Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s latest political star, has thrown open the election race, but Labour’s recent reversal of fortune is more complex than a simple change in leadership, argues Imogen Liu.
Last Thursday, Labour, New Zealand’s longstanding centre-left party, overtook their conservative rivals just three weeks before the election. The poll conducted by state-broadcaster TVNZ puts Labour up six points on 44 per cent, with National trailing on 41 per cent. Not since 2006 under Helen Clarke’s leadership has Labour pipped National in a poll showing.
Jacinda Ardern, Labour’s youngest-ever party leader, has undoubtedly sparked this about-face since her leadership ascendancy only a month ago. The 37-year-old has injected the race with charismatic energy. Her campaign launch on 20 August was attended by celebrities and featured performances by iconic Kiwi musicians. ‘Jacindamania’, as coined by her supporters, is reminiscent of the Obama fever that swept the US presidential election in 2008.
Ardern’s emergence has been much publicised, buoyed by her controversial first TV interview as party leader. When asked by the interviewer whether she intended to take maternity leave, Ardern replied that it was ‘unacceptable’ for women to have to answer this question in the workplace. The story, which made international headlines, fits snugly into her social democratic campaign and showcases her strengths with the female vote.
Ardern’s message is values-driven, which was on display in the first televised debate last Thursday. When the candidates were asked by a call-in cancer survivor whether they would legalise medical marijuana, Ardern responded with an unequivocal ‘absolutely’ while National party leader Bill English evaded a direct answer by citing regulatory complications.
Ardern is a breath of fresh air next to the practiced politician and current Prime Minister. But Labour’s final-hour success is not wholly attributable to Ardern’s personal qualities. The changing fortunes of New Zealand’s two main parties was in many ways inevitable and well-overdue. After nine years of National government, little has been done to solve the biggest issue going into the election: the housing crisis.
New Zealand has the most disproportionate housing-price-to-income ratio in the OECD. Compared to the Netherlands, with one of the lowest ratios at 83 to 1, New Zealand home buyers face an extreme 140 to 1 house-price-to-income ratio and over 12 per cent growth in real house prices over the past year. First-time home buyers wishing to enter the housing market face a near-insurmountable challenge.
The National government has presided over preferential tax policies that have fueled the crisis. There is no capital gains tax in New Zealand, and it is legal to apply unrestricted use of negative gearing losses to offset income from other sources. In other words, investors are able to transfer investment losses to tenants and the tax office, a practice not permitted in the UK or the Netherlands, that has made New Zealand a real-estate investors’ paradise. Although the National government is not the progenitor of these policies, public opinion has, with the latest poll, expressed dissatisfaction with a government that has failed to instigate reform after three consecutive terms in office.
Ardern’s proposals on the housing issue appeal to first-time and lower-income home buyers. She is ambitious in her spending scope, promising 10,000 affordable homes a year at a selling price of NZ $400,000 to NZ $600,000(US $286200 to US $429300). It is questionable whether homes can be built for such a price, and English is right to criticise the vagueness of her tax policies, which Ardern has said will be reviewed in Labour’s first term. Labour had, prior to the 2011 election, made a bid to reform negative gearing tax policies under the leadership of Phil Goff, but the campaign lost traction. Whether Ardern is able to achieve what her predecessors have failed to do remains to be seen.
Ardern’s appearance has certainly ignited the public imagination. In just four weeks, Ardern has overtaken English as preferred Prime Minister, rising 4 points to 34 per cent, one point ahead of English’s 33 per cent. Characterised by Victoria University of Wellington’s politics Professor Jack Vowles as a political culture ingrained with majoritarianism, party leaders have easily held the spotlight on the New Zealand election stage. National flourished under the enigmatic leadership of John Key, but the party’s fortunes have taken a turn under the incumbent and restrained English, who took the reins in December 2016. Ardern’s rise owes as much to her opponent’s unpopularity as to her own popularity.
The National campaign has also been plagued by setbacks. Key alliance partner and leader of United Future, Peter Dunne, resigned just two weeks ago, leaving National high and dry. Dunne was National’s decisive vote, needed to achieve a majority in Parliament, and National had directed its supporters to vote for Dunne in his constituency. Dunne’s resignation therefore creates the impression of a fractured partnership and a weakening National.
Ardern has stepped up at the right time and her ascent should come as no surprise. Should she lead the next Labour government, it would be a welcome sea change. But Ardern has yet to prove her ability to hold office. If she is able to deliver on her ambitious proposals, New Zealand may then be in for a strong Labour government that will rival Helen Clarke’s nine years.
The general election in New Zealand will take place on Saturday 23 September.
Imogen Liu is currently completing a Research Master in Political Science and Public Administration at Leiden University.
Photo by Ulysse Bellier