Jacinda Ardern’s Resignation Is Anything But Simple - It’s Time For The Left To Organise
Interview with Joe Carolan by Jennifer Pannell.
The sudden resignation of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand and Labour Party Leader, on the 19th January this year was a shock to many around the world. She was held up by the global mainstream press as a beacon of strong and empathetic leadership in the face of numerous crises throughout her two terms. In her emotional resignation speech, she gave little hint as to why she was stepping down, stating “having reflected over summer I know I no longer have that bit extra in the tank to do the job justice. It’s that simple.” '
As a socialist, Joe, what’s your analysis of why Ardern resigned?
There is a narrative that as a female Prime Minister, she experienced vicious, relentless trolling - death threats and attacks from a deeply misogynistic far-right led mob, who thought she was a dictator, a tyrant, a Communist. This is similar to the ideology used by the far-right in many other countries; in America, in Ireland, etcetera, to demonise anyone in any government who put restrictions on during Covid.
She said herself that her tank was empty, that she didn't have the energy to continue with leadership. What surprised many was the contrast between her resignation and the elation when, only 2 years ago, this government was re-elected with an unprecedented turnout of around 50% for Labour alone. This freed them from having to be in coalition with New Zealand First. It was a huge mandate to have a transformative government, to do all the things she said she wanted to do - abolish child poverty, have our nuclear moment on climate change, to build houses and take care of the poor. It’s very clear, now beginning the 3rd year of this government, that we have done very little on climate change. We have not built enough houses - the housing crisis is arguably worse than ever before, because the economic policies of Labour during Covid pushed up house prices.
Towards the end of her leadership, the government began to push policies that nobody really understood or weren't explained to the electorate when they got that 50% mandate, and it appeared that they were now doing things that people had never agreed to. Like, for example, the Three Waters Reform and co-governance - these are all concepts that many people are just learning about in the last few months, even if there were Labour voters they couldn’t defend the policies because they don't even know what they are. And the flagship policy, the Covid response, was used against her. We saw the numbers of lives saved by that action, but resistance started to grow during the 2nd lockdown. The far-right had a successful street movement that defied the law, that defied the police, and put Parliament under a siege that ended in a riot. That movement smashed the hegemony that we were a team of 5 million, all united in a common fight together against the pandemic. That was a strategy to undermine her. Some of the mainstream right joined in on that, and it has now proven to be a successful strategy to “dislodge the Queen”, to break that halo around her. So I think that factored into her resignation. It was easy to be loved but very different to be hated. She has, I think, 50 active and serious death threats - she’ll probably have police protection for the rest of her life. The international far-right hated her because of her Covid response and singled her out as a target of hate.
Thanks for your insight, it’s clear there were multiple factors behind Ardern’s decision to step down. Her resignation has made global news - what has the reaction been from the left in Aotearoa?
First of shock, then second a somewhat false hope, in my opinion, that we've now got a competent team leading Labour (laughs). I didn’t know Chris Hipkins’ [the new Labour leader] nickname was Chippy until last week! We have this attempt by the Labour Party to rebrand him from an apparatchik yes-man, who has only ever followed orders, into a hero of the non-woke, “Westy”, Cody-drinking working class, complete with baseball hat and shades. I'm not sure if that's actually going to wash. The front page was; “It’s back to bread-and-butter issues”, “back to basics”. We've got a cost of living crisis running out of control here, loads of people are still going on strike under a Labour government - nurses, teachers, doctors and loads of private sector strikes. Just to keep up with the cost of living. And there's been no serious moves to dismantle the unfairness of neoliberalism in New Zealand. Housing has got more expensive, rent’s got more expensive. The main damage done to the working poor at the minute is trying to keep up with the rent. I think that the party is out of touch with the people who could or should vote for it. They have done little to nothing to control the private rental market and the cost of buying a house is unreachable for working people.
Could they turn this around in the next few months?
They'd have to be big reforms - Corbyn/Sanders-style reforms that I don't see in that political leadership.
So, who is Chris Hipkins, and what does he represent?
Good question! I wonder if he looks in the mirror every morning and asks himself the same thing (laughs).
So, a fairly forgettable candidate then! Looking back at the last two terms, what legacy do you think Ardern will be leaving behind?
Covid. She defended people from Covid as well as she could, we were zero-Covid for a long time. She built the “team of 5 million” ethos, and we were fairly united as a country during the first year. So that's the good side of the Covid legacy. There was also her reaction after the Christchurch attack, she demonstrated inclusive leadership of a New Zealand where we were united with our Muslim community against a fascist threat.
Many other political leaders fan the flames of Islamophobia, so Ardern donning a hijab and hugging Muslim people was a strong response. It helped to build an anti-racist majority in this country.
Are there any negative aspects to her legacy?
The negative was Covid, too. It allowed the far-right to brand someone who was seen as compassionate and kind as a dictator, a tyrant. They were able to build an ugly movement of… the lumpenproletariat, I suppose you could say (laughs). It was an angry crowd, but it didn't know what it was angry at. I wouldn't go as far as to say, like many have, that most of the people in the Covid-denial movement were fascist, but it’s the same pool of disgruntlement that the fascists recruit from. We've got to be able to stare down that threat, not let it think that it’s won. The far-right will celebrate Ardern’s resignation as a victory, that they got their way by misogynistic hate and bullying - that that sets a dangerous precedent that may embolden them and they may use those tactics on others. Two sides of the same coin, I suppose.
Now looking forward, what do you see happening in the next election? What are the key issues for the public and how well do you think they'll align with the major parties’ campaigns?
We’re back to an argument about economics, poverty, and the cost of living. National will say that this is Labour's mishandling of the economy, that they don’t know anything about business, etcetera. If anything, Labour probably did the most to support business during the pandemic. Many people fell behind on rent and lost their jobs during lockdown. In addition we will see negative campaigning by the right wing against these policies that Labour really hasn't explained to people, like Three Waters. I think Hipkins will try and dump them in the next few weeks, but there are rumours that some groups such as the Māori caucus, which is strong inside the Labour Party, are not prepared to compromise on co-governance or Three Waters. So this could represent a problem for the Labour Party.
What do you think the outcome of the election will be?
I think the support for Labour will be reduced. At the minute they are polling at 32%, and I don't think anybody expected to hold their 50%, and the 10% for the Green Party on top. Most left-wingers will be voting Green (or Te Pāti Māori, but I think that will be a smaller percentage, maybe 2 or 3 percent). But the chance for the Greens to cannibalise some of that Labour vote on the left is strong, and I think the socialist left would prefer that to a Labour-only government with 50% of the vote that ignores the Greens. Probably a lot of the left will campaign for the Greens and a more balanced coalition with a Labour party that might be tilting to the left economically, to relate to working class people, fight the cost of living, to protect things like the recently-won Fair Pay Agreements. If those changes happen, I think it will be close.
We need to get our teeth into a parties like ACT, who are the likely coalition partners with National, and who talk about freedom and liberty but actually were the ones who ripped up the Award system with the Employment Contracts Act of 1991, ripped up the health and education system, who now want to steal 5 sick days from workers [Labour doubled the number of sick days in 2021 from 5 to 10 days per year]. They also want to steal the new Matariki holiday, our first indigenous public holiday in the world. The radical left and the Union movement will defend those, but that's just where they're going to start! So I think that socialists have a lot to fight for this year.
That’s a good segue into my last question. What should socialists be doing in the run up to the election?
We will probably campaign for the Greens. We've worked well with a lot of individual Green MPs - Jan Logie is very strong when it comes to industrial policy, Ricardo Menéndez March was part of the migrant movement alongside the radical left, which won significant immigration reforms last year. In the unions we will be pushing the Labour Party for policies that are honestly pro-working class, such as the potential of Fair Pay Agreements to deliver statutory overtime, weekend rates and night rates like you have in Australia, but parties like ACT stole from us here in Aotearoa in the 1990s. Big reforms will mobilise people, so we'll be fighting for Labour, Greens and the unions to up their game.
An exciting challenge for the socialist left to rise to. Do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
Well, if your hopes are pinned on an individual inside a party to deliver reforms for the people, be it Jacinda, Jeremy Corbyn, or Bernie Sanders, the real danger is what happens when that individual goes. What happens when the powers of the state, of the right wing, of the media who are unrelenting, break that person? Do all your hopes and dreams go down with that person too? What socialists argue is we need to build a more sustainable movement where people build power, autonomy and confidence in ourselves, and we don't hand that power over to individual politicians who are vulnerable to attack, and then the whole edifice behind them disintegrates. We argue for building durable grassroots organisations that can survive now and under National. Unite Union, for example, that socialists helped to build, fought for 9 years under John Key’s National Government. We succeeded in pushing up minimum wage and defeating zero hours contracts. All things that would be deemed impossible under a National government by reformists. So that shows the strength of the independent grassroots movement, led by working people. And that’s what we will continue to do.