Last week, Jacinda Ardern claimed a landslide victory in New Zealand’s elections, with the Labour Party winning 64 of the 120 seats in Parliament – their best result since 1946. The result also makes the Labour party the first party since 1996 to be able to govern independently outside of a coalition. Ardern now has a definitive mandate to further the changes she made in her first term as Prime Minister, and her win is symbolic of the New Zealand public’s confidence in her brand of democratic socialism.
If one factor sealed the victory for Ardern, it was her adept management of the coronavirus outbreak; less than 2,000 people were affected by the virus and only 25 individuals died. Before the pandemic, the centre-right, fiscally conservative National Party were winning in the polls, but her strong leadership and decisive action secured her majority. Of course, it is important to remember that New Zealand is a sparsely populated island with a population of less than 5 million, but beyond the simple statistics, Ardern proved that she is a great leader for a crisis. This was demonstrated at other times throughout her first term, in her compassionate handling of the Christchurch mosque shootings and the Whakaari White Island volcanic eruption.
Last year, Ardern announced that she would be measuring the success of her government in improvements to public wellbeing in her policies rather simply chasing economic growth. “Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is not a success,” she explained, “it is failure”. This principle has been woven into the progressive changes to public spending Ardern has brought forth as Prime Minister and her commitment to climate change prevention at the expense of big business. The creation of the “wellbeing budget” most explicitly demonstrated this, with spending focused on improving mental health, and decreasing family violence and child poverty, an issue which Ardern’s government have so far been unsuccessful at combatting.
Another glaring shortcoming that Ardern needs to focus on in the coming term is New Zealand’s dire lack of affordable housing. The Labour Party previously committed under their KiwiBuild scheme to building 100,000 houses in a decade, but in the first year only 47 of 1,000 pledged were actually built, with many properties still being classed as “severely unaffordable”. Ardern’s track record on providing affordable housing is seen by critics as overly ambitious, falling into the common trap of left-wing idealism of promising more than is actually possible.
Ardern is aware of this perception of her brand of politics – dismissed as “love and hugs” by her National Party opposition – shown, for example, in the creation of the Business Advisory Council in 2018. She has a unique opportunity now to bring New Zealand out of the recession caused by coronavirus and show that she can adeptly handle an economic crisis as well as a political one. If Ardern is successful in this, it would send a powerful message to the world that real change is possible – a working proof that the big ambitions of democratic socialism can be achieved.
Featured Image Source: Zhu Xi, Xinhua