New Zealand politics seldom grabs international attention. That changed six weeks ago when Jacinda Ardern, the 37-year-old female deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, was gifted the party leadership and a mission to lift its vote share. It was an act of desperation for Labour, a party that has languished in the polls since the defeat of Helen Clark’s government in 2008.
Within a week of taking over, Ardern rejuvenated Labour’s membership and its campaign coffers began to fill. People turned out in the hundreds for selfies, campaign speeches, and to meet this remarkable young woman. Opinion polls showed a surge in support for Labour and for Ardern as preferred prime minister. Some of this support had come at the expense of the country’s left-wing Green Party, but not all.
Labour under Ardern appeared to ignite a belief, amongst Labour voters at least, that a change of government was not only desirable but achievable.
Price too high?
Why this support for change in a country that came through the Global Financial Crisis relatively unscathed, and is experiencing solid economic growth? The reasons are complex but to simplify there seemed to be a sense that the National government’s fiscal prudence and retaining a surplus at any cost, was proving too high a price for many.
Materially, a growing number of New Zealanders were experiencing economic hardship. Wages have stagnated, homelessness numbers are high, and sky-rocketing house prices in Auckland, with contagion effects in the regions, were locking out many first-time home buyers.
Income tax cuts offset an increase in the goods and services tax for middle- and high-income earners but did little to relieve the economic pressures on low-income earners experiencing high food prices and increased rents. For those not in paid work, the stricter rules around welfare access exacerbated a sense of economic insecurity.
Serving some, alienating more
Socially, there were also signs that all was not well with New Zealand. Comparatively speaking, New Zealand’s rates of family and domestic violence and child poverty are shocking, and pressures on the public health care system have led to some hospitals closing their doors to new patients….