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What we know about Jacinda Arden, the ‘celebrity politician’

On the 17 October 2020, the Labour Party in New Zealand won a decisive and historic parliamentary majority headed by incumbent Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, winning 65 seats in the House of Representatives. This was the first time since the mixed-member proportional representation system was introduced in 1996 that a party has managed to do so.

Ardern has credited her popularity and success in this election to her government’s Covid-19 response policies, the subsequent economic impact from these policies, and her overall management of New Zealand during the pandemic. This victory gives Ardern’s government the opportunity to push for more progressive policies backed by the electorate than has previously been possible. This is because Labour’s 65-seat victory has simultaneously seen the National Party lose 23 seats in the House of Representatives due to the increase in typically centre-right middle class voters choosing Labour at the ballot.

Despite Ardern’s celebrity-politician status abroad, New Zealand’s voters appear to be a bit more sceptical about Ardern’s second term as Labour Prime Minister.

However, despite Ardern’s celebrity-politician status abroad, New Zealand’s voters appear to be a bit more sceptical about Ardern’s second term as Labour Prime Minister. This scepticism has appeared due to her lack of success at pushing through real, progressive change regarding child poverty in her first term, and the rather lacklustre manifesto pledges from the Labour Party this time around.

Why, then, did the Labour Party win by such a large margin this year? To answer this, Ardern’s role in the party and as a politician in general needs to be analysed. We must ask ourselves who Jacinda Ardern really is and identify what it is that we need to know.

Ideologically, Ardern is a blend of both progressive social and conservative economic values.

In October 2017, Ardern became the youngest Prime Minister of New Zealand in 150 years. Born in Hamilton, she comes from a working-class, Mormon background, and speaks fluent Maori. In 2001, she graduated from the University of Waikato with a Bachelor of Communication Studies in politics and public relations. Ardern has had a wide-ranging political background, from joining the Labour Party at 17 years old in 1997 to acting as President of the International Union of Socialist Youth in 2008 to becoming the world’s youngest female head of government, a member of the Council of World Women Leaders and New Zealand’s third female Prime Minister. Ardern also previously worked for two and a half years in the cabinet office of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Ideologically, Ardern is a blend of both progressive social and conservative economic values. Raised as a Mormon, Ardern later rejected the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in New Zealand as it conflicted with many of her beliefs, including her support for gay rights. In her maiden speech entering the House of Representatives at 28 years old as its youngest member, Ardern was extremely vocal about calling for the introduction of compulsory Maori language-learning in schools and in criticising previous New Zealand governments for their lack of adequate response to climate change, as well as championing policies to reduce and eventually eliminate child poverty.

At the United Nations General Address in September 2020 Ardern advocated for greater attention to be paid to the causes and effects of climate change, as well as women’s equality and for actions to be made on the basis of kindness. On separate occasions, Ardern has raised the issue of the plight of Uyghur Muslims in China, the rights of the Maori population in New Zealand as well as the deportation of New Zealanders from Australia, all of which place her as ideologically left regarding her social views.

It is the woman’s decision about when they choose to have children. It should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities

– Jacinda Arden

Ardern is also seen as something of a feminist icon for being New Zealand’s first elected head of government to be pregnant in office and the second to give birth while in office. When asked in an interview if she planned to have children, Ardern responded assertively that “it is the woman’s decision about when they choose to have children. It should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities.”

In her first term, Ardern largely centred her political strategy around kindness and cooperation, and defined her second campaign for New Zealand’s premiership as one of “relentless positivity”, which stood in stark contrast to the campaign of the National Party leader Judith Collins, which appeared to be centred around a criticism of Ardern’s Labour Party.

Ardern has been criticised for her lack of radical policy implementation, particularly regarding policies tackling child poverty, which was central to her first term’s campaign.

Economically, Ardern has been criticised for her lack of radical policy implementation, particularly regarding policies tackling child poverty, which was central to her first term’s campaign. In addition, while she successfully increased paid parental leave and raised the minimum wage, the KiwiBuild affordable housing scheme, which involved a pledge of 100,000 homes, was scrapped after only 500 homes were built, and a proposed capital gains tax was also scrapped. Despite winning a majority that gives a great enough mandate to implement real change, many are still doubtful that this will be accomplished by the Labour Party even after Ardern’s landslide victory. Ardern told voters that she would need a second term to deliver on her promises of transformational economic change, and the Labour Party has pledged to halve child poverty by 2030, tackle the climate crisis and build more state housing, as well as resuscitate the economy post-lockdown.

Many of Ardern’s goals in her first term, including free university education, reductions in immigration, decriminalization of abortion and the halving of child poverty by 2018, were left incomplete due to the attention of the government necessarily focussed on several crises including the Covid-19 pandemic, the Christchurch shooting, and the 2019 White Island eruption, all of which radically shifted the government’s agenda from tackling child poverty to crisis management. Ardern won both national and international acclaim, admiration and praise for her calm, compassionate handling of some of New Zealand’s most dire emergencies. Her decisive closure of the borders and enforcement of a nationwide lockdown meant fewer than 2,000 infections and only 25 deaths. Following the Christchurch mosque attacks, Ardern was staunch in her condemnation of the gunman, saying “you may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you”, and was seen over the next few days comforting the bereaved. As well as this, Ardern announced the banning of the sale of all semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles in New Zealand.

Her acclaim both internationally and at home have led to Ardern being viewed as a ‘celebrity Prime Minister’, in many regards due to her strong Covid-19 response.

Ardern’s brand of leadership is increasingly being compared and portrayed in the media to a presidency. Her popularity was utilised by the Labour Party in the 2020 campaign, with one social media advert claiming that New Zealand would be able to ‘Keep Jacinda’ as one of the top 10 reasons to vote for the Labour Party. Indeed, her acclaim both internationally and at home have led to Ardern being viewed as a ‘celebrity Prime Minister’, in many regards due to her strong Covid-19 response. Coined “Jacindamania”, her status as a well-liked politician and her unique, compassionate style of leadership has earned her comparisons to world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Barack Obama, which as a trend is incredibly interesting, as New Zealand’s voting system isn’t anything like the American system, and is more proportional than the Canadian system.

Ardern stands in a unique position to make significant railroads into progressive, transformative change for New Zealand as its popular, energetic, compassionate and quick-thinking Prime Minister.

It is also argued that her appeal as Prime Minister stretches beyond her political experience. However, Ardern has rejected the media’s attention to her physical appearance, arguing that her looks are irrelevant to her ability to hold the office of Prime Minister, characterising herself as an “acceptable nerd”. Nonetheless, it is impossible to definitively state that her physical attributes held absolutely no sway on her landslide 2020 victory. For example, one of the biggest criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn as the British Labour Party leader was that he ‘did not look like a Prime Minister’, and is arguably one of the biggest reasons why Labour lost the 2019 general election.

Ardern stands in a unique position to make significant railroads into progressive, transformative change for New Zealand as its popular, energetic, compassionate and quick-thinking Prime Minister with a majority in the House of Representatives. She is an important feminist icon and a beacon of progressiveness for the tiny nation, as well as an enthusiastic participant in international affairs. It remains to be seen whether or not Ardern will fulfil both her potential and the mandate given to her party by the public to make lasting change. I am optimistic about the future for New Zealand, and I look forward to seeing what other challenges Ardern will overcome in her second term as Prime Minister.

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