Let’s talk about Jacinda Ardern

Not much ordinary business is likely to get done in the world’s parliaments for the immediate future. But New Zealand managed to get an important bill through last week, with the passage of legislation to remove abortion from the Crimes Act and guarantee the right to terminate a pregnancy in the first twenty weeks (broadly in line with the position in Australia’s states).

To my mind that’s a very good thing, although I don’t intend to argue the merits of it here. But it offers an opportunity to say something about the state of New Zealand politics, ahead of an election scheduled for September this year.

It’s appropriate this week because it’s just on 250 years since James Cook completed the circumnavigation of New Zealand – prior to sailing on to the “discovery” of eastern Australia – thus beginning the process of bringing the country into the European world.

More relevantly, perhaps, is the fact that at a time of crisis, when people are urgently seeking inspirational (or even just competent) leadership from their governments, many in Australia and elsewhere regard New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern as a model. Her response to the anti-Muslim terrorist attack in Christchurch a year ago won rave reviews from progressive opinion worldwide.

So let’s start by looking at the vote on the Abortion Legislation Bill. Here are the numbers on the third reading:

  Men Women Total
  For Against For Against For Against
National 10 24 9 11 19 35
Labour 20 5 17 4 37 9
NZ First 0 7 2 0 2 7
Greens 2 0 6 0 8 0
Others 2 0 0 0 2 0
TOTAL 34 36 34 15 68 51

As you would expect, the centre-left (Labour) voted mostly in favor, and the centre-right (National) mostly against. The first of those tendencies was stronger than the second, which is why the bill passed. By the standards of the contemporary Anglosphere, New Zealand’s National Party is a moderate force.

The next obvious thing is the gender disparity. If it had just been up to the men, the bill would have failed, albeit very narrowly (one male National MP was absent). But the women voted more than two to one in favor.

That disparity, however, only shows up on the right. Labour’s MPs voted in favor to the same extent regardless of their gender. (So did the Greens, who were unanimous.) But National’s men were overwhelmingly against while its women split almost evenly. Even more striking is the far-right New Zealand First, which divided exactly on gender lines, its two women voting in favor and its seven men against.

Which raises a fairly obvious question: what is Labour, under a supposedly progressive leader, doing in coalition with NZ First? And why do the Greens, who as a minor party should have the luxury of sticking to principle, go along with it? (Labour and NZ First govern in coalition, with the Greens guaranteeing confidence and supply.)

It’s true that, just as National is a moderate centre-right party, NZ First is relatively moderate in the far right stakes. It shares many themes with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, including particularly its hostility to immigration, but under veteran leader Winston Peters it has been more successful in branding itself as in the vaguely populist middle of the ideological spectrum rather than out to one end.

In practice that means that the party is for sale to the highest bidder; it kept National in office from 1996 to 1998, and did the same for Labour from 2005 to 2008. The 2017 election, however, was the first time that Peters had successfully negotiated to engineer a change of government, despite the fact that National had outvoted the combined Labor-Greens total.

So if there is supposed to be a cordon sanitaire around the far right, Ardern is the one who broke it. Nor was there anything much to justify it other than the desire for power. New Zealand was not facing any sort of emergency; the incumbent National government under Bill English had done nothing to prompt the thought that it had to be removed at all costs.

National’s current leader, Simon Bridges, says he has learnt the lesson and promises not to deal with NZ First if it again emerges with the balance of power. Opinion polls show its support in decline, but not precipitously: while it is currently below the 5% threshold, it may well recover (as it has done in the past).

As I’ve said a number of times, no single strategy for dealing with the far right (or any other sort of extremists) can be guaranteed to work. Sometimes such parties can be tamed or neutered by being given a share of office; sometimes not. Perhaps Ardern did the right thing.

The problem, it seems to me, is not that no case can be made for her decision to deal with Peters, but that her supporters don’t seem to feel any need to make it. The issue is just ignored, as if her stature as a progressive icon would not survive contact with the grubby reality of pragmatic politics.

With democracy under siege worldwide, the need for heroes is real and understandable. But we also need some honest discussion about how they got there and what price they paid.

7 thoughts on “Let’s talk about Jacinda Ardern

  1. For an apparently far-right party, their list of coalition demands was pretty mild. Many quite progressive! Why wouldn’t Labour do this deal?

    From wikipedia:

    > During the post-election negotiations, New Zealand First managed to secure several policies and concessions including a Regional Development Fund, the re-establishment of the New Zealand Forest Service, increasing the minimum wage to $20 per hour by 2020, a comprehensive register of foreign-owned land and housing, free doctors’ visits for all under 14-year olds, free driver training for all secondary students, a new generation SuperGold smartcard containing entitlements and concessions, a royalty on the exports of bottled water, a commitment to re-entry of the Pike River Mine, and Members of Parliament being allowed to vote in a potential referendum on euthanasia. In return, New Zealand First agreed to drop its demand for referenda on overturning New Zealand’s anti-smacking ban and abolishing the Māori electorates.

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  2. You seem to be conflating “populist” with “far right”. If the party brands itself as populist/centrist, and votes for progressive policies, in what sense is it “far right”?

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    1. No, I don’t dispute that you can have a populist party that’s basically centrist – I think the 5 Stars in Italy more or less fit that description, as did Clive Palmer when he started out. For me the giveaway is making the running on anti-immigrant sentiment, combined with populism and social conservatism. If you think NZ First is centrist, why was it more strongly against abortion law reform than National?

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  3. I don’t think you can infer anything from a 7-2 vote. If one man had voted differently, or if a couple more NZ First members were women, there would be no difference with Nationals.

    Going beyond NZ, all but three members of Queensland LNP voted against reform. What should we infer from that?

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    1. I’ll concede that they are centre-right more than centrist. Peters was a National MP, after all. The point is that they are still, if anything, to the left of the Nationals, who have a pretty bad track record on race issues (Orewa). You can argue that a left government should or shouldn’t do deals with them, but not that they ought to be beyond the pale as AfD are and One Nation should be.

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      1. I think a party system has to be looked at as a whole; there’s only so much you can learn from studying a party in isolation. In NZ you already have in National what is unmistakably a centre-right party, so the question is, is NZ First simply a competitor for the same ground, or is it trying to outflank them on the centre, or on the right? To me it looks reasonably clear that they’re trying to outflank them on the right. Even if I’m wrong about that, I still think the lack of discussion of the issue is worrying.

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