Jacinda-Mania Sweeps New Zealand as Labour Seeks Poll Upset

Updated on
  • New leader reinvigorates opposition ahead of September ballot
  • Ardern may become country’s youngest prime minister since 1856

As a little girl in rural New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern noticed that some kids came to school without shoes on their feet or anything to eat for lunch.

“Even though I was very young, I still have very clear memories of seeing things that just struck me as being unfair,” Ardern, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party, said in an interview in Wellington. “Things like that, I would say, probably sparked my interest in politics.”

Jacinda Ardern

Photographer: Mark Coote/Bloomberg

With a general election less than seven weeks away, Ardern could soon be in a position to do something about the growing inequalities in New Zealand society. The 37-year-old has generated a surge of excitement for an opposition that’s languished in polls behind Prime Minister Bill English’s National Party.

Labour is gambling that Ardern, who’s already being compared with Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron, will win back disillusioned voters and put the party in a strong enough position to lead a coalition government after the Sept. 23 ballot.

No party has won an outright majority since New Zealand introduced proportional representation in 1996, and governments are formed with the support of smaller partners.

If she can boost Labour’s backing, Ardern could negotiate a governing arrangement with close ally the Green Party and the populist New Zealand First Party. Current polling shows the three combined have 50 percent of the vote.

Jacinda-Mania

It’s a huge responsibility for someone who says she “never had a particular aspiration to be a member of parliament,” let alone prime minister. But Ardern, who would become New Zealand’s youngest premier since 1856, gives no hint of being intimidated.

“I rest on the shoulders of giants within Labour’s history,” she says, and warns English “not to underestimate me and the experience that I bring.”

While no polls have yet been published in the wake of Ardern’s elevation to the leadership last week, the Labour Party says donations surged on the news, with more than NZ$300,000 ($221,900) raised in less than two days. The rapturous reception she’s had in the local media -- dubbed “Jacinda-mania” -- also suggests she can at least arrest Labour’s slide.

The poll that sparked the resignation of Ardern’s predecessor, Andrew Little, put the party on just 24 percent support. By contrast, the National Party was on 47 percent.

Economic Management

English, who’s been in parliament since Ardern was 10 years old, will campaign on his party’s economic management over nine years in office. Under National, the budget has returned to surplus and the economy has notched up eight straight years of growth.

Bill English

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Ardern bristles at the suggestion she’s too inexperienced to be handed the keys to the economy, saying the previous Labour government under Helen Clark delivered nine consecutive budget surpluses and “the strongest continuous economic growth since World War Two.”

At the same time, Ardern signaled she’ll campaign on the social issues that drew her into politics at a young age, such as health, education and housing.

“The credibility and stability of our economy is not at stake this election,” she says. “Rebuilding some of those social foundations is.”

Child Poverty

While New Zealand boasts one of the fastest economic growth rates in the developed world and an unemployment rate of just 4.8 percent, there is mounting disquiet about the widening gap between rich and poor.

One in five Kiwi children live in households with incomes below the poverty line and 8 percent face severe material hardship, according to the Salvation Army. The indigenous Maori population is over-represented in poverty statistics.

In the largest city Auckland, where the average house price has soared above NZ$1 million, the Kiwi dream of owning a home has become increasingly unattainable. More families are being forced to live in cramped, squalid conditions.

Early Life

The daughter of a police officer, Ardern grew up in provincial New Zealand, including the run-down North Island township of Murupara where she witnessed children in poverty first-hand. She joined the Labour Party at 17.

After a stint in Clark’s parliamentary office in 2005, Ardern went abroad, working briefly in a soup kitchen in New York before spending several years in London as a civil servant during the final years of Tony Blair’s premiership. She returned to New Zealand and entered parliament at the 2008 election, which Clark lost.

Labour has been in turmoil ever since, changing leaders five times in the past nine years and slumping to its worst defeat since 1922 at the last election.

Seeking to deny National a rare fourth term in office, Ardern has promised to campaign with “relentless positivity.”

Stark Contrast

She offers a stark contrast with English, 55, who is a practicing Catholic with six children and conservative social views. Ardern was brought up a Mormon but left the church, has been known to DJ at local music events, and says she’s “a socially liberal person.”

Ardern at a news conference in Wellington.

Photographer: Mark Coote/Bloomberg

She lives with her boyfriend, and has previously said she wouldn’t seek the party leadership because she wanted to have children.

Asked again about motherhood just hours after becoming the Labour leader, Ardern won plaudits from supporters and opponents alike, saying it’s a dilemma that many women face and “you’ve just got to take every day as it comes.”

However, it was “totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace,” she said.

Ardern concedes it will be an uphill battle to unseat a government that occupies the center-ground in New Zealand politics and presides over a healthy economy.

Few doubt, though, that she has given Labour a fighting chance.

“Often it’s for incumbents to lose elections,” she says. “But the opposition, by presenting a vision that excites people, can certainly win them as well.”

— With assistance by Tracy Withers

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