Jacinda Ardern’s road into leading New Zealand’s government was short and quick. The given context of the time was perfect, getting her from a highly-placed politician on the Labour Party list into the seat of Labour leader and PM of the nation. While her ascent was quick, some argue that her descent may come equally quickly. The ongoing pandemic has thrown various curveballs for people and politicians likewise world-wide, and with the New Zealand General Elections coming up in September of 2020, one may argue that a lot has been resting on Ardern’s shoulders since the beginning of the new decade.
Becoming PM - Winston Peters role in NZ’s General Election
New Zealand’s general election works under a Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) voting system, in which every eligible voter gets two votes: one for the political party in Parliamentary seats, and one for the electorate vote to represent constituencies in Parliament.
There are 120 seats in the House of Representatives, i.e., Parliament. However, there are only 71 electorates, leaving the remaining seats to be proportionally filled from party lists, based on the percentage won by each party. This is how Ardern has earned her seat in the House of Representatives since 2008 without having won any elections herself, repeatedly sitting in the party list in the top 20s.
The MMP voting system makes it very difficult for a party to form a government outright through a majority. The 2017 government was formed under a mix of both. The election yielded a result of 44.45% of the party votes going to the National Party, 36.89% to Labour, and 7.20% going to the New Zealand First Party. Given the National- and Labour parties’ inability to form a government themselves, NZ First, led by Winston Peters, held the ‘Balance of Power’. Peters held the ability to form a government with whomever he chose, as long as it resulted in a majority. This means that he had the power to either put Ardern in power or not.
After a month of pitching from both parties, Peters decided to form a coalition with Labour, thus picking Ardern as PM. During this month, Ardern headed the Labour Party effort. This effort means lots of time spent on building a strong relationship with Peters. Peters’ roots with the conservative National party would have required a lot of fine-tuned persuasion from Ardern. Just enough respect for National’s work and beliefs, combined with just enough pitting of Labour against National to touch into his disdain for the party will have gotten Ardern her seat. Her communications degree has clearly not only proven to be useful in public settings, but also behind closed doors as with Peters.
Through a confidence and supply agreement with the Green party, Labour and NZ First then held a majority to form a government, with Ardern at the head of the table.
Main threats to Arden’s Political Power
Political and Voting structure of NZ is one of Arden’s biggest power constrainer. The Mixed-Member Proportional voting system that New Zealand has adopted and Ardern’s relationship with her Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, are key to understanding how she came to power, and how she could find herself either having it all or losing it all by the end of 2020.
Ardern is strong in her power as PM but with Parliament serving as a check on her, Ardern must justify her decisions and suggested policies for her to remain effective in her position as primus inter pares, first among equals. The ability to question confidence rather easily means she cannot be too secure in her seat.
Given the MMP voting system, it is difficult for a singular party to win an outright majority to form a government solely. With the National- and Labour Party as the nation’s top two clear contenders, NZ First or the Green Party are in the position to hold the Balance of Power once more in the 2020 September General election.
Should NZ First hold the Balance of Power once more, it may be easy to say that Ardern is not in a particularly threatened position given her relationship with Winston Peters, leader of the NZ First Party and Deputy PM to Ardern. This puts Ardern in a tight position in any event of serious disagreements and conflict with Peters. Her position as PM is in essence thanks to Peters’ decision to form a coalition with Labour over the National party.
Peters leads a nationalist populist party, whose history comes from when Peters was the leader of the National party at the end of the previous century. He broke off from his conservative roots to form NZ First, which indicates that many of his conservative tendencies are still prevalent. His elderly age at 75 combined with the traditional respect of the elders in New Zealand culture could also allude to a necessary wariness of Ardern’s actions towards Peters. Should she speak out against Peters in effect offending him and show ingratitude for his decision to put Ardern in power, she may find herself between a rock and a hard place come election day in 2020 if NZ First finds itself with the Balance of Power once more.
Additionally, Ardern’s inexperience with campaigning may prove to be problematic in the final months before the 2020 election.
Primus inter pares, on one condition
Historically, Ardern and Peters have demonstrated a relationship based on mutual respect, particularly in the public eye when it comes to discussing opposing views and ideas from Cabinet meetings. Recently, Ardern has been pushed to react to claims that Peters accepted donations to the previous general election campaign without declaring them. Given this scandal, Ardern may be put in a difficult position come election day. In a Roy Morgan Poll conducted in May of 2020, NZ First appeared to have on 2.5% of the party votes, while will prove to be problematic should Labour be unable to win an outright majority. At least 5% of the party vote is necessary in order to build a government, without which Ardern may lose a potential safety net in the event of someone other than NZ First holding the Balance of Power if she and Peters are on good terms. Alternatively, Ardern may find herself counting her lucky stars if Labour and Ardern find themselves on good terms and the support of other smaller parties. .
It is no use speculating what will happen should the Green Party come to hold the Balance of Power. However, the existing agreements between the Labour-NZ First Coalition in which the Green party promised to lend their votes in Parliament, demonstrates an existing positive relationship between Ardern as the representative of the Labour party and the Green party.
Criticisms also are part of her struggle; as Ardern is questioned if she should lead the nation for a second term as PM. These concerns include that while she has done a good job of eradicating the COVID-19 virus from the nation for now, the National party should take responsibility for the fiscal aspect in the next stage of overcoming the pandemic. The new leader for the National Party, Todd Muller, said that “this election will be about the economy”, and that the conservative fiscal-policy-oriented party has a better shot at guiding the country through recovery as opposed to Ardern’s Labour party.
Given the MMP voting system, there is also no limit on the terms that a PM may sit in NZ. This means that should Ardern and her party continue to be seen favourably, Ardern is in the game for the long run. Confidence from Parliament is the most important aspect of ensuring her prolonged success in government. Confidence overall has proven to be rather problematic for her as her previous predecessors have often found themselves resigning as a result of extremely low support in opinion polls.
How Arden deals with threats
Ardern has so far found herself with incredibly high support throughout the nation and is well respected by her colleagues on various sides of parliament, which is no small feat in her position as PM with such a small majority composed of various parties. Ardern’s focus has remained largely on New Zealand, avoiding involving herself and the country in the matters of other nations unwantedly. This has so far successfully spared her of unwanted negative attention from powerful political leaders.
In the case of China, for example, Ardern has tread carefully, saying “Taking [the speaking honestly and openly] approach isn’t about singling countries out, but about taking a consistent approach on the issues and principles that matter to us”, addressing New Zealand’s opposing views on certain Chinese aspects of human rights and trade. The statement indicates an agree-to-disagree style, in which Ardern will stand by her own and the nation’s responsibilities and values, but will not make any moves to ‘single out’ anyone, out of whom an enemy may become.
In the context of any potentially endangering disputes with the Deputy PM Winston Peters, Ardern has steered clear of issuing any public judgements or opinions in regards to the matter of the donation scandal. She has insisted that this is a party matter for NZ First to handle and not one for the government, refusing to get involved by giving her take on the situation, let alone condemning her Deputy.
In a video in which Ardern was questioned by the press, Ardern is shown repeatedly answering, “That is for the Electoral Commission to determine”, adamantly refusing to give a more personal opinion on the matter and to be the judge of the NZ First party and its leader. Ardern also said “Ultimately, you’re asking me to act as judge and jury in what is a case involving party members and past leaders of that party”.
Given the strategic importance of Peters for her seat as PM over the last two and a half years and potentially for the next three and a half years, one can call Ardern’s decision to keep quiet on the matter strategically thought out. “Labour’s concern will be that if it came to suspending a senior NZ First minister [such as Winston Peters], or attempting to investigate their fundraising activities, the party is likely to retaliate by withdrawing confidence and supply from the government and forcing a snap election.“ A decision to throw Peters under the bus may also be seen as a signal as a move of abandonment in a teamsport-like environment. Biting the hand that fed her and showing an unwillingness to stick her neck out for her teammates would leave a sour taste not only in the back of Peters’ mouth, but likely across Parliament, damaging future trust and confidence in her relationships.
Ardern has consistently shown an unwillingness to get involved in political spats of the sort and to stay in what she designates as her lane. However, Ardern has also shown that she is capable of sacking anybody who doesn’t abide by the rules that the PM is responsible for. For example, when the Health Minister David Clark was seen breaking COVID-19 restrictions, Ardern made the decision to publicly announce that were the nation not in such a dire situation due to the pandemic, she would fire him immediately, sending the message that no one is above the law – even those who create it. Given that no one else was as qualified and as up to date as him, particularly given the timely sensitivity of the matter, Ardern decided not to fire him. Instead, she chose to symbolically demote him.
Her decision not to fire the Health Minister should be seen as carefully calculated: choosing to fire him would have sent a significantly stronger message to the public about how serious the government was about enforcing restrictions during the pandemic, but would have left Ardern to scramble with finding adequate replacements. If the nation’s response to COVID-19 had then either deteriorated or become questioned in the public eye, the blame would be shifted onto Ardern for recklessly firing him. In making the decision not to fire him but publicly condemn his actions, while recognizing that she deemed him the best fit for the job in the time of crisis, the damage that Ardern would face in public opinion had been further minimized. Simply put, Ardern makes calculated decisions true to her values in avoidance of being in a position that threatens her power in the first place.
As for lack of experience in campaigning, Arden does hold a communications degree in public relations, along with her continuous use of social media is likely to outweigh the inexperience. Having been an obvious strength for Ardern, particularly during the pandemic, social media may even prove to be a defining factor.