Jacinda Ardern’s Leadership Was a Cautionary Tale of Liberal Inaction

Kindness, empathy, and compassion were values at the heart of Jacinda Ardern’s political career — but they were often absent from her government’s policies. The result was a squandered opportunity to overhaul New Zealand’s economy for the better.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern announces her resignation at the War Memorial Centre on January 19, 2023 in Napier, New Zealand. (Kerry Marshall / Getty Images)

Jacinda Ardern wasn’t meant to become prime minister in 2017. A rising star in New Zealand’s Labour party known for her DJing stints and canny use of soft media, it was assumed the office was in her future somewhere down the line. Instead, then Labour leader Andrew Little’s shock, mid-campaign resignation in the face of dismal polling thrust her into the role, and she turned what many expected to be a hospital pass into the surprise Labour comeback that three previous leaders had failed to conjure.

Now, just as unexpectedly, she’s resigned. Her resignation comes a mere nine months out from an election that could have secured her the third term her two immediate predecessors enjoyed.

The story of how Jacinda Ardern’s Labour went, in three short years, from winning a historic mandate to polling doldrums so bad that even her ambitious number two turned down her job, is a story of the perils of liberal hesitancy. Ardern excited voters by pledging to boldly tackle the issues that public surveys showed most concerned Kiwis — including shameful levels of poverty, rising homelessness and an out-of-control housing crisis, and climate change. But her government will end having done little to meaningfully engage with these crises. Over the course of her time in office some of these problems have even worsened.

Instead of the “transformative” government Arden promised, what followed was six years of conventional centrism that was more in fundamental continuity with her right-wing National Party predecessor than either would like to admit. In the process, Ardern, who has described herself as a “democratic socialist,” presided over an enormous upward transfer of wealth and an explosion in economic hardship that affects even middle-class Kiwis.

Wins for the Working Class

Ardern can leave office rightly proud of major accomplishments. Workers saw the minimum wage grow nearly six dollars to twenty-one dollars an hour, and the Fair Pay Agreements law passed last year has put in place sector-wide bargaining for minimum employment terms. These are important and helpful measures in one of the world’s more expensive countries to live.

Policies like her doubling of sick leave, free doctor visits for children under fourteen, and boosts to welfare payments and other income support — including family tax credits and superannuation (social security) — have likewise made a difference to people’s lives. Child poverty has dropped three percentage points since 2018. Ardern also kept her early promise of making the first year of university free, given the high cost of studying in New Zealand.

With the country roiled by a runaway housing market, Ardern intervened in important ways, like introducing a long-overdue ban on overseas home buyers, ending certain investor-friendly tax incentives, and putting billions toward programs related to housing affordability. Ten thousand permanent state homes were added (after National’s earlier fire sale had sharply depleted the public housing stock), dwelling consents ticked up, and the ballooning value of property slowed and even rolled back in New Zealand history’s largest-ever housing price drop.

The shockingly woeful state of New Zealand’s rental houses was met by much-needed healthy homes standards, which set minimum requirements for factors like heating, insulation, and moisture. Meanwhile, tenancy law reforms made important changes to the then thirty-five-year-old law regulating renting in New Zealand, passed early in the country’s neoliberal binge. Beside provisions giving renters more say in their living spaces and banning letting fees, they ended the practice of “no cause” notices that let landlords kick tenants out of a property at short notice without giving a reason. The changes earned Ardern’s Labour the label, in the words of one irate real estate investor, of “the most anti-landlord government” in New Zealand’s history.

At considerable political risk, Ardern made important reforms to the criminal justice system, including repealing the absurd, US-imported “three strikes” law, sending New Zealand’s prison population tumbling by 29 percent by the end of 2021, effectively reaching the target Labour had set for a fifteen-year span. More familiar to overseas observers was Ardern’s swift tightening of gun laws in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings. In a country with a vastly different gun culture than the US and no powerful gun lobby on the scale of the National Rifle Association, this was not quite the Herculean feat many think, but a decisive, commonsense response nonetheless. Ardern’s leadership throughout that tragedy will be one of her lasting legacies, a showcase for her skills as a communicator and her ability to connect and empathize with the public.

That brings us to the other policy success Ardern’s New Zealand became known for on the world stage: her government’s equally decisive response to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Despite right-wing naysaying that proved comically wrong almost every step of the way, Ardern took unprecedented steps to protect New Zealand from a virus that would have likely overwhelmed its health care sector, saving countless lives in the process. It’s hard to overstate the unique carefree normality and freedom New Zealanders experienced compared to the rest of the world in the early pandemic era thanks to Ardern’s leadership.

Far From Kind

But to even bring up New Zealand’s pandemic response is to touch on the considerable parts of Ardern’s legacy that don’t match up with her international reputation or with the deluge of hagiographies now greeting her resignation.

In terms of financial aid, Ardern’s strategy was notably stingier than even some of the policies enacted under reactionaries like Donald Trump, leaving desperate Kiwis flooding food banks to survive amidst the economy’s shutdown. Businesses were the exception, of course, availing themselves of millions of dollars in government support while posting huge profits, sometimes even firing their workers or slashing their pay. For the most part, in the face of Ardern’s government politely suggesting these supports be paid back, businesses have refused to settle up.

While Kiwis struggled under inadequate financial assistance, the Reserve Bank of New Zealand’s quantitative easing program made possible a flood of cheap money that turbocharged a speculative frenzy in the country’s already-overinflated housing market. The result has been — together with the supply chain– and Ukraine war–related pressures the rest of the world is experiencing — an explosion in the cost of living in New Zealand. House prices have rocketed even further out of reach for any normal working family’s income, and rents have followed suit. Homelessness, already bad before the pandemic, has worsened, with more and more families ending up living in cars and government-subsidized motels.

Ardern’s government had been explicitly warned this would happen at the start of 2020, but had failed to act. Once living costs exploded, and despite the record profits accrued by banks and other businesses, Ardern, in what was a pattern in her leadership, ruled out a commonsense response to this that risked drawing the ire of the corporate world. Unlike a conservative British government, the EU, and others, she therefore refused to implement a windfall tax to claw back this wealth and use it to alleviate Kiwis’ suffering.

This two-tier imbalance was endemic to Ardern’s pandemic strategy. There is maybe no better example of this than her government’s border policy. Having first campaigned on cutting immigration numbers, Ardern appeared to view the pandemic and the temporary restrictions it demanded as a way to finally put this policy into motion. Ardern’s famous “be kind” mantra never seemed to apply to the hundreds of visa-holding families split between continents who were kept needlessly, indefinitely separated for years, causing severe mental anguish and even the breakup of marriages.

Ardern was made personally aware of the intense difficulties experienced by immigrants, but nothing changed, even as famous and ultrarich travelers were able to waltz through the border with ease. As she embarked on an immigration “reset,” Ardern drove out some of the very essential workers her government relied on in key sectors like health and aged care, mistakenly believing they would be filled by returning Kiwis. This fumble contributed to a post-pandemic labor shortage that hurt the very business sector Ardern normally went out of her way to mollify.

A Lukewarm Legacy

Ardern leaves office with many of her original goals unmet, with even her policy triumphs chock-full of limitations. Child poverty may have modestly dropped, but it still sits above the OECD average. New Zealand’s child poverty numbers are significantly worse than those of social democratic countries like Denmark and Sweden that the country aspires to, and closer to countries like the United States and Mexico. It also falls well short of the government’s own targets — it is nowhere near on course to hit its ambitious goal of a 5 percent rate by 2027.

This would be a disgrace at any time. But it should be particularly disappointing for a politician who has said that child poverty was the reason she became a politician, made it her signature issue, and personally filled her newly created minister’s role for reducing it. As prime minister, Ardern talked about ending child poverty entirely, but she undoubtedly could have done more to try achieve this. Four years after putting together an expert group to fix the country’s broken welfare system, she had yet to fully implement a single one of their recommendations, with one of the panel charging that her government had “resist[ed] every recommendation we made.”

Despite the histrionic griping of property investors who got wildly rich under her, Ardern’s tenancy law reforms didn’t much change a playing field still tilted toward landlords. She refused to pursue rent control, just as she defiantly ruled out putting in place a capital gains tax despite the idea’s newfound popularity. New Zealand is still one of the few developed nations not to have one.

The continued sorry state of the nation’s housing issues suggest that as welcome as her government’s interventions were, they proved to just be nibbling around the edges of the problem. The social housing waiting list has jumped over Ardern’s time in power, hitting nearly twenty-five thousand by September last year. Additionally, the stratospheric house price inflation of 2020 still hasn’t been erased, and both the UN and New Zealand’s own Human Rights Commission have dubbed Labour’s inability to deal with the problem part of a wider “human rights crisis” and a “massive human rights failure.”

To see her policies through, Ardern continued to rely on the private sector. Labour’s plan for eighteen thousand new state homes by 2024 consequently fell well short of the number of Kiwis on the social housing register. Worse, her government has quietly been selling off state-owned land and public housing to developers and private owners, breaking a campaign promise. A billion dollars that could have gone toward a large-scale program of building state homes was instead spent housing people in motels.

Ardern had once singled out New Zealand’s shocking mental health issues as a priority, claiming that it was an issue that “we all have a stake in.” Once in office, however, she stalled for time with yet another government inquiry into the matter. And although she plowed nearly $2 billion toward mental health early in her tenure, major gaps and general foot-dragging left the country’s mental health system in largely the same, dire state as it started. Government officials have since tried to keep the inconvenient “data and negative statistics” away from public eyes.

Special mention is owed to climate change, what Ardern called her “generation’s nuclear-free moment,” referring to the country’s bold antinuclear stance that’s the source of much pride for many Kiwis. To say that Ardern’s government didn’t treat the climate crisis with the urgency her 2020 “emergency” declaration demanded is an understatement. While looking good on paper, in reality, Ardern’s major climate programs have gone absurdly easy on agribusiness, the country’s worst polluter, while overall falling short of global carbon-reduction targets. As a result, New Zealand under Ardern came to be viewed as an unserious poser on the issue by its partner governments, who at one point considered simply leaving the country out of a major summit of climate leaders.

A Self-Imposed Straitjacket

Throughout her tenure, Ardern has had to endure a lot of ugly, misogynistic vitriol, along with the usual concerted business opposition that Labour leaders face for so much as lightly tinkering with the system. But in the end, Ardern’s greatest obstacles were self-inflicted, the result of conservative political choices that fatally narrowed her options.

Rather than follow through on the bold campaign promises that got her elected in the first place, Ardern and her finance minister, Grant Robertson, quickly pivoted to prioritizing fiscal responsibility. Upon winning their first election, they adopted spending rules that amounted to a “fiscal straitjacket,” and spent the next six years boasting, often to luncheons of assembled business leaders, how little they were spending and how much debt they were paying down.

This could have at least been coupled with a revenue-raising strategy that also attacked the country’s ballooning wealth inequality. But Ardern and her government preemptively ruled out any commonsense measure for this purpose: no general wealth tax, no inheritance tax, no higher tax rate for tax-avoiding trusts, and of course, no capital gains or windfall profits taxes. Refusing to embark on deficit spending but unwilling to tax the rich, Ardern effectively snookered herself.

It was a dilemma Ardern tried to occasionally solve through austerity, such as an unpopular pay freeze on public sector workers, or through regressive tax hikes on working Kiwis. The result of these measures was a desperate hunt for revenue, which ironically led her government into treacherous political waters anyway. Contrary to her energizing 2017 campaign slogan, “Let’s do this!” the joke quickly became that it was harder to list what Ardern’s government would do than what it wouldn’t. Ruled out at various times from the Ardern playbook was everything from free dental care to exempting fruit and vegetables from the country’s regressive sales tax, a policy Labour had once campaigned on in 2011. Despite declaring that “neoliberalism had failed,” Ardern ended up doing little to solve the debilitating crises resulting from neoliberal policies.

This was often explained away in Ardern’s first term, not unfairly, by pointing to Labour’s coalition with the conservative New Zealand First party, which acted as a “handbrake” to her transformative ambitions. But Ardern had no excuse after the historic mandate she won in the 2020 election, giving Labour an outright majority in parliament, a first under the Mixed Member Proportional system introduced in 1996.

It’s hard to overstate the scale of political opportunity Ardern had at her fingertips beginning in 2020. In a system of parliamentary supremacy like New Zealand’s, there is no filibuster, no right-wing council of elders, not even a written constitution, that could have halted the ambitions of Ardern’s Labour. Her party had the votes to pass whatever it wanted, a historically popular leader, and overwhelming public trust and goodwill thanks to its successful steering through a world-historical crisis. The Labour Party that introduced neoliberalism to New Zealand in 1984 had far less than this going for it when it ruthlessly dismantled and overhauled New Zealand’s political economy, only for the worse. What would Ardern’s Labour do to reverse this for the better?

Not all that much, it turned out, as she proceeded to continue on the incremental path of operating as the leftmost edge of post-1980s neoliberalism. After first using her mandate to try to cut the pay of government workers, she delivered a budget depicted by the press as “dyed the deepest red” and framed by her party as reversing National’s transformatively cruel 1991 budget. Its centerpiece? A supposedly “biggest in a generation” welfare boost that even one of the country’s leading business groups thought was too stingy.

Ardern’s government then abandoned the Zero COVID strategy it had leaned on, but kept its penny-pinching approach. Opposing the big-ticket policies it had ruled out, Ardern’s government has spent the past year or so floundering in the face of a worsening cost-of-living crisis that quickly overtook COVID as Kiwis’ biggest concern.

While important and desperately needed, Ardern’s boosts to government payments for those struggling were often eroded on arrival by skyrocketing costs. The one-off cost-of-living payment introduced last year to help Kiwis cope with this crisis was comically small at only $350 and left out superannuants and those getting government support. It was far less than any of even Donald Trump’s pandemic-era checks, and not nearly enough to cover even a week’s rent in much of the country. Come 2022’s budget, Ardern’s government put in place more strict limits on spending and borrowing to “ensure New Zealand maintains some of the lowest government debt in the world.” Her finance minister once again ended the year boasting about how little the government was spending compared to its center-right predecessor.

Despite overwhelming support for making it permanent, Ardern scrapped her government’s successful half-price public transport fares on the eve of an election year. She also failed to take up the Commerce Commission’s idea of solving New Zealand’s price-gouging supermarket duopoly by creating a state-owned option. As a result, the most high-profile proposal for dealing with the crisis was the plan to throw thousands out of work through higher interest rates outlined by Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr, who Ardern reappointed a month later despite this.

It’s little wonder then that, predictably, Ardern’s approval rating and Labour’s poll standings have tanked over the past year.

In many ways, Ardern’s time as prime minister was summed up in her approach to the issue of legalizing marijuana. Rather than spend political capital legalizing it through legislation, Ardern kicked it over to a referendum. Then, despite pleas from pro-legalization campaigners, she assiduously refused to lend her personal popularity to the cause and kept her personal view on the matter quiet, only for the effort to fail by less than seventy-thousand votes. Only after it was dead did she tell the press she’d voted “yes.”

Not Losing Sleep

If a large part of a politician’s job is being well liked, charismatic, and winning over public trust, Ardern was enormously successful. More importantly, she succeeded by turning values typically dismissed as weaknesses in politics — values like empathy, kindness, and positivity — into political assets.

But there is another part of a politician’s job, and that’s to use that positive public profile and the power it brings with it to improve people’s lives and leave the world in a significantly better state than when you started. Sadly, the kindness and empathy that were Ardern’s mantra these past six years all too rarely translated into material policies that benefited working people. This was a product not of maliciousness but, tragically, undue caution and timidity. Now Ardern’s party is paying the cost. The New Zealand public will pay the cost too, if Labour’s resulting collapse in popularity ushers in another right-wing government that views the wealth of the richest as its biggest concern, and the poor as mere bottom-feeders.

If still-overwhelmed food banks and homeless families aren’t the clearest measure of the failures of Ardern’s time in government, then it’s the fact that only a single Labour MP even put themselves forward to be the next New Zealand prime minister. Chris Hipkins, Labour’s next leader and now prime minister, would do well to learn from Ardern’s mistakes and abandon her government’s fiscal conservatism in favor of the transformative agenda that initially won her power.

As for Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister is at peace after her announcement, telling the press she “slept well for the first time in a long time.” If only the hundreds of Kiwi kids living in cars could say the same.