‘Jacin­da­ma­nia’ seizes the mood for change as Labour marches on

The Australian - - WORLD -

When Jacinda Ardern was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party in March, she was un­known to most New Zealan­ders. The soft-left party was favoured by less than a quar­ter of vot­ers when her unin­spir­ing boss, Andrew Lit­tle, re­signed last month, thrust­ing her into what she de­scribed as “the worst job in pol­i­tics”. The change was akin to “anoint­ing a prophet”, notes Ray­mond Miller, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Auck­land.

Labour has staged an un­prece­dented resur­gence, climb­ing by up to 20 points in some polls. That has cast doubt on the out­come of an elec­tion on Septem­ber 23 which had pre­vi­ously seemed cer­tain to pro­vide the right-of-cen­tre Na­tional Party with an­other term in gov­ern­ment.

The lo­cal press calls it “Jacin­da­ma­nia”. At the age of 37, Ardern has har­nessed what she calls a “mood for change”. Not all lo­cals have ben­e­fited from the strength of New Zealand’s econ­omy. Wages are stag­nant and the price of hous­ing has soared, feed­ing a de­bate about New Zealand’s high lev­els of im­mi­gra­tion. A record 71,000 more peo­ple ar­rived in New Zealand last year than left, partly be­cause Ki­wis who had left the coun­try have been lured home by a stronger econ­omy. Inad­e­quate in­vest­ment in hous­ing has ex­ac­er­bated the prob­lem: New Zealand needs 60,000 new homes. The gov­ern­ment spends $NZ140,000 ($90,753) a day ac­com­mo­dat­ing the home­less.

Un­usu­ally for a left-lean­ing leader, Ardern has put im­mi­gra­tion at the heart of her cam­paign, propos­ing to cut net ar­rivals by up to 30,000 an­nu­ally. Labour also plans to ban non-resident for­eign­ers from buy­ing homes, ar­gu­ing that it is wrong that Amer­i­can tech bil­lion­aires and Chi­nese in­vestors can snap up houses and leave them empty amid such a short­age. (The Na­tion­als, in con­trast, say curb­ing im­mi­gra­tion would hurt the econ­omy.)

But Ardern re­jects the idea that she is try­ing to stir up or har­ness hos­til­ity to­wards im­mi­grants. If the gov­ern­ment had re­sponded faster to the hous­ing cri­sis, she says, “we would not be hav­ing this con­ver­sa­tion”. Labour also wants to dou­ble New Zealand’s in­take of refugees. Her real tar­get, she says, is the high cost of liv­ing: “I want every­one who chooses to call New Zealand home to have a de­cent start.” To that end, she also promised to abol­ish tu­ition fees for univer­sity stu­dents.

Yet per­son­al­ity, as much as pol­icy, has un­der­scored Labour’s resur­gence. Her sud­den as­cen­dancy has left Ardern with “no time to be any­one other than me”, and many vot­ers are en­thralled. Crit­ics point to her youth and rel­a­tive in­ex­pe­ri­ence: she has been a mem­ber of par­lia­ment for nine years, but only in op­po­si­tion. Yet others see en­ergy and a breath of fresh air. Those who have worked with her say she is ded­i­cated and con­sid­er­ate. Her cam­paign has been char­ac­terised by a rare brand of what she calls “re­lent­less pos­i­tiv­ity”. Posters of her beam­ing face are em­bla­zoned with the slo­gan: “Let’s do this!”

Un­usu­ally for a left-lean­ing leader, Ardern has put im­mi­gra­tion at the heart of her cam­paign, propos­ing to cut net ar­rivals by up to 30,000 an­nu­ally

In charm and charisma, Bill English, who took over the top job when his pre­de­ces­sor re­signed last year, is eclipsed. Dur­ing a pre­vi­ous stint as leader of the Na­tion­als in 2002, he presided over a crip­pling de­feat. Yet he has a rep­u­ta­tion for cred­i­bil­ity. Dur­ing his eight years as fi­nance min­is­ter un­em­ploy­ment fell, the bud­get re­turned to a sur­plus and New Zealand en­joyed one of the high­est growth rates in the rich world. Ardern, by con­trast, has never cham­pi­oned a weighty bill or served as a min­is­ter. Some of her crowd-pleas­ing goals, like erad­i­cat­ing child poverty, seem un­likely to be met. In other ar­eas she is ac­cused of be­ing un­com­fort­ably vague. “You can’t re­place a tun­nel with a vi­sion,” the Prime Min­is­ter scolded her dur­ing a de­bate about in­fra­struc­ture.

In the face of this un­ex­pected op­po­si­tion, English has made late prom­ises to in­crease spend­ing on roads and hous­ing. He is favoured by farm­ers who have thrived on Chi­nese de­mand for New Zealand’s milk. Ki­wis may ul­ti­mately plump for his tried-and-tested ap­proach. That would make the elec­tion mem­o­rable for sta­bil­ity, rather than a shake-up: an­other vic­tory would give the Na­tion­als the long­est stint in gov­ern­ment for any party in al­most 50 years.

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