October 26th of 2017 was a historic day for not only New Zealand, but the world. Jacinda Ardern stepped up to the podium in Wellington to be sworn in to office, where she would become the youngest female head of government in history at age 37. Her center-left campaign and agenda at the helm of New Zealand’s government revolved around economic inequality concerning children, home ownership, and political unity. However, with inflation, crime, and inequality still running rampant in New Zealand when she left office in January 2023, New Zealanders were unsatisfied with her empty promises. As a consequence of her perceived inadequacy, New Zealand’s citizenry elected one of the most conservative governments the country has seen in recent years into office—a shift characterized by subtle characteristics of populism.
Chris Hipkins, the Labour Party’s replacement for Ardern, was set to become prime minister. As a result of Ardern’s unexpected step-down from the helm of national leadership midway through her term, Hipkins took on the role of acting prime minister. The Labour Party’s dominance in New Zealand’s national politics scene coupled with Chris Hipkins’ internal influence—mostly as a direct result of his longevity in Parliament as the former minister of public service and education—put him in a position to take over as prime minister. Due to the fact that Hipkins was the only candidate to enter the prime minister race for Labour, party politicians unanimously vouched for him. Additionally, with his prior leadership role as the minister of health during the Covid-19 pandemic, Hipkins’ increased public visibility qualified him for the position.
However, when the election cycle arrived 9 months into his tenure, Chris Luxon emerged victorious. Luxon’s campaign was essentially a direct counter to that of Ardern’s policy failings, carried on by Hipkins. Affordable housing was a core tenet of Ardern’s push toward election. However, with heightened national concerns revolving around general economic instability, inadvertently causing house prices to skyrocket and exacerbating rising costs of living, Luxon assuaged those fears through proposing numerous policies. At an individual level, significant tax cuts were promised to increase disposable income dedicated to necessary goods and services. On a national level, Luxon pledged to direct the central bank’s initiatives towards controlling record high inflation levels of 6%. These center-right values appealed to New Zealanders at a time when the notion of ineffective Labour governance was prevalent. With the lockdowns to prevent the spread of Covid-19 still fresh in their minds, Labour’s strict zero tolerance policy incited popular frustration. Consequently, the underpinnings of this political dissatisfaction culminated in the citizenry voting in the most conservative government the nation has seen in recent decades.
A driving force propelling this collective shift in opinion lies in the domestic policy failings of Ardern’s term as prime minister. One glaringly obvious “failure” is rooted in Ardern’s resistance to tax cuts. Arguing that higher taxes were essential to funding public health systems and education, Ardern refused to concede on the point of taxes. While these initiatives are noble, they are inherently more long term outcomes, as opposed to immediate, tangible ones. With New Zealand in the midst of a battle with Covid-19, immediate results were likely more valued by the citizens. With a large number of layoffs and struggles to make ends meet, New Zealanders wanted more policies that they could immediately benefit from. This factor, coupled with the Labour Party’s general ineffectiveness over the years on their ability to deliver campaign promises, led to the shift toward Luxon’s conservative, populism-tinged politics.
The New Zealand National Party, of which Chris Luxon is a part of, harbors values of archetypal conservatism: lower taxes, limited government, and free choice. From a logical point of view, the allure the National Party holds to New Zealanders following a control-heavy government combating economic insecurity due to Covid-19 is sensible. The same discontent over authority establishes the foundations for a populist government. In his campaigns, Luxon took several opportunities to signal that his election would be a silver bullet solution to New Zealand’s problems. Addressing his supporters as he was confirmed prime minister, Luxon applauded the electorate that “voted for change”, and that his government would “deliver for every New Zealander amidst a dismal outlook in economy, crime, education, and taxes hikes. As a self proclaimed man of the people, his anti-establishment plan to rebuild the economy, a drastic contrast to Ardern’s view of higher tax rates, consolidates his populist rhetoric.
This sentiment is reflected in the New Zealanders’ opinions of the current political state, with people expressing that politics has been “Labour since 1946” . In total, the Labour Party has been in charge of New Zealand’s national politics for a total of 41 years without being replaced by this degree of conservatism. However, it conveys the belief that center-left politics has dominated the national spotlight for too long without meaningful change. Ardern, as with other Labour leaders that preceded her, promised to break this pattern. However, the demands she faced for immediate results were misaligned with her more long term outlook.
Having established New Zealand’s unprecedented shift toward conservatism, the future political agenda holds a similar yet different promise to that of Ardern’s when she was sworn into office. Tax cuts would be implemented for middle class earners, and popular locally produced goods such as fruits and vegetables would be exempt from taxes. A heavy crack down on crime will be emphasized, and the policy agenda will build toward a better economic outcome for all New Zealanders. However, having compared Ardern’s previous hopes and concrete outcomes, New Zealanders must view this change with a sense of skepticism. Lofty promises are not new to New Zealand politics: over-promising and under-delivering could serve to further fuel the fire that is populism.
Featured Image Source: NZ Herald