The Ardern era

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
27 October, 2022

This week marks five years since Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s 40th prime minister. In modern British political terms, such a period might now be referred to as an era. In New Zealand, too, it feels just like that: a very long time.

There are two reasons why Ardern’s half-decade seems much longer. First, it was a time packed with events. And second, Ardern has left her mark on New Zealand.

The events barely need explaining. During Ardern’s tenure as Prime Minister, New Zealand suffered its deadliest-ever terrorist attack. When the Covid pandemic hit, the country largely cut itself off from the rest of the world. Now, it is experiencing the economic effects of its monetary and fiscal responses to the crisis, exacerbated by geopolitical issues.

There are times when nothing much happens for years. There are other times when everything seems to happen all at once. The period of Ardern’s premiership falls into the latter category.

It is neither Ardern’s fault nor her achievement, but the density of seminal events has been the defining feature of her time in office.

However, what makes Ardern’s premiership feel like an era is something else. New Zealand in 2022 is a different place than  it was in 2017.

To put it like that is a truism, of course. Just as people change all the time, so do countries. Especially after changes of government, it is only normal to see some new directions in policy and some social evolution, too.

However, the changes that have happened under Ardern have happened faster than usual. In many instances, they have been more profound, too.

External events like the pandemic may have accelerated the pace and depth of change. Still, they cannot explain it entirely. Other countries also went through the pandemic, but the shifts in New Zealand feel more dramatic.

I emphasise the word ‘feel’ in this context, which might be frustrating if you are an empirically-minded social scientist. But what Ardern has changed in New Zealand does not easily lend itself to measurement. It is hard to put a number on a country’s social or cultural temperature.

Yet to anyone in New Zealand, it is obvious that something has changed in those past five years. Visitors, who may only frequent these shores every few years, will surely notice the differences even more.

One sign of the upheaval New Zealand has been the opinion polls, which have showed enormous swings over the past five years – and not just in the parties’ shares of the vote.

Polls about the direction of the country under Ardern’s premiership have shown the two most extreme values ever recorded: First overwhelmingly in the right direction, then overwhelmingly in the wrong direction.

Some changes are both deep and superficial. The best example is the greater visibility of Te Reo Māori, the Māori language.

Now being used everywhere, from weather reports to the names of government agencies, the indigenous language has gained much traction since 2017. The momentum behind the change is so strong, a change of the country’s name to Aotearoa may well be on the cards in the coming years.

Only a few years ago, in 2015 and 2016, the previous Government under John Key proposed a change of the flag. Even such a relatively minor change in the country’s symbolism was rejected by 57 percent of the people.

The changes since have probably been more significant for New Zealand’s national identity than any flag change would have been. And remarkably, they have happened without a vote.

Now, one might object that just inserting a greater proportion of Te Reo into the public discourse is hardly a revolution. Indeed, Te Reo Māori has been an official language of New Zealand since 1987, so its use should be regarded as something normal.

Such a view, however, misses the symbolism of the more widespread use of Te Reo. It does signal a greater role not just of the Māori language but of Māori-derived concepts more generally.

The use of indigenous concepts is more common now than it was in 2017 in areas such as education, science, and law.

Alongside these changes, the nature of the state in New Zealand has evolved too. In 2017, New Zealanders had a rather functional, sober relationship with the state. It was the organisation one relied on for basic functions and protections. Few New Zealanders had greater expectations of it than that.

Under Ardern, the state has assumed a role beyond its functional aspects. That is most obvious in the so-called ‘wellbeing budgets’.

Instead of simply allocating funds to various government departments, the state now aims for something higher: it aspires to uplift its citizens in an almost spiritual manner. Whether it succeeds in that quest is a different question, but the very idea of the New Zealand state has changed under Ardern.

What has not changed are some negative trends that have plagued New Zealand for many years before her: the country’s sluggish productivity, its declining education system, its infrastructure deficits, its ridiculous house prices. In each of these areas, the problems have continued or indeed worsened.

Ardern’s record is one of deep change in the nature of the New Zealand state and its relationship to citizens. On the country’s most pressing social and economic problems, Ardern has not achieved any improvement. On many measures, the country is actually worse off than it was when she became Prime Minister.

The fact that Ardern’s record on the ground remains poor has been doubly masked: by the aforementioned constitutional changes, which are popular in parts of the electorate and the commentariat, and by Ardern’s superb communication skills.

There is no doubt New Zealand is a different country from the one Ardern took over in 2017. That, irrespective of one’s own take on her actions, makes her time in office, though short, an era.

It was an exhaustive time – and an exhausting one. It must have been for her, too.

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