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Ardern’s Election Win – Who’s Left Behind?

Two cents on the New Zealand election

Ardern’s 2020 election win has been marked as historic, the first time the Labour Party has secured a ‘wave of red’ by turning once secure National Party seats into Labour strongholds. Following Ardern’s election win, social media was inundated with praise for Kiwi voters, commending them for electing a compassionate, progressive leader, in contrast to other political leaders chosen across the globe. 

During her first term as New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern maintained a message of kindness. The phrase ‘be strong, be kind’ became a tenant of her government’s response to the Coronavirus pandemic. Additionally, “team of five million”- another phrase coined by Ms Ardern to refer to unity within the country – also reinforces her discourse of compassion. International media has generally adopted a positive framing of Jacinda Ardern’s politics, a ‘girlboss’ angle often used in media packaging of Ms Ardern. Her television appearances on episodes of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert and other entertainment news media, including her savvy social media wit has curated a persona that is difficult to dislike.

Ms Ardern acknowledges her unconventional political persona too, speaking to the New York Times in 2018:

“One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

While this analysis does not deny Ms Ardern’s successes, it will challenge the widely held notion that her government adequately considers all New Zealanders in their policies. As her new term in power begins, with a single party majority in the country, it is important to consider who is left behind as a result of Labour’s win. Is a ‘kind’ New Zealand as shaped by Ardern’s campaign rhetoric, truly kind to everyone? 

Jacinda Ardern caught the world’s attention through her strong leadership during the Christchurch terror attacks, Whakaari volcano eruption and the global pandemic. However, critics of her leadership point to her government’s failure to tackle child poverty in the country – a key election promise during her 2017 campaign

UNICEF’s report into child well-being released in September of this year analysed the performance of 41 affluent countries and their progress on child welfare issues. From the 41 countries assessed, New Zealand’s efforts were dismal, achieving 35th place. Although the conclusion of 2018 saw Ardern’s government introduce the Child Poverty Reduction Act to tackle the issue, the meeting of targets at three-year and ten-year intervals as stipulated by the legislation has afforded little improvement.

The latest figures from statistics on childhood poverty in New Zealand reveal a relatively flat trend of improvement on key measures. For example, the before-housing-cost poverty measure (median income before deducting housing costs) sits at between 14% and 16.5% of New Zealanders or roughly 183, 000 people. This increases to 22.8% when housing costs are factored in, to about 254,000 people. Material hardship, that is the ability for an individual to access healthy, fresh food, medical services and other lifestyle aspects are at 13% or 151,700 individuals. 

The Ardern government’s response to Indigenous issues within New Zealand has been fraught for some time. Last year, hundreds of protestors demanded Jacinda Ardern visit Ihumātao, the site of a major Indigenous land dispute that has fed into larger anger at government inaction in addressing inequality in Māori communities. Further, an inquiry into New Zealand’s child services agency Oranga Tamariki has found systemic discrimination of Māori families. The review was sparked by ongoing issues regarding the treatment of Māori children in state care. 

Returning to the statistics of material hardship mentioned earlier, when considering Māori and Pasifika households 23.3% of Maori children and 28.6% of Pacific children live in material hardship. This is in contrast to 13% of the general population. The higher percentages of poverty in Indigenous communities reveals an under reported aspect of New Zealand’s society, which has been so often coloured as generally prosperous and stable. 

In preparation for this article I spoke to Dr Lara Greaves, a Lecturer in New Zealand Politics and Public Policy at the University of Auckland. I asked her whether European/white New Zealanders have a very different life experience to Maori or Pasifika citizens. She says:

“There is clear evidence – based in Māori and Pasifika individuals’ lived experiences and based in scientific research – that shows there is pervasive systemic racism across multiple areas, such as health, policing, education, everywhere really. There are also the socioeconomic and other, broader impacts of colonisation, which continue to impact Māori in the current day”.

Eleanor Roy labels child poverty as ‘New Zealand’s most shameful secret’. In her article on the issue in 2016, prior to New Zealand’s last election she interviews Hirini Kaa, an academic within New Zealand’s Child Poverty Action Group. Kaa says:

“It is interesting the world believes New Zealand to be an ideal country,” 

He continues:

“Child poverty has always been here – especially among Māori and Pacific populations – but it wasn’t until homeless people started interrupting middle-class voters having coffee in central Auckland that the government decided to ‘tackle’ it”.

My conversation with Dr Greaves evokes similar sentiments, she tells me that in fact, many New Zealanders turn a blind eye to these issues.

“Many people in New Zealand do not know about these issues, so I am not surprised that internationally people do not know about this … I guess it’s not something New Zealand really wants in our international image”.

In her next term as Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern and her government will have the opportunity to make significant improvements for Māori and Pasifika communities, particularly with the high representation of Māori and Pasifika members in the incoming parliament. Dr Greaves notes:

“Labour just needs to spend some of its political capital on it – which they have not really done in the past … There are a number of huge systemic issues that need fixing to improve the lives of Māori and Pacific communities. A few issues, for Māori at least, that are yet to be addressed are Ihumātao, water rights, Māori representation at the local government level, the idea of a Māori health authority and creating opportunities for Māori led solutions to Māori problems. “

There is no doubt that the eyes of the world will watch on keenly as the next three years of New Zealand politics plays out. With an increasingly complex sociopolitical climate, and Jacina Ardern at the helm, the New Zealand Labour party has  important decisions to make, particularly in regard to quality of life of Māori and Pasifika communities and the nation’s child poverty problem. 

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