Saint Jacinda’s fall

Media fawning wasn’t enough to save her

Karl du Fresne

That faint squealing noise Australians have been hearing over the past couple of weeks was the sound of New Zealand’s Labour government slamming on the brakes. The distant smell of burning rubber can also be explained. That was the same government executing a handbrake turn.

Jacinda Ardern’s shock resignation last month triggered not only a sharp political reset but a pronounced change in the country’s mood. Ardern may have enjoyed worldwide adulation, but in two terms as leader she had become an increasingly polarising figure at home. Her departure resembled nothing so much as the lifting of a spell.

New Prime Minister Chris Hipkins wasted no time setting his government on a new path. His primary objective will be to win back the mass of swinging voters who crossed over to Labour at the 2020 election, when Ardern was surfing a tide of goodwill following her adroit response to the Christchurch mosque massacres, but who have abandoned the party since then in disillusionment over its ideological excesses and managerial incompetence.

Ardern’s departure – which was spun as a sudden decision, but turned out to have been carefully plotted weeks beforehand – could be interpreted in two ways. One was that she saw defeat looming at next October’s general election and didn’t want to go down in history as a failed prime minister. (That was the rat-and-sinking-ship theory.) The alternative explanation was that she realised she had become a liability to Labour and wanted to give her successor time to regroup before going to the polls. (That was the noble self-sacrifice theory.)

So now new PM Hipkins has embarked on a desperate salvage operation

Either way, the portents were clear. Not only did opinion surveys show Labour in steady decline and its National party opposition in the ascendancy, but Ardern’s personal popularity had slumped to the point where she had fallen into the negative approval zone, where voters who liked her were outnumbered by those who didn’t.

It was a dramatic demonstration of what some political scientists call the Obama effect, where a leader is admired abroad but not so much domestically. It also reinforced the fundamental truth that ultimately, the only people in a position to truly judge whether Ardern was doing a good job were those who had to live with the consequences of her government’s policies. When it comes to the crunch, rapturous applause from left-leaning overseas commentators is just so much meaningless noise.

Local government elections late last year, in which candidates from the Left were resoundingly rejected everywhere but in achingly woke Wellington, confirmed that the country’s love affair with Ardern was over. So where did it all go wrong?

The Covid-19 lockdown in 2020 was a crucial turning point. Ardern’s earnest ‘be kind’ shtick and her patronising entreaties to the ‘team of five million’ soon took on an unmistakeably totalitarian tone. State-imposed mandates that barred unvaccinated people from working were seen as cruel and heartless. The same was true of a chaotic and randomly unfair isolation and quarantine system that prevented New Zealanders overseas from returning home, often in heartbreaking circumstances.

To many people, Ardern became the face of authoritarianism – ironically, the exact reverse of the compassionate image she sought to convey. Her daily televised pep talks from what was derisively labelled the Podium of Truth, so named because of her statement that the government was the sole source of reliable information about the pandemic, aroused as much scepticism as shoulders-to-the-wheel fervour.

None of this was helped by the growing public perception that Ardern was protected by sycophantic journalists. New Zealanders expect the media to subject the government to rigorous critical scrutiny, and they didn’t see that happening. In the end, the media’s fawning over Ardern became a negative.

All this smouldering resentment culminated in a three-week protest camp outside parliament, the riotous climax to which became arguably the defining event of Ardern’s second term. It’s fair to say the pitched battle between police and protesters, many of whom had never defied the law before, was not what she would want to be remembered for.

Covid aside, what most damaged Ardern was the growing public realisation that her government was pursuing a radical agenda for which it had no mandate and which it demonstrably lacked the competence to execute. Even as homelessness, gang crime and child welfare issues escalated, Labour ideologues seemed more concerned with promoting disruptive and destabilising changes in health, education and local government. As with some Labour regimes in the past – and with Australia under Gough Whitlam – there was a striking mismatch between ministerial ambition and ability.

So now Hipkins has embarked on a desperate salvage operation, reshuffling Labour’s cabinet, demoting his most unpopular minister, the divisive Nanaia Mahuta, and pledging to focus on ‘bread and butter issues’ such as the cost of living. He has also signalled the likelihood of a rethink on some of Labour’s most ideologically toxic policies – notably, Mahuta’s push for what is euphemistically termed Maori co-governance over the nation’s water resources.

Hipkins, who rejoices in the folksy nickname ‘Chippy’, personally exemplifies the change of political tone. Although close to Ardern, he’s not personally associated with the more extremist woke initiatives pursued under her leadership. He’s a more traditional Labour leader who may be able to reconnect with the party’s blue-collar base and could even appeal to voters in the conservative provincial seats that abandoned National three years ago when Jacindamania was at its peak.

Judging by the latest polls Hipkins has made a strong start, but history suggests he’s on a hiding to nothing. In the post-war era, every New Zealand prime minister who assumed office between elections was subsequently jettisoned by the voters. Perhaps the biggest factor in his favour is that his National opponent, former Air New Zealand CEO Christopher Luxon, is still on training wheels and has yet to show New Zealanders any reason why they should vote for him.