Ardern vs Collins: New Zealand is at a crossroads

On October 17, the Kiwis will make a choice between Ardern’s good-faith brand of politics and Collins’s casual nastiness.

National Party leader Judith Collins and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speak during the TVNZ's Leaders' Debate on September 22, 2020, in Auckland, New Zealand [File: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images]

New Zealand voters go to the polls on Saturday, the culmination of a stuttering electoral campaign disrupted by a fresh outbreak of COVID-19.

A profusion of parties – spread across the ideological spectrum – have presented their vision to constituents. In a world turned upside down, voters have placed a premium on parties that appear best equipped to contain virus spread and limit the accompanying economic damage.

Advance voting suggests that the election may have a sizeable turnout, with 700,000 Kiwis placing votes over the past week. Voters are also casting ballots on whether to legalise cannabis and euthanasia.

The centrist Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, appears on course to win an outright parliamentary majority – the first time a single party would be able to rule since the nation’s mixed-member proportional system of representation was brought in a quarter of a century ago.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, the party has consistently polled about 50 percent. That is largely due to its exceptional management of the pandemic threat: a humane, health-first approach calibrated towards saving lives while insulating the public from the economic hit associated with lockdown measures.

As such, Ardern has pitched a vote for her second term as a vote for stability.

“These are uncertain times, but we’ve seen what we can achieve with a strong plan,” she said in the party’s first major campaign advertisement, released last month. “So, let’s stick together – and let’s keep moving.”

That five-point plan revolves around retraining Kiwis by providing free apprenticeships in the trades; investment in “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects and upgrades to the health sector; further support for small businesses, via interest-free loans; and leveraging New Zealand’s reputation as a relative safe haven to attract investment.

“Together we went hard and early to fight COVID,” says Ardern. “Our plan now is to rebuild the economy even stronger.”

The party’s first term in power was marked by a series of traumatic incidents: the Christchurch terror attack, the Whakaari/White Island eruption, and the new normal of life amid viral menace.

In each instance, Ardern used her clear communication skills to reassure and unify an oft-divided country; the public has responded positively to this good-faith brand of politics, which prioritises public wellbeing.

However, in other ways, her government – a coalition with the centre-right New Zealand First, with the Green Party providing confidence and supply – has struggled to deliver flagship policies or live up to the policy goals of its 2017 election campaign.

Change has been painfully incremental, as opposed to Ardern’s bold promises of “transformation” last election.

From the right, this incrementalism is cast as flagrant incompetence; from the left, as evidence that the party remains committed to the logic of the neoliberal era.

The government’s KiwiBuild real estate development project is a bleeding political wound. Efforts to mitigate the country’s unconscionable levels of inequality, particularly child poverty – where, after housing costs, about one in five, or 235,400, children live in relative poverty – have barely scratched the surface.

The nation’s castigatory welfare system remains in need of significant reform, yet the government has not acted on the advice of its own Welfare Expert Advisory Group, which last year recommended immediately raising benefits by up to 47 percent.

Its capitulation to NZF’s opposition to its promised capital gains tax lends weight to the argument that Ardern is too timid of a leader. With the latest 1 News Colmar Brunton poll putting NZF on just 2 percent, the party and its veteran leader, Winston Peters, would not make it back into parliament.

Ardern has since categorically ruled out implementing that tax at any point in her premiership – even absent NZF’s opposition – effectively conceding the argument to the nation’s rentier class.

Regardless, her administration has achieved noticeable improvements in the health and education sectors, in which it inherited systems run-down, most recently, by nine years of deliberate neglect by the previous National Party government.

Ardern has promised to build on those improvements, announcing a 1 billion New Zealand dollars ($658m) health plan last month. The plan includes a 200 million NZ dollars ($132m) funding boost for the country’s drug-buying agency, Pharmac, and dental health grants that amount to 176 million NZ dollars ($116m) for people on low incomes.

If the public does deliver Labour an outright majority, hopefully, Ardern abandons her more cautious, conflict-averse style of politics and further embraces the transformational, big state recovery this pandemic demands.

From the left, the hope is that the centre-left Green Party crosses the 5 percent threshold for entering parliament, far from a certainty, and that Labour’s polling forces it to form a coalition with the party.

The Greens strong push for legalising cannabis – with the accompanying economic, health and social benefits – is an example of common sense, progressive policymaking.

The only other parties that could force Labour to the left – or are offering fresh thinking – are the Maori Party and The Opportunities Party (TOP).

The Maori Party, which is running candidates in the country’s seven Maori electorates, has provided a raft of policies focused on addressing the persistent inequalities created by colonialism, particularly across justice, health and housing. It additionally wants to establish a separate Maori parliament and see Maori language and history taught as core subjects in schools.

Regardless, if Ardern continues with the incrementalist approach, her administration, which leverages international recognition for domestic legitimacy, may come to represent yet another failure of the globe’s vaunted new breed of liberal democrats.

Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron each, like Ardern, spoke the language of “hope” and “change”. Yet, ultimately, all further entrenched a poisonous status quo.

‘A poor wee thing’

In contrast to the government’s assured management of the pandemic, the main opposition National Party has careened chaotic throughout the crisis.

Its complete meltdown raises serious questions about its ability to cope with the pressures of managing the country at a time of global catastrophe.

From the earliest stages of the crisis, the centre-right party played politics, attempting to undermine the government’s health-first priorities by criticising lockdown measures and demanding a lifting of restrictions.

It invented a homeless man in a managed isolation facility, leaked the private medical records of COVID-19 patients to the media, attempted to stir-up racist sentiment towards returning New Zealanders, engaged in conspiracy-baiting, and is on to its third leader in six months.

Unsurprisingly, the party’s support has plummeted, and it is now routinely polling in the 30 percent range. In desperation, its caucus has turned to Judith “Crusher” Collins for leadership, after former leader Todd Muller, suffering panic attacks, resigned following 53 disastrous days at the party’s helm.

“We’re actually better. If you look at our team, our experience,” said Collins upon being selected party leader in July, “it’s all better than Jacinda Ardern and her team.”

Yet, the party has not fared noticeably better under Collins, who personifies a toxic current that has long run through New Zealand politics and society; one of casual nastiness and brazen self-interest.

The 61-year-old, six-term MP comes replete with significant political baggage. This ranges from allegations of conflict of interest to passing on private information for use in smear campaigns.

Despite a short-lived attempt to soften Collins’s image, the leader has predictably reverted to the attack-style of politics that many New Zealanders find repellent, and which ultimately turns people off politics.

Following the first leaders’ debate between Collins and Ardern in September, the National Party leader called Ardern a “poor wee thing”.

This posturing has only gotten worse since.

The party has consistently misrepresented Labour Party policies. Most recently, the MP Alfred Ngaro falsely claimed that Labour planned to decriminalise all drugs, allow full-term abortion, and “abortion based on gender and disability.”

At a time when the country grapples with misinformation, Collins has additionally attacked the acclaimed investigative journalist Nicky Hager, in whose book, Dirty Politics, she featured prominently.

“He is a dreadful man and what he wrote about me was disgraceful,” Collins told a gathering in Nelson. “He still needs to meet his maker.”

It is difficult to determine whether the party’s pumping out of bald-faced lies and misinformation is a deliberate strategy or merely reflects engrained party culture. Either way, this approach sows division and can distort public perceptions.

It is a play that right-wing demagogues around the world routinely employ.

One need look no further than the United States and the United Kingdom – Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, respectively – which have failed miserably when confronted with the most severe of reality checks: pandemic.

In terms of the policy, the party is offering nothing new.

Its centrepiece policy of temporary tax cuts appears little more than an attempt to bribe high and middle income earners.

Even worse, the cuts, worth 4.7 billion NZ dollars ($3bn), would be drawn from the COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund: money generated by the Reserve Bank’s quantitative easing program, and set aside for a potential future outbreak of COVID-19.

At a time when minimum wage earners have kept the country running, offering those very same people about 8 NZ dollars ($5.2) extra per week – or 560 NZ dollars over 16 months – speaks to the party’s skewed priorities; people earning 90,000 NZ dollars would pocket an extra 58 NZ dollars per week.

Other policies appear superfluous.

The party has vowed to establish a new “National” cancer agency. Yet, the country’s Cancer Control Agency – headed by a renowned cancer epidemiologist and operational for less than a year – has been well-received by medical practitioners and the public more generally.

Stripping away the spin, the party would likely put pressure on public services, by failing to increase spending to match rising costs. It looks poised to ensure further environmental degradation, promising to repeal regulations aimed at cleaning up waterways polluted by intensive farming and opening-up new off-shore oil and gas exploration.

Regardless, Collins soldiers on, spitting venom and invective – and therefore sucking up media oxygen.

By the beginning of October, she was pandering to the country’s evangelical Christians, describing herself as a person of faith who believed in “miracles” while attempting to inflame the urban-rural divide.

And, of course, reaching out to the conspiratorial fringe.

“Why aren’t we talking about other deaths like the flu?” she asked right-wing broadcaster, Mike Hosking, who has previously suggested that official calls for people to get COVID-19 tests was a government ploy to spread fear and win reelection.

It has been quite the display.

However, if Labour drops a few percentage points and the Greens fail to poll above 5 percent, there is a chance that Collins could head the next government.

For this, her party would need to increase its vote share to 37 percent and form a coalition with its long-term ally ACT, which is polling at 8 percent according to the latest Colmar Brunton poll.

That latter party is far-right Libertarian and has benefitted massively from National Party voter-bleed over the past six months. Its leader, David Seymour, promulgates a narrative of personal freedom to legitimise – or cover for – a raft of extreme free-market policies.

Its policies raise real alarm bells.

ACT promises to: abolish the Maori seats in parliament, hate speech laws and the Human Rights Commission; relax gun laws; scrap the Zero Carbon Act, which provides that nation’s framework for addressing climate change; slash $7.6bn NZ dollars of “wasteful spending” a year from public services; reduce tax rates; freeze the minimum wage for three years; reinstate 90 day trials for workers; and cut winter energy payments and benefits while monitoring the spending of certain beneficiaries. And so on and so forth.

A National-ACT government, put another way: austerity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.