In a surprise announcement on 19 January, Jacinda Ardern said she was resigning, acknowledging ‘the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.’
Yet just over two years ago, at New Zealand’s October 2020 election, voters gave Ardern and her Labour Party an outright majority. Travelling around the country, she was greeted by admiring crowds, awed by a politician who put public health above private interests. They mandated her to continue her highly successful ‘elimination’ approach to managing Covid-19.
Why, so soon, did she face unprecedented hatred and abuse? Much of the focus around Ardern’s resignation has highlighted opposition from fringe far-right and anti-vaccination groups. Such groups, however, obscure the real forces that sought to tear Ardern down: elements in the business community, the political opposition and the national media cultivated a highly toxic environment in which the radicals, often the poor, marginalised and downtrodden, would emerge. Hate was seeded and normalised across the country, with Ardern as its focal point.
Reawakening interest in Labour
Ardern, a member of parliament since 2008, became Labour leader in 2017, some two months before a general election, reinvigorating interest in a party seen as stagnant and uninspired. Within a week, party support increased by almost ten points, while Ardern’s score as preferred prime minister jumped 20 points ahead of her predecessor’s.
Three decades into the country’s neoliberal turn, the public was fed up: homelessness and poverty were increasing, wages stagnant, and public services run down, eviscerated by small-state, soft-austerity ideology that had long undermined New Zealand’s more egalitarian instincts. Ardern employed Obama-like rhetoric, vowing transformational change. As a priority she pledged to tackle child poverty, her stated reason for entering politics. In 2016 UNICEF had released a report showing that one-third of New Zealand children (some 300,000) were living below the poverty line, with Maori and Pasifika disproportionately represented.
New Zealand faces significant difficulties: massive wealth inequality; a housing market stacked in favour of rentiers; the private sector’s largely hidden influence on public policy; high rates of suicide, mental distress and domestic violence; and the key issue of how the state can fulfil its obligations to Maori as set forth in the Treaty of Waitangi, the nation’s founding document.
Ardern tapped into the desire for change – her empathetic approach winning over middle-class, female swing voters in particular – but the election was a near-run thing. To form a government, she needed the support of Winston Peters’s New Zealand First (NZF), with confidence and supply from the Greens. In essence, Peters, a centre-right populist, could veto any policy he wished.
The first term of New Zealand’s sixth Labour government (September 2017 to October 2020) was one of tepid incrementalism, often attributed to Peters’s influence but also owing to Labour’s timidity. As Ardern, by then pregnant with her first child, was sworn into office, a seething misogyny was clear: to her detractors, she was only prime minister because Peters had granted her power. This perception would fester and spiral out of control in later years.
Even in that first term, Ardern’s dualism was apparent: on domestic issues she remained steadfastly cautious, while on the global stage, she embraced her bolder traits, famously bringing her new-born child into the UN General Assembly in 2018. With the US careening wildly under Donald Trump, and the #MeToo movement in full swing, Ardern signified a repudiation of all that Trump represented.
‘They are us’
Then, on 15 March 2019, a lone figure walked towards Al Noor Mosque in a sleepy Christchurch suburb. Friday afternoon prayers were under way. He was carrying a semi-automatic shotgun and an assault rifle. A GoPro camera was attached to his helmet, live-streaming to Facebook. His weapons were covered in white-supremacist markings. He had chosen New Zealand as his target to subvert the image of a peaceful, multicultural nation and maximise publicity. All told, Brenton Tarrant murdered 51 people at Al Noor and a nearby Islamic Centre in 20 minutes of horror that New Zealanders could barely fathom.
‘Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here,’ said Ardern. ‘They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home.’ Her response did much to reassure a reeling nation, while placing the survivors and victims’ families front and centre. ‘They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not,’ said Ardern. ‘They have no place in New Zealand.’
Within a week of the massacre, Ardern had moved to ban military-style semi-automatics and high-capacity magazines. Her bolder instincts took over. By the end of the year, as Covid-19 began to spread, her crisis leadership won domestic and global acclaim.
New Zealand rapidly scaled up an effective health response to Covid (1). It was a zero-tolerance approach, known as ‘go hard, go early’, that halted several significant outbreaks and made life mostly normal for much of the pandemic’s first 18 months. Measures were rolled out, contact tracing capability and quarantine facilities for the sick set up, and wastewater tested. The two principal tools, however, were strict border controls and hard lockdowns, defined in a four-level alert system. New Zealanders overwhelmingly supported the approach, with Ardern’s formidable command of the facts and communication skills rallying public support.
However, a relatively small group – tourism operators, horticulturalists, hospitality lobbies, chambers of commerce – leveraged their media connections to create a chorus of whinge. The two main opposition parties and national media amplified this, creating anxiety that gradually wore people down.
Regardless, Ardern led Labour to a historic majority in October 2020’s general election (2). And there was potentially light at the end of the tunnel. Pfizer’s Covid vaccine was about to enter phase III trials. If New Zealand could hold out, perhaps it would escape the worst. At the time, the country had recorded just 1,645 Covid cases and 25 deaths.
Facing increasing pressure from the left, Ardern’s administration pursued a much bolder vision in its second term, while managing to keep the virus out, rolling out a vaccination drive and much-needed health reforms, including the establishment of a separate Maori Health Authority.
Another flagship policy, the Three Waters reforms, aimed to improve the nation’s drinking, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure by centralising governance, while ensuring that Maori had a say in its management. However, inflamed by the opposition National and ACT parties, Three Waters became a lightning rod in 2021 for the Groundswell protest movement by farmers incensed by environmental legislation. Its supporters voiced rising misogyny: ‘Say no to comy [sic] bitch’ and ‘Stop ramming Maori language down our throats’. They soon found allies in the Evangelical movement and among the anti-vax ‘pro-Freedom’ groups. Protests spiralled.
Free marketeers, meanwhile, pressured Ardern to ease border restrictions and abandon an approach they framed as ‘just lock away the elderly and infirm and let the rest of us get on with it’.
Covid policy under attack
On 17 August 2021 a 58-year-old man tested positive: the first Covid case in almost six months. Ardern moved to level 4 settings. But the virus had got into some of the nation’s most vulnerable communities, contact tracing became harder and Auckland, the largest city, went into a sustained lockdown. Business interests protested, anxious about the costs. Some in the hospitality sector complained about limits on gatherings and demanded ‘targeted’ government assistance. ‘Now it’s 100% [the ministry of] Health running the show,’ said Hospitality New Zealand chief executive Julie White, according to Stuff.
Former prime minister John Key denigrated ‘public health experts’ for ‘making the public fearful’ and restricting civil liberties. The New Zealand Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan accidentally tweeted a private message in which she belittled as ‘bogus’ a prominent modeller who had predicted that 7,000 Kiwis could die each year if only 80% of the population was vaccinated. Stuff’s political editor urged readers to ignore the ‘agitating from the epidemiological echo chamber’. In The Listener, columnist Bill Ralston said it was time to ‘lock up the epidemiologists, microbiologists and Covid modellers who continually sound like prophets of doom.’ And so on.
Ardern’s administration attempted to create a more permissive environment, doing away with the alert level system, bringing in a ‘traffic light’ system, a hard suppression strategy that went live that December, framed by media as ‘freedom day’. By 30 December, when the nation largely moved to the more permissive orange traffic light setting, it had a rolling seven-day average of zero deaths.
But, the new system mandated vaccination to attend some workplaces and venues. And Omicron was assailing the border. The health response was overwhelmed in the first quarter of 2022. The nation would ‘learn to live’ with Covid – and 2,500 deaths, even with 90% of the eligible population double vaccinated.
Ardern was subjected to a torrent of abuse, including threats of rape and murder, and her party bled support to the centre-right National Party. Police charged eight people with threatening to kill her, while the New Zealand Herald uncovered video of a person shooting her image at close range with a silenced rifle with telescopic sights. She will need a protection team for years to come.
Since her resignation, Labour’s leadership has skewed to the party’s right. The new prime minister, Chris Hipkins, a talented debater, will attempt to claw back the soft-right vote ahead of elections later this year, jettisoning policies seen as too leftwing. Indeed, as Covid minister, Hipkins often appeared accommodating to business lobbies demanding an easing of restrictions whatever the public sentiment. His deputy Carmel Sepuloni, as minister for social development, took a castigatory approach to beneficiaries. New Zealand now faces the very real prospect of a centre-far right coalition, or a tepid centrism. Either way, New Zealand has been subjected to an anti-democratic moment. As a (female) colleague at my former kiwifruit packhouse job put it, ‘I’m disappointed [that Ardern resigned]. I was quite happy with her and she was voted in by the people.’
(1) See Glen Johnson, ‘New Zealand’s super-fast lockdown’, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, June 2020.
(2) Glen Johnson, ‘Timidity in New Zealand’, blog, Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, 16 November 2020.