Don't You Dare Let Them Down, Jacinda! Many New Zealanders, especially young New Zealanders, continue to believe that change – real change – is possible. Do we have criticisms about the way in which Jacinda’s government has gone about “transforming” New Zealand? Of course we do. But the very fact that so many of us are critical of the way she and her government have set about their task, surely implies that a more direct route to transformation exists, and that there is yet a chance that a progressive government might find it?
AS THE “YEAR OF DELIVERY” draws to its end, what have Jacinda Ardern and her colleagues delivered us? Well, they have not delivered 100,000 affordable houses. Nor have they brought Climate Change to a shuddering halt. Child poverty has not been ended. Our rivers and streams remain unswimmable. New Zealand’s farmers have yet to assume a measure of responsibility commensurate with their contribution to anthropogenic global warming. The number of ticks on Jacinda’s “To Do List” is far from impressive.
And yet, unlike my friend, Bryce Edwards, I am reluctant to rebuke Jacinda too harshly. Why? because a surprising number of New Zealanders remain hopeful that what Jacinda promised to deliver remains deliverable. Many of us continue to believe that change – real change – is possible. Do we have criticisms about the way in which Jacinda’s government has gone about “transforming” New Zealand? Of course we do. But the very fact that so many of us are critical of the way she and her government have set about their task, surely implies that a more direct route to transformation exists, and that there is yet a chance that a progressive government might find it?
Bryce’s criticism of Jacinda’s performance on the international stage struck me as particularly unfair. Does he seriously believe that anyone would have been impressed by a New Zealand Prime Minister deliberately sabotaging her country’s relationship with the United States by criticising President Trump’s stance on Climate Change directly to his face? New Zealand’s diplomats have spent the best part of 35 years repairing the damage done to the US-NZ relationship by the Lange Government’s refusal to admit the USS Buchanan in 1985. What would she have gained for her country by rebuking publicly the most errant and volatile individual to occupy the White House in the entire history of the United States? When Trump’s inevitable retribution came – swift and devastating – wouldn’t the response of most New Zealanders have been: “What on Earth did you do that for?”
Nevertheless, Bryce insisted (in The Guardian, no less) that Jacinda, as the political leader dubbed the “Anti-Trump” by a handful of globally-syndicated political commentators, had only two viable alternatives in New York. Not to meet with Trump at all. (Thereby preserving her progressive reputation at home.) Or, if she did meet with him, to “speak truth to power” by upbraiding him publicly for his refusal to come to terms with the reality of Climate Change. (Thereby enhancing her progressive reputation abroad.) That either course of action, if followed, would have proved diplomatically disastrous for New Zealand mattered less to Bryce than Jacinda forfeiting her “Anti-Trump” image. Fortunately, the opinions of political commentators are not the only ones prime ministers are obliged to consider. Equally fortunately, Jacinda was persuaded that foreign policy is much too important to be guided by nick-names.
Certainly, it is my view that Jacinda acquitted herself brilliantly in New York. In her meeting with Trump she did nothing to undermine the efforts of her key coalition ally (and Foreign Minister) Winston Peters to preserve and, if possible, enhance the laboriously assembled rapprochement between Washington and Wellington. Jacinda’s open and engaging personality clearly charmed the notoriously thin-skinned Trump. The process of initiating formal negotiations for a US-NZ Free Trade Agreement was nudged forward – much, it must be presumed, to MFAT’s delight. The President even had questions about the NZ Government’s gun buy-back scheme. Remarkable!
Bryce also comments on how unfortunate it was for Jacinda to follow Greta Thunberg (whom he dubs the “New Anti-Trump”) at the Climate Action Summit. Truthfully, however, it is difficult to see how anyone could have “followed” Greta. Moments like hers are rare in human history. The best any political leader can hope to do is respond to “the voice of a generation” with grace and dignity. Jacinda did not let her country down.
What Bryce did not devote anything like enough attention to in his commentary was the gap between Jacinda’s extraordinarily adroit performances abroad and her less-than-stellar accomplishments at home. In explaining this increasingly significant discrepancy, however, we cannot avoid touching upon the real cause of Jacinda’s domestic failures. This has much less to do with the Prime Minister’s alleged “flakiness” than it does with the fact that when she goes abroad Jacinda is in control. Success or failure is hers to determine: the product of her own wit and intuition. Back home, the situation is very different. Back home the Labour leader is not free to set and execute her own agenda – none of her Cabinet are. The Coalition Government simply cannot be more radical or innovative than its most conservative member – NZ First.
It will require every bit of her diplomatic talent, but Jacinda must, somehow, make it clear to Winston Peters, and his caucus that, by their decision to bring into being a coalition government with the Labour Party (supported by the Greens) NZ First was throwing its weight behind the cause of progressive politics in New Zealand. By the same token, the party’s repeated refusals to allow Labour’s and the Greens’ progressive agenda to be advanced – be it the Capital Gains Tax, Climate Change, Workplace Relations and, only this past weekend, Drug Reform – are making it impossible for the Coalition to advance together into the next General Election as a united force for change.
There are ways to protect NZ First from political oblivion (offering Shane Jones the Northland seat, for example) but if Labour is to do that, then it can only be on the strength of a solemn promise to give progressivism its head; to allow Labour and the Greens to be Labour and the Greens; and, most importantly, to let Jacinda be Jacinda.
If NZ First is to survive. If the progressive agenda of Labour and the Greens is to survive. If the amazing stroke of political good fortune that is “Jacinda” is to survive. Then the hope of “delivering” a more just, a more free, a more equal, and a more restorable New Zealand must not be allowed to die.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 30 September 2019.