In her short tenure as prime minister, Jacinda Ardern has shown herself to be extremely good in a crisis.
After taking on the leadership of the Labour party just seven weeks before the 2017 general election, Ardern has put together a disparate coalition government, had a baby while in office, dealt with the Christchurch terrorist attacks, guided the nation through a deadly volcano eruption, and now this.
Faced with the biggest challenge of her political life, Ardern has, once again, shown she understands the importance of communication. She has made herself regularly available to the media, and quickly established daily public press conferences fronted by New Zealand’s director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. The duo has presented a reliable, measured and authoritative face for New Zealand’s Covid-19 response.
Her trademark “politics of kindness” has also been at the forefront of her approach. On Tuesday, in her speech to parliament she pushed the message that the country needed to “look after one another” and “care for the most vulnerable”. And she ended it by saying: “My final message is this to New Zealanders: be strong but be kind – we will be OK.”
In this current crisis, though, reassurance and kindness are not enough. The New Zealand public are worried, and rightly so. This interconnected age gives us a window on other parts of a world that are being infected before us. The plight of other nations is available to us in real time, along with what we fervently hope is not a terrifying glimpse into the future.
For weeks now, the government has been accused of being slow off the mark on measures such as screening and testing, not learning lessons from overseas, and not seizing the advantage our relative isolation affords. Ardern has been batting away calls for more radical action to prevent the crisis escalating.
At the weekend, Ardern showed she is capable of matching kindness with steely resolve, announcing New Zealand would “go early and go hard”, with immediate border controls requiring all entrants to the country to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival. The announcement was met with shock by some, but relief by many. The choice not to implement a harder ban, was probably influenced by the cries of overreaction that greeted Donald Trump’s hard US closure to European nations days earlier. Of course, many other countries have since implemented hard travel bans, and this approach is no longer considered extreme.
Nevertheless, it was not an easy decision to make for a country reliant on tourism – putting “people before business” will come at a huge economic cost.
Having all but torpedoed New Zealand into a recession – albeit to save people’s lives – the onus then fell on the government to do something else radical. That response came yesterday in finance minister Grant Robertson’s emergency economic package, which contained NZ$12.1bn of new spending, or about 4% of GDP, overshadowing packages made in other countries to date.
The boldness of this package has been widely endorsed and the finance minister, until now seen as a fiscal conservative, was able to position himself on Tuesday as something more radical and visionary. He spoke angrily of previous governments who had implemented “neoliberal” austerity, and cited his own influence as the original social democratic reformers of the first Labour government in the 1930s.
The National party opposition is, for the time being, floundering, unable to navigate the new environment.
The government has received plaudits for taking what they paint as a bold, decisive and preventative approach. Their “go hard, and go early” slogan will resonate with a public keen for strong leadership. But, of course, what seems bold today might well be seen as insufficient next week, given the escalating global situation.
Politically, so much will depend on the spread of Covid-19 in New Zealand. Should New Zealand suffer the awful fate of so many countries, then the government will be accused of doing too little, too late. If we can stem the tide of infection then Ardern will certainly be able to take much of the credit. With a general election scheduled for later this year, a lot will depend on whether the government really has gone hard and gone early.
However, ultimately it’s the economy that is more likely to determine the government’s re-election chances. New Zealand voters tend to blame incumbent politicians for recessions – whether they deserve it or not.
Most notably, in the 1930s, the first Labour government took over from United-Reform during the Great Depression. But also in the late 1980s, the share market crash helped finish off the Lange Labour government, just as the 1997 Asian financial crisis did in the Shipley National-led government, and then the Clark government was disadvantaged by the 2008 global financial crisis.
If unemployment ends up hitting 10 or 20%, no one will remember how quickly Ardern implemented a travel ban, or how well she communicated during the coronavirus crisis. No matter how good her crisis management is in March, if the economy collapses, we could easily be looking at Prime Minister Simon Bridges in September.
As with everything in this crisis, ultimately only time will tell.