing in Govt beyond 2023. Acknowledge that it is never easy to know when it is politically possible to go hard with reforms that will continue into the medium term future.

  14. “Labour, like National, is wedded to the US-led global capitalist order.”
    That is a frank and important statement John.

    Jacinda has not complied with the pressure from the US to join with the campaign smearing China. Australia has and will suffer the trade consequences.
    Neither has she stood with the Israeli lobby unlike Winston, Ron Marks and James Shaw. Her skills are subtlety and emotional appeal which she is strong on,
    Joseph Savage became a darling but really didn’t do much and actively blocked some socialist and sovereign moves within the caucus. Still his legacy stands on the actions of others but he became a facilitator and manager of the pressures from the UK and USA.

    Jacinda is very vulnerable so under her leadership others will have to push with well thought through plans to shift NZ and Kiwis into a better system of looking after and reducing numbers of poor. The structures to do that will need to be created as well as building a stronger state that plans and implements changes both incremental and substantial.
    Money will be needed so unless Robertson gets over his cowardice in using the reserve bank to fund major changes with debt forgiven, then it looks like adjusting taxation rates and equipping the IRD to haul in the corporate tax dodgers both on and off shore.

  15. Yes.
    I think we will see a new era of cultural and social change and new values of kindness, acceptance and tolerance. Jacinda will make a valuable and lasting contribution to the way we treat people, recognise Maori, refugees, different religions, the poor, the sick, the unemployed etc and the way politics is conducted.
    Im not taking the piss -this will enrich our lives.
    Jesus taught these values. He was not building temples and other sundry infrastructure that he knew would ultimately turn to dust.

  16. Kia ora John
    Your assessment is a realistic one. Which is more than can be said for the outpourings from the Jacindamaniacs who populate, for the most part, the pages of The Daily Blog.
    I am one who has no expectations from Jacinda or the Labour government, and to be fair, they have done nothing to create reasonable expectations of “transformative change” whatever that may be.


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