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.
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.