Breaking News

Jacinda Ardern’s Progressive Politics Made Her a Global Sensation. But Do They Work at Home?

Category: Asia,World

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, shared the debut of a new assistance package for families from her couch, in a Facebook live video where she could be seen cradling her 10 day-old daughter, Neve, in a bundle of blankets.

Between parenting jokes and policy explanations, she called the $5 billion package of tax cuts and payments “the most significant change to the country’s welfare system in decades.” Of all her government’s efforts, “this is the thing I’m most proud of,” she said, telling the audience that if she looked tired it was only because she was not wearing makeup.

The video from July was just one example of Ms. Ardern testing the reach of what she describes as politics “with a bit of heart.”

In many ways — temperament, style, and policy, among them — Ms. Ardern is the polar opposite of Trump and many other brash male leaders.

She has become a subject of global fascination for her progressive values, her youth and charisma, and her status as a new mother who has garnered more attention than any previous leader of this small Pacific country.

This week, with her partner and now three-month-old daughter in tow, she is bringing her pitch to New York. She will deliver New Zealand’s national statement at the United Nations on Thursday.

She is also doing interviews with the Today Show, Christiane Amanpour and Stephen Colbert. The international news media are fond of promoting her as a new kind of unconventional 21st-century leader — the unmarried mother and policy wonk who wore a traditional Maori cloak, while pregnant, to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen.

But even as her star soars abroad, Ms. Ardern increasingly faces challenges at home. Corporate interests are lining up against her agenda after the country’s business confidence rating dropped to a 10 year low in July; confidence has since improved, according to new figures released this month, but remains weak nontheless. Important policies, including tax reform, are still being decided, and critics have cast doubts on Ms. Ardern’s ability to maintain discipline within her governing coalition.

Experts say New Zealand exemplified the difficulty of enacting a progressive agenda at a time when politics are fractured and conservatives worldwide are emboldened. Ms. Ardern’s supporters say she must push even harder for transformative change.

“The gestures of kindness and care need to be matched sometimes with more concrete and meaningful aspects of kindness in practice,” said Max Harris, a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and author of “The New Zealand Project,” a new book about the country’s politics. He added that true success for Ms. Ardern would require structural shifts in social and economic systems — and it remains to be seen whether Ms. Ardern can get it done.

Ms. Ardern, 38, grew up in small-town New Zealand, studied communications at university, and joined the Labour party at a young age.

She has spent her whole career in politics, working as a staffer for the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and later in the office of Helen Clark, a former New Zealand prime minister, before entering parliament in 2008.

[Sign up for the Morning Briefing to get the global news you need to start your day, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.]

Ms. Clark has often described her protégé in glowing terms. In an interview last month, she predicted Ms. Ardern’s presence at the United Nations General Assembly would lead to a clamor from world leaders who want to be seen with her.

This week, images of Ms. Ardern, the first head of government to bring her baby to the United Nations, were printed in newspapers and shared on social media around the world. She also made headlines for declining to sign a draft pledge on combating drugs, which was introduced on Monday by President Trump. Ms. Ardern said she preferred to view drug abuse not as a national security issue, but rather as a health issue focused on treatment for those in need.

“She’s definitely struck a chord with the comments about kindness, and she exhibits that herself; you don’t hear a mean word come out of Jacinda’s mouth,” Ms. Clark said. “She is genuinely a nice and decent and kind person. But we’re also seeing as she develops into the office that she’s firm.”

It is that last point that remains an open question — at least for some.

Ms. Ardern came to power last October. After nine years of center-right government in New Zealand, she and her party won by promising a better deal for ordinary people, especially the marginalized and vulnerable.

But her power is still limited. In New Zealand, a party does not have to win an outright majority to govern. Labour formed a coalition with minor parties in order to lead and in recent weeks, disputes between Ms. Ardern’s party and the party of Winston Peters, the deputy Prime Minister whose support was crucial to her victory, have become more frequent, leading critics to argue Ms. Ardern is not in charge of her own government.

Further undermining her image, two of her cabinet ministers have been forced out in the past month: one was accused of an altercation with a staff member; another failed to disclose meetings with stakeholders tied to legislation.

Ms. Ardern said that in both cases, she acted decisively, but opponents said she was weak and failed to manage her team.

National Party lawmakers have also condemned her tendency to appoint expert panels to explore dozens of topics, leaving the details vague on her plan for major issues like taxes.

“Supporters of the government have some expectations of quite big change happening, but I don’t really know yet whether this is a transformative government or not,” said Bryce Edwards, a New Zealand political analyst. With all the working groups, he added: “it does feel a bit like they’re avoiding some of the hard issues, and giving them to the technocrats.”

Still, in its first year, her government has been busy. It approved a program of investment in New Zealand’s rural regions; passed housing affordability measures and tax credits for new parents and vulnerable families; and halted new offshore oil and gas drilling.

One of her most common refrains is: “This is the right thing to do.” She used that line this month when announcing that New Zealand would accept 500 more refugees per year starting in 2020, raising the country’s quota to 1,500. The phrase also appeared in her speeches announcing policies to freeze lawmakers’ pay and increase paid parental leave.

In an interview last month, she argued that values and government go together. “You can be pragmatic and grow an economy and improve well-being and do all of the things you have an expectation governments do, but do it with a bit of heart,” she said.

But some New Zealanders, including local journalists, also wonder if her moralism helps her avoid scrutiny.

“It will wear thin if it is overused,” Mr. Edwards said. “It can be used opportunistically, to justify something where you don’t have to come up with any evidence or proof that this is a good decision.”

[Want more coverage and discussion of New Zealand and Australia? Sign up for the weekly Australia Letter, and join us in our Facebook group.]

After Benazir Bhutto in 1990, Ms. Ardern is only the second sitting world leader in modern times to give birth while in office.

She announced her pregnancy in January, delivered her daughter in late June, and returned to work in August. In between, on parental leave, she appeared on Facebook live for the families assistance package.

Her sudden status as both Prime Minister and mother has sparked an international conversation about the role of working women, and there is a sense that both she and the rest of New Zealand are still exploring the boundaries of what that means.

In August, a television outlet posted a clip of Ms. Ardern breast-feeding in the background of an event, and then deleted it after being deluged by complaints from the public.

She was also recently chided by media commentators for the cost of her decision to fly to the Pacific Islands Forum for a single day, and then return home to nurse because her daughter had not yet been vaccinated.

[Read More: New Zealand Leader Vows Daughter Will Learn Maori]

In person, she seems unfazed by the criticism. She is an accomplished media performer, quick with the retort when facing opponents, but careful in interviews. Her partner, Clarke Gayford, the host of a television fishing show, said they have learned a lot about adjusting to international attention.

“It’s funny how things have unfolded and as your life becomes more public,” he said in an interview at the family’s home last month. “You find yourself holding some of the things back just to create a bit of, it’s not like protection — everything gets picked up and pulled apart.”

Ms. Ardern sees her mission as global. She’s a strong proponent of multilateralism and while New Zealand is a small nation accustomed to not being “the most powerful voice in the room,” she said, “power comes in many forms now.”

And, she added, it’s not just New Zealand that could benefit from more inspiration than fear.

“To retain the strength of democracy people have to believe in it, and they have to believe in politicians,” she said before she left for the United Nations General Assembly.

“That idea that power cannot be accompanied by notions of compassion and kindness and empathy,” she added. “That’s something that I refuse to accept.”


Source link

No comments