Bryce Edwards: Labour's great and dangerous expectations

Jacinda Ardern and Clarke Gayford enter Buckingham Palace for a state dinner connected to the CHOGM meeting last month. Picture by Getty Images.

One of the biggest threats to the new Labour-led government is the heightened expectations of its supporters. Dr Bryce Edwards of Victoria University argues the promises and symbolism of transformation need to be matched with substance.

Photographs of a radiant Jacinda Ardern last month at Buckingham Palace, wearing a Maori cloak were steeped in symbolism. Here was a modern, young, pregnant, female leader looking both regal and progressive. Some thought she looked positively “subversive”.

Certainly, the image of the PM walking the corridors of the Palace is her most important and powerful yet – even more so than images of her serving breakfast to the public at Waitangi. Unsurprisingly, it went viral.

In particular, it was the cloak which conveyed a sense of not only mana bestowed on her, but also of support for the indigenous people of New Zealand while visiting one of the most potent symbols of colonialism in the world.

In a sense there was very little that was new or necessarily progressive about it all. The self-declared republican was there to participate in monarchist ceremony. And there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about being pregnant or wearing a Maori cloak in ceremony – Queen Elizabeth herself has in fact done both. And Ardern was, of course, wearing a designer dress, and $3000 earrings.

However, the combination of these important factors – a republican female pregnant prime minister wearing an indigenous cloak – allowed for a radical interpretation of Jacinda Ardern’s meeting with New Zealand’s head of state, the Queen.

For many, this image reiterated a feeling that New Zealand now has its first “woke Prime Minister” – the first New Zealand PM to openly and loudly self-identify as feminist, and to ostensibly favour much greater Maori sovereignty and progress on ethnic inequality.

The reaction to the photo of Ardern might seem over-the-top, but there was plenty of evidence on social media that people were heavily invested in this. For some vivid examples, see my blog post, Social media reactions to Jacinda Ardern at Buckingham Palace.

It seems clear that for many liberals and leftists, Ardern has become an idealised figure onto whom they have projected many of their ideological desires. To some extent, Ardern and Labour have encouraged this. In last year’s election, the party campaigned on the basis of more radical policies, and employed rhetoric and symbolism to match. For example, they promised to get rid of child poverty, make climate change their nuclear-free moment, and transform New Zealand into a more egalitarian and fair society. “Let’s Do This” they proclaimed, conveying action and change (with voters being allowed to make up their own minds about what type of change “this” might be).

Once the new government was formed, they continued to reinforce the promise that they would be “transformative” – with this word being emphasised in the coalition agreements and the Speech from the Throne. In her first week in power, Jacinda Ardern told the biennial CTU conference that unions should expect big reforms for workers from the new government.

This raising of expectations was quite different to how political parties normally operate when they come into power. Generally, the politicians quickly shift from campaigning mode to “expectation management” mode, lowering the public’s hopes and highlighting obstacles the new administration is faced with.

Early statements from Ardern and Winston Peters about the problems of capitalism fueled expectations of radicalism. Peters explicitly justified choosing to put Labour into government with reference to the failures of capitalism. When Ardern reportedly blamed widespread poverty on “a blatant failure” of capitalism, it made headlines around the world.

The idea that the Labour-led Government is radical is also enhanced by its coalition partners, who have occasionally injected colour and the promise of disrupting the status quo. With Marama Davison’s ascension to the position of Greens co-leader, there’s a sense that the party may now play a greater role in pushing for more transformative policies.

And New Zealand First’s Shane Jones continues to tap into the anti-Establishment zeitgeist. With his unorthodox broadsides against the state bureaucracy, as well as the executives of the majority state-owned Air New Zealand, Jones is laying siege to accepted policy on state sector autonomy and public management.

For the political left, this has all pointed to the possibility of a genuinely leftwing and reforming government of the type not seen in New Zealand for many decades. After all, the previous Labour government under Helen Clark disappointed the left with its very “third way” orientation to moderation and retaining much of the 1980s and 1990s economically rightwing reforms.

That means expectations are now high. Dangerously so for Labour. Therefore, when the Government fails to achieve promised reforms and goals, the disappointment is will be palpable. We have already had a taste of this with the broken promise on cheaper doctors’ visits.

Quite simply, the symbolism of Ardern and the Government has been alluring, but the substance is not yet there. And if there continues to be such a mismatch between substance and symbolism, then disappointment and disillusionment is likely to be the result. Even Labour’s supporters might find themselves repeating Bill English’s campaign retort of “We can’t go shopping on values”.

This isn’t meant to suggest that the politicians have done anything wrong by raising the public’s expectations for change and improvement. In fact, it should be admired – for too long political parties have been offering very little change to the status quo, and the 2017 election campaign saw the politicians trying harder than usual to satisfy a mood of discontent with problems in New Zealand. But, once promises are made and expectations are raised, then it’s essential that they are genuinely fulfilled.

There’s also nothing wrong with politicians inspiring with strong symbolism and vision. But the other side of the coin has to be substance. For example, the government’s ban on future offshore oil and gas exploration has been correctly characterised as being more symbolic than substantial in terms of the climate change struggle to reduce emissions. And this is absolutely fine if this action is soon met with genuine substance in emission reduction. If not, the ban will come to be negatively seen as the “virtue signalling” that National has tried to label it as.

Jacinda Ardern would be wise to look at her counterpart in Canada. She has frequently been compared to Justin Trudeau, who has also been feted the world over as a young, progressive leader. When Trudeau suddenly and surprisingly came to power in 2015, he was celebrated as Canada’s first “woke PM”, with his public pronouncements on feminism, diversity, and social liberalism.

But as time has gone on, he’s become accused of being superficial by previous supporters. The charge of “virtue signalling” does indeed seem apt for him at times. That’s the danger Ardern faces here if this government don’t prove soon that they can actually deliver some substance towards the promised transformation.