New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (26 October 2017 – 25 January 2023)

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern resigns


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at press conference at parliament in Wellington, Oct. 11, 2021. PHOTO/AP Photo/Robert Kitchin/Pool Photo via AP

In a shock announcement on Thursday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the media she would step down from the position by February 7 and leave parliament in April.

After more than five years leading the Labour Party-led government, Ardern offered little explanation for her sudden departure, other than saying she was burnt out. “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple,” she said, adding, “I am looking forward to spending time with my family again.”

Ardern’s resignation apparently took most Labour politicians by surprise and has thrown the government into turmoil ahead of a national election scheduled for October. Labour MPs will meet on Sunday to try and choose a new leader, but according to the New Zealand Herald there is “no clear consensus on who should succeed Ardern.” Deputy prime minister and finance minister Grant Robertson has ruled himself out as a contender.

Ardern claimed she was “not leaving because I believe we can’t win the election, but because I believe we can and will, and we need a fresh set of shoulders for that challenge.” This is not credible. In recent months Labour has polled around 33 percent—a dramatic decline since the 2020 election when it won more than half the votes.

The opposition National Party is only polling around 38 percent, reflecting widespread hostility towards both the major capitalist parties. This is an international phenomenon: everywhere, including in the United States, Europe and Australia, voters see little difference between any of the established parties. Traditional parliamentary and two-party systems are increasingly discredited and are breaking apart under the impact of the economic crisis, soaring social inequality and class polarisation, the out-of-control pandemic and the headlong rush towards another world war.

The NZ Labour Party, under Ardern’s leadership was barely able to form a government in 2017 in a coalition with the Greens and the far-right New Zealand First. In 2020, Labour won just over 50 percent of the votes, partly due to the shambolic state of the National Party, beset by factional warfare and conflicts over foreign policy.

Wealthy areas of the country switched their support to Labour largely because of the Ardern government’s multi-billion dollar handouts to big business and the rich during the first year of the pandemic—which are now being paid for by the working class through rampant inflation and austerity measures.

To the extent that Labour was supported by the working class in 2020, it was because the government had implemented a series of lockdowns and other public health measures which kept the country almost entirely free from COVID-19. The elimination strategy was implemented out of fear of a movement developing among healthcare workers, in particular, pushing for a nationwide lockdown, outside of the pro-government trade unions.

Labour’s and Ardern’s support began falling sharply in early 2022, coinciding with a major deterioration in workers’ living standards and the government’s disastrous adoption of the homicidal policy of mass COVID-19 infection. In late 2021, the government acceded to the demands of big business to abandon its “zero COVID” policy. As a result, the death toll from COVID has surged from just 30 in October 2021 to more than 3,000. Hospitals are overwhelmed and tens of thousands of people are likely to be suffering from Long COVID.

Meanwhile, inflation is driving broad sections of the working class into poverty. In her speech yesterday Ardern said her government had “turned around child poverty statistics” and “improved the pay and conditions of workers, and shifted our settings towards a high wage, high skilled economy.” This is a lie. That same day, statistics were released showing food prices went up 11.3 percent in the past year, the biggest jump since 1990 and far outstripping wages, which increased only 3.7 percent in the year to September.

New Zealand is experiencing a severe housing crisis, with more than 102,000 homeless people in a population of 5 million—the highest rate of homelessness in the OECD. The waiting list for public housing has increased fivefold since Labour formed a coalition government in 2017 and made false promises to fix the crisis by building 100,000 “affordable” homes. Only 1,500 homes were built in five years under the Kiwibuild scheme.

Since 2018, the Ardern government has repeatedly confronted nationwide strikes by nurses, doctors and other healthcare workers, as well as teachers and firefighters, demanding decent pay and safe working conditions. These actions have been systematically shut down and sold out by the union bureaucracies, which have also worked closely with the government and big business to dismantle public health restrictions and reopen schools and workplaces.

Ardern is bailing out at precisely the point where the ruling elite is demanding a major escalation in the attacks on the working class to make it pay for the global economic crisis. Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr has admitted that it is lifting interest rates in order to engineer a recession, to increase unemployment and drive down wages.

The implicit message contained in Ardern’s vague speech was that she does not feel up to the task of implementing this brutal agenda and confronting the resistance that will emerge in the working class. In a telling statement comparing the present period to a war, she told the media: “It’s one thing to lead your country in peace times, it’s another to lead them through [a] crisis; there’s a greater weight of responsibility.”

It also cannot be ruled out that Ardern’s resignation was prompted by pressure from New Zealand’s allies in Washington and Canberra, which are seeking a stronger commitment from Wellington to the far-advanced preparations for world war against Russia and China.

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One of a kind?


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will soon give birth to her first child. PHOTO/ Getty Images AsiaPac/Special Broadcasting Service

The gushing panegyrics Jacinda Ardern has attracted from liberal media outlets pretty much (but not only) across the English-speaking world since unexpectedly announcing her resignation last Thursday are unprecedented for a New Zealand prime minister.

It is, after all, a tiny country — population: five million — at the bottom of the southern hemisphere, and relatively inconsequential in global affairs. It’s unusual for any of its political leaders to stand out on the international stage, which makes Ard­ern’s achievement all the more impressive.

Much of the praise that has flowed her way of late is well-deserved. Her innate sense of empathy translated into demonstrations of compassion when it particularly mattered, notably after the Christchurch mosque massacre in 2019. Her first thought as the terrorist attack unfolded was “they are us”, referring to the victims. She didn’t send them thoughts and prayers, but instead, donned a headscarf and went and hugged family members and survivors. And right away banned assault weapons.

The Whakaari/White Island eruption la­­t­­­er the same year elicited a similar res­p­o­nse. And when Covid-19 emerged shortly aft­­­erwards, the government capitalised on New Zealand’s splendid isolation by closing its borders and implementing no-nonsense lockdowns in an effort to eliminate the virus. The nation’s life expectancy actually increased, and by the time the barriers were removed, most people had been immunised.

As of this month, New Zealand’s 2,500 Covid death toll is the smallest rate of fatalities in any comparable country. During 2020, Ardern’s popularity soared to 80 per cent and she led Labour in October that year to a landmark electoral triumph. Even then, though, some were getting riled up about the Covid-19 response, and subsequent vaccine mandates fed into conspiracy theories, sparking a vitriolic resistance among a small but vocal segment of the population.

A year ago, hooligans yelling obscenities forced the van she was travelling in to go off the road. This was followed by a violent protest outside parliament in Wellington, where protesters screamed death threats and displayed nooses. Even some of her political rivals have lately lamented the level of hatred that they suspect contributed to Ardern’s decision to step out of the limelight.

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She did not explicitly cite these sorts of pressures in her resignation speech, but obliquely admitted burnout: “I no longer have enough in the tank” to do the job. She wanted to find the time to marry her partner, and to be at home when her daughter first goes to school. Ardern was only the second serving prime minister, after Benazir Bhutto, to bear a child. Ardern has made it clear, though, that the inspirational example she offered to young women as a working mother should not be discounted because of her early exit.

That’s all very well, and admirable. Less so are her government’s failures on the domestic front; notably, its promise to build 100,000 new houses over 10 years (success rate so far: 1,300 homes) to ease the housing crisis, and to tackle child poverty and societal inequality more broadly. The latter probably cannot be achieved without dismantling ‘Rogernomics’ — the model of neo­­liberal capitalism a Labour finance min­ister introduced to the region in the 1980s.

One would like to think that Ardern and her successor, Chris Hipkins — who takes over today — are both philosophically resistant to the thrust of Rogernomics, but there’s little practical evidence of that. And if Labour loses the October election, as the polls predict, this will become an academic question.

Soaring inflation in the aftermath of the pandemic is by no means exclusive to New Zealand, but it’s a reminder that markets and banks have greater control over economies than do elected governments. Redressing that structural anomaly was never a part of Ardern’s agenda.

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