Pre-Covid, when international travel was still common, many Kiwi travellers received a similar question wherever they happened to be around the globe: Jacinda Ardern, is she the real deal?
The New Zealand prime minister’s devotion to a new breed of politics, one rooted in “kindness”, “compassion” and “cooperation” often seemed too saccharine to be true, especially at a time when a series of notorious bullies were voted into positions of power around the globe.
I usually answered this question brusquely, with a combination of facts and personal anecdotes from my interviews with the PM. I was interested, but not that interested, more enthralled by the dramatic twists and turns of foreign lands, where politics seemed Shakespearean compared with the warm, cosy bath of New Zealand’s Labour coalition government, now in its second term and astoundingly popular.
A record number of babies in the house, cradled by the speaker as their mothers and fathers delivered important speeches? Cute, nice, a sweet Friday news story. Freezes on politicians’ pay during Covid? Feel-good, sure. An indication of a truly new breed of politician, and a truly new way of governing? I wasn’t convinced.
Earlier this year, I shifted back to my native land of Australia, and settled in the Kimberley, still the country of cowboys and red rocks I remembered from my childhood.
Immediately, the absolute dysfunction of the state-federal relationship struck me, as did the absurdity of mini prime ministers individually vying for votes and cash and sway. I asked around and read around, but could find no one who could explain to me why the state system worked or should continue as a mode of governance.
Instead of the national unity so desperately needed in the midst of a global pandemic, personal fiefdoms ruled. Even a national speed limit couldn’t be agreed upon.
As the year wore on, punctuated by a bungled vaccine rollout and a prime minister who was tone-deaf to the mounting cries of millions of fed-up Australian women, the drama of Australian politics began to seem far less entertaining and far more concerning than when I had observed it from afar.
While sledging is a national disgrace when it happens on the cricket pitch, in Canberra it’s par for the course, so bad now that even growling like a dog at your “opponent” can occur.
And “opponent” is mostly how Australian politicians seem to view each other – shrill, power-hungry egos vying for domination, while transformative legislative change languishes, such as the recent climate change embarrassment at Cop26.
Leaving the temperate bath that is New Zealand politics made me realise how conducive that bath was to getting things done.
There is a genuine level of cooperation and – don’t be shocked here – politeness that courses through government house in Wellington and extends to how the governing party and the opposition treat each other.
Sure, there is some sledging, but it is more of the quick-barb style, rather than the truly, disturbingly nasty.
“I’ve never particularly done things differently depending on who the person is and that’s probably a good thing, given there’s been five,” said a cheeky Ardern last week, poking fun at the opposition’s five leaders during her time as prime minister.
One, Todd Muller, experienced a mental breakdown during his tenure. Politicians on every side of the house expressed genuine empathy and concern for his welfare, and his painful experience became an opportunity, eventually, for further mental health awareness and discussion, rather than cannon fodder or public shaming.
New Zealand is much too small for true divisiveness among its leaders, much as people in small towns are to some degree forced to get along, decade after decade, despite their often myriad differences.
Much of the credit goes to Ardern, who has created a working environment that rewards focus and dedication. Indeed, despite her robust sense of humour, Ardern is a deeply serious politician, one who joined the Labour party aged 17, motivated by a desire to “end child poverty”.
The politicians Ardern chooses to promote are so thoroughly earnest and scandal-free (think Grant Robertson and Nanaia Mahuta) that the culture has become one of genuine public service. She even makes her ministers carpool in a minivan to events, scrapping the isolation and pomp of ministerial cars. This is a small gesture but it communicates volumes about her values and style of governing.
Politics is far from perfect in New Zealand, and like in Australia, there have been internal sex scandals, disappointing housing reforms and complaints from the media about fair access.
But the general atmosphere is one of a sincere interest in improving the lives of New Zealanders. This makes sense, because politicians in New Zealand remain, well, New Zealanders. Most aren’t personally wealthy or drawn from the corporate ranks (the new leader of the opposition National party, Christopher Luxon, is an exception) and most remain strongly embedded within their communities and family life. There is a Wellington bubble, but it’s far more humble and down to earth than its Canberra equivalent. Last week, a Green party MP cycled herself to the hospital to give birth – for the second time. Last month the prime minister was interrupted doing a Facebook live event by her daughter Neve, sneaking out of bed while her mother was trying to address the nation.
These glimpses of humanity aren’t orchestrated set pieces, they happen spontaneously and on a regular basis in the course of New Zealand’s politicians living ordinary human lives. I can’t be sure but I’d put some money on Ardern’s daughter being sent to her local state primary school when it’s time. Anything else would grate against her mum’s entrenched value system, and display a schism between personal and political beliefs that in four years of leadership has so far failed to emerge.
In this climate, world-leading legislation has been enacted in New Zealand, including a new law to protect pill testing, legalised assisted dying, a record increase in funding to women’s refuge and domestic violence services, moves to tackle climate change and a world-leading tobacco reform (aiming to make the country smoke-free by 2025).
In Australia power often seems a goal in and of itself. It is a goal that then stymies genuine legislative reform or collaboration, much to the detriment of all Australians, who can only be feeling confused and disappointed by the year that’s been, so marked by animosity and empty showmanship.
In the New Zealand model there is something to learn. Sure, the beehive lacks the fireworks of Canberra and sometimes a bit of sparkle. The finance minister is mostly interested in surpluses (and rugby) and the foreign minister’s style of diplomacy is disarmingly gentle. The climate change minister is a greenie from way back. But in the hands of these – to quote the words of Ardern – “nerds” a backbone and steadiness to political life has developed, allowing nascent transformative change to begin. And oh so needed in the current global environment, a deep and reassuring sense of calm.