Political obituaries poured in all day long. Jacinda Ardern, it seemed, was just too good for this grimy political world. “A true world leader,” said Sir Keir Starmer. Her difference from the world was “immeasurable,” said Justin Trudeau. And how striking that New Zealand’s prime minister – a global progressive icon – was not tarnished by losing an election, but had the grace to bend and say she was emotionally drained. With that, she began her final act: the Ascension of St. Jacinda, a world leader who now shows the world how to say goodbye.
That’s one way to say it. Another is to say that her popularity was declining and she had decided she was likely to lose the general election this fall. But instead of letting voters pass judgment on her zero-Covid policy, she went berserk. If she does this in an election year, her successor will have little time to establish herself – dooming her party, Labor, to certain defeat. She may have used her campaign skills to limit the damage, but instead she saved: by party and country.
Ardern, like Barack Obama, is a case study of how a foreign leader can be worshiped abroad while deeply polarizing at home. Its flagship zero-Covid policy seemed to work for a while, and New Zealand’s 2020 general election was in fact a huge thank you for saving the country from the 35,000 deaths that Neil Ferguson’s Imperial College spoke of. She scored many firsts. During her tenure, she took maternity leave. She united the country after the Christchurch terror attack. She was a diplomat par excellence.
But for New Zealanders who had to live with her policies (and taxes), things were quite different. Failing to get hold of Covid vaccines at anything like the speed managed by Kate Bingham’s task force left Kiwis locked down long after Europeans left on vacation. The Delta variant then arrived anyway, leading many to claim that the zero Covid pain had been for nothing. Then came her draconian vaccine mandate, forcing hundreds of teachers, prison officers and others to quit their jobs because they refused to take the shot.
Other zero Covid policies are now recovering. The border closures have cut off the flow of immigrants that New Zealand has long relied on, now leading to a chronic labor shortage. About a million of the famous itinerant Kiwis were locked out of their own land; most never forgave her. In London, she was seen to be so sympathetic to Beijing — seeking trade and unwilling to join the critique of Chinese human rights — that the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network was in jeopardy. This doesn’t look so good now that the invasion of Ukraine drew a sharper line between democracy and autocracy.
The global applause for her early embrace of net zero has not found much resonance in New Zealand’s agricultural community, the backbone of the national economy. Growing up in the Highlands of Scotland, farmers spoke of New Zealand as the Silicon Valley of agriculture, with techniques so advanced and efficient that they needed no subsidy. It was (and remains) a wonder of the world. But now, under the threat of green taxes, the voice in the countryside is hardening against her – a bad enemy to make.
As is so often the case for national leaders revered by the outside world, her main problem was something domestic and boring. In her case, the so-called Three Waters plan to overhaul New Zealand’s creaking sanitation infrastructure and grant Māori tribes “co-government” of the new public assets. Given that Māori make up 17 percent of the population, many thought that was undemocratic. Voters began complaining about “Cindy and her three waters,” even though it wasn’t her idea and they didn’t know much about the policy.
And we must add to this a general exhaustion with the pursuit of fashionable, polarizing politics: for example, government departments were given Māori names, so the pensions committee became Te Ara Ahunga Ora and so on. The Wellington protests against vaccine mandates, which had to be broken down by police, brought scenes of political violence quite rare in New Zealand: and not welcome at all. It all comes down to the hunger for change, for someone who is boring, less controversial.
Enter Christopher Luxon, a bald 52-year-old conservative who once ran Air New Zealand and now runs the National Party. No one can accuse him of being charismatic or political genius. Elected leader after only a year in parliament and still politically clumsy, he would certainly have struggled against the experienced Ardern in October’s election. But her likely successors as Labor leader are as unremarkable as Luxon, as bland and as deeply engaged in zero Covid as she is. With her eloquence, the election would have been balanced. Without her, a National Party landslide now seems likely.
And the themes of Luxon? The conservative basis: that government spending is uncontrollable, taxes are too high. That he would do better to run the economy, fix the groaning health system, solve violent crime. Labor eventually got too excited about tax and spending and started targeting the “utes” (pickups) that Kiwis like to drive. Such mundane issues can put an end to even the most glamorous political reign.
Speaking in London ahead of the Queen’s funeral, Ardern revealed she was reflecting on her own political mortality. “I’ll never fully understand how she gave all her life,” she said. Five years of her own job as prime minister, she said, would have been enough — but to dedicate a life to public service? “That’s sacrifice.” One she, quite understandably, had had enough of. Of course, to fight and (probably) lose an election just to save her party some seats is a sacrifice too far.
You could call it the curse of Covid: the leaders who went into lockdown have either lost power or they seem to be done. Zero Covid failed on its own terms, but it was authoritarianism – especially over vaccine mandates – that was never completely forgiven. New Zealand now wants to turn the page and rebuild, as Australia did last year. And that’s what the Passion of St. Jacinda explains: She thought it was her choice to be tossed out by voters after a bitter election campaign — or to step off now and enjoy the acclaim of the world. For a global icon, there was really only one option.
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