Jacinda Ardern’s dream run as New Zealand’s leader is set to continue, after her Labour Party romped home in a general election seen by many as a referendum on her handling on the COVID-19 crisis. In a historic win, the party looks to have secured enough seats to form majority government without the help of a coalition partner, the first time that has happened since proportional representation was introduced in the mid-1990s.
Jacinda Ardern led New Zealand through a terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption and COVID-19. Now her toughest challenge begins
The system was designed so that minor parties would get to play an influential role in New Zealand politics, but this time the voters seem to have placed their faith in one woman’s party.
It’s been a tumultuous three years in power for the now 40-year-old, who has led New Zealand through the Christchurch terrorist attacks, the Whakaari White Island volcanic eruption, then the pandemic.
But the hard yards may be still ahead.
Young New Zealanders put Ardern in office the first time
Prime Minister Ardern may be a global celebrity renowned for her compassion and leadership during New Zealand’s darkest years, but for people living in New Zealand, it’s more complicated.
“When Jacinda first got elected there was this sense of euphoria and ecstasy and everyone was super excited,” said Verity Johnson, a columnist with the Dominion Post and frequent commentator on youth issues.
“This time it’s not so ecstatic”.
The 26-year-old recognises that Jacinda Ardern has had quite a bit on her plate that no-one could have foreseen, with the nation gripped by domestic and global crises.
She did it all after becoming a mother for the first time, less than a year into her first term in office.
Yet that alone doesn’t quite make up for the failure of Kiwibuild, a bold initiative to build 100,000 affordable homes now a synonym for government failure.
By August only around 600 homes had been built.
Then there’s the lack of progress on a light-rail in Auckland, initiatives young people in particular were crying out for.
“We’re grateful, we’re glad [that she has won the election],” Ms Johnson said.
“But there is a quiet sense of disappointment that has taken off the stardust from this time last election when we were all ecstatic and texting each other in night clubs being like, ‘yay, Jacinda got in!'”
After multiple tragedies, a recession awaits
Labour’s slogan in the election campaign was ‘Let’s Keep Moving,’ a statement that seemed less inspirational, and more an acknowledgement that they hadn’t delivered.
Labour has the strong, stable team that New Zealand needs to lead our economic recovery. So let’s stick together, and let’s keep moving.
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It’s all a far cry from the transformational government Jacinda Ardern promised when she came to power.
“I stand by my record,” Jacinda Ardern said in the final televised debate before the election.
“No one for a moment would believe that we could fix an issue that takes decades to build in three years,” she said.
The trouble is, they did.
Child poverty is a particular sore point.
The Prime Minister insists her Government has made progress, but the increases on some key indicators of child welfare are so minimal they are not considered statistically relevant.
New Zealand ranks a shocking 35th out of 41 developed countries on UNICEF’s child wellbeing report card.
“The Labour Government has really been a failure in terms of delivering on key promises,” said Jennifer Lees-Marshment, Associate Professor in Political Marketing at Auckland University.
Despite her landslide victory, she says it’s now going to be “very difficult” for Jacinda Ardern going forward.
“That’s the main challenge for the Labour Government. They can’t just be a manager of crisis and a really relatable leader, as much as that has been successful to date,” she said.
“They’ve really got to start fulfilling the desires of their supporters to make transformational change.”
The most immediate challenge is getting the country out of recession and back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic.
Jacinda Ardern’s mantra of “go hard, go early” on the pandemic may have kept the virus more or less at bay, but the strict lockdowns and border controls have threatened livelihoods.
The country’s GDP was down 12.2 per cent in the June quarter.
The longer the crisis drags on, the more dissatisfaction could grow.
“Having solved the health aspect of COVID-19, she’s still got to deal with the long-term economic crisis which is the slower burn crisis,” said Professor Lees-Marshment.
‘This is not business as usual’
In a campaign light on policy details, it’s not entirely clear how Labour intends to do that, aside from saying it will invest in ‘shovel-ready’ infrastructure projects.
The phrase doesn’t sit easily with Verity Johnson.
The youth commentator and columnist says not enough attention is being paid to helping out industries many women work in, including hospitality, retail and tourism.
“These shovel-ready projects do sound quite skewed towards men,” Ms Johnson said.
Women have disproportionately been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and the situation is no different in New Zealand.
Ninety per cent of people who lost their jobs to the COVID-19 crisis in New Zealand were women, according to official data.
“We want to know what’s been done for the she-recession,” Ms Johnson said.
“I would like to have seen more to be done on areas where women are working and less of an emphasis on just giving men shovels.”
Political marketing expert Jennifer Lees-Marshment agrees Labour needs to formulate and deliver on some concrete policies soon.
“They need some new policy thinking and [to start] thinking outside the box, because this is not business as usual,” she said.
But Jacinda Ardern, now one of her country’s most successful politicians in decades, remains defiant and optimistic.
“I am not done yet;” the Prime Minister promised ahead of the poll.
The electorate isn’t done with her either, entrusting her to lead them out of this crisis.
With New Zealand’s election night over though, the reckoning is just beginning.