Time International - 02.03.2020

(Jacob Rumans) #1
Auckland financier and developer James
Kellow. “We used to be a net exporter of
energy. That was quite a shock to busi­
ness.” Apart from that, he says, the busi­
ness community is content with the
Labour government. “They haven’t had
that big an effect on the economy because
they haven’t changed that much,” he says.
Unemployment is at 4% and annual GDP
growth is at 2.7%, which is higher than in
the U.S. and the U.K.
But Ardern finds her more ambitious
dreams stymied by domestic setbacks.
To deal with New Zealand’s astronomi­
cally high housing prices, Ardern prom­
ised 100,000 affordable homes in a de­
cade and 1,000 in her first year in office,
but only 47 houses later, those targets
were scrapped as infeasible. As of the
end of last year, 315 houses had been
built. Infrastructure has also proved to

be a challenge; Labour canceled the roads
projects started by the outgoing govern­
ment to use the funds elsewhere, but has
recently restarted them. And Ardern tried
and failed to pass a capital gains tax to re­
dress income inequality.
Most frustrating of all is the issue of
children. Ardern is fond of saying she
wants New Zealand to be the best place
in the world to be a child. So far it just
isn’t. On average, a child is killed there
every five weeks. The country has the
highest rate of 15­ to 19­year­old sui­
cide in the developed world. Ardern ap­
pointed herself the Minister for Child­
Poverty Reduction and, while still on
parental leave, announced that all fam­
ilies would receive a benefit of $60 a
week for the first year of a child’s life and
some for three years as part of a larger
Families Package. In a video from her
couch, she called it “the thing I’m most
proud of ” since she took office.
But 2½ years into her tenure, the num­
bers haven’t budged. “There has been a
spectacular change in emphasis that we
would never have dreamed about when
I arrived,” says Children’s Commissioner
Andrew Becroft, who has been in the role
of national watchdog for children’s rights
for three years and who praises Ardern for
the steps she has taken so far. “But on the
statistics we have to date, we don’t have
the evidence that there has been any fun­
damental change in the welfare of chil­
dren.” There’s an 18­month lag in report­
ing, so he hopes to see some improvement
soon. But he points to the difference in the
welfare of New Zealand’s elderly, who re­
ceive government assistance indexed to
economic growth, and the nation’s chil­
dren, who have been disadvantaged by
stagnant welfare payments. He would like
the government to use the budget surplus
it has been growing since 2015 to redress
this imbalance. “In a sense, the growth
for New Zealand has been at the expense
of its most marginalized children for the
last 30 years,” he says.
Ardern’s hands are tied to some extent,
because her center­left party is in a co­
alition government with two other par­
ties, the far­left Greens and center­right
NZ First, which have their own priorities.
The system relies on compromise to get
things done, which can limit the rate of
progress. She set a challenging target for
greenhouse­ gas emissions, reducing them


Ardern at an Islamic Women’s
Council of New Zealand conference
in Auckland in August

to net zero by 2050 but, under pressure
from NZ First, had to exclude the biogenic
methane produced by the agricultural
industry —the country’s biggest.
Many of her supporters suggest that
her party and administration have a
knowledge and experience gap; before
Ardern took power, the Labour Party had
been in opposition for nine years. Draw­
ing enough votes for Labour in the elec­
tion could allow Ardern to form a coalition
with only the Greens and have a better
shot at governing the way she wants.
If Ardern is anxious about any of this,
she doesn’t show it at a soiree for the press
at the official Prime Minister’s residence
in Wellington on Feb. 12. She and Gay­
ford are dressed casually (she in sneak­
ers, he barefoot in shorts), trying to keep
their 19­month­old daughter, also in
shorts, from poking all the finger food.
They switch off watching over her, with
an aide swooping in as needed.
At one point, Neve is allowed to bang
on the grand piano, although her perfor­
mance goes largely ignored. She does,
however, have a surefire party trick. Ar­
dern runs through various animals, and
Neve, without removing her bottle from
her mouth, imitates the noises they make.
Eventually Ardern asks how adults sound.
“Blah blah blah,” her daughter chants, to
much laughter.
If Ardern loses the election, she will
have plenty of options, including simply
spending more time with the aforemen­
tioned small piano player. Robertson, the
Finance Minister, sees her taking on one
of the more forward­ looking issues, like
climate change or child poverty. Many
of her antecedents went on to serve in
global institutions. New Zealand’s sec­
ond national female Prime Minister,
Helen Clark, was head of the United Na­
tions Development Programme and nar­
rowly missed becoming the first female
U.N. Secretary­General. Another Prime
Minister, Mike Moore, was the head of
the World Trade Organization. She could
follow his example. In some ways, she al­
ready has. “Leadership,” Moore once said,
“is more than finding an angry crowd and
agreeing with it.”
Ardern says she has no idea what she
will do next. “Absolutely zero plan B. But
actually that’s not new,” she adds. “That’s
always been my way of being. It’s probably
CAM MCLAREN—GETTY IMAGES how I’ve ended up in politics.” □

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