Substance and stardust in New Zealand’s 2017 election

Author: Stephen Levine, Victoria University of Wellington

For much of 2017, the New Zealand election was looking to be ‘boringly predictable’. All this changed on 1 August when the Labour Party’s then leader Andrew Little announced his resignation. Within hours, his deputy Jacinda Ardern — having only been in that position for a few months — had been confirmed as the party’s new leader. In a sign of the New Zealand public’s inattention to the details of parliamentary life, she became ‘an overnight sensation’ after nearly nine years as a Member of Parliament.

Jacinda Ardern (C), New Zealand's new opposition Labour leader, speaks to the press alongside members of her party after Andrew Little stepped down in Wellington, New Zealand, 1 August 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Charlotte Greenfield).

Indeed, Jacinda Ardern’s sudden rise to celebrity status has been remarkable. In 2008, aged 28, she entered Parliament on Labour’s ‘party list’ following an unsuccessful campaign in a ‘safe’ National Party seat. At the next two elections, she stood in a more competitive Auckland electorate and on both occasions lost narrowly. Following three terms in Parliament via Labour’s party list, Ardern did not win a seat on her own until the 25 February 2017 by-election in the Mt Albert electorate, which is a solid Labour constituency and former prime minister Helen Clark’s old seat.

As Labour’s deputy leader, despite evincing a reluctance to aspire to the party leadership, she soon began to embarrass Andrew Little, if inadvertently, as opinion polls saw her surpass his numbers as the country’s ‘preferred prime minister’. Both remained well behind National Party leader and Prime Minister Bill English.

English’s previous experience as National Party leader should have given the party some cause for concern. In 2002 he managed to lead the National Party to the worst result in the party’s history, winning only 21 per cent of the vote (down from 31 per cent in 1999). His recovery in the party’s esteem only came about when he proved to be a steady minister of finance alongside the more colourful and approachable John Key. It was considered that English was the closest the National Party could come to offering voters the equivalent of the Key government’s ‘fourth term’.

A prospective campaign against Andrew Little suggested that a fourth term for the National Party was a foregone conclusion. The only issue was whether the country’s declining voter turnout would hit a new low. Against the unfortunate Labour leader — a competent but insufficiently charismatic individual — English’s own campaign shortcomings seemed irrelevant. But then along came Jacinda.

What analysts will no doubt be considering in the months and years to come are the factors that made New Zealand so suddenly change course from a bland sense of satisfaction (or resignation) about the inevitability of a fourth term for the National Party to a sudden fascination with new possibilities.

What Jacinda Ardern’s campaign revealed was a New Zealand public receptive to or even eager for something new. Over several weeks Labour’s new leader transformed not only the campaign but the country’s political vocabulary as a new word — ‘Jacindamania’ — introduced itself to the English language. Her emergence on the political stage brought energy, excitement and enthusiasm to New Zealand politics, exemplified not only by her rising poll numbers and the response to her speeches and public appearances but also by the steadily growing presence of international journalists flown in to New Zealand to cover the race.

While Ardern looks to have fallen short in her sudden quest for the prime ministership during the September 2017 election, the 37 year old has become a significant public figure and has been anointed by some as the country’s prime minister in waiting (in anticipation of a 2020 election win). She may yet take power, as the last reel of the 2017 New Zealand election has yet to be recorded: the final totals (votes and parliamentary seats) are yet to be released, and the likely coalition partner, the New Zealand First party led by the mercurial Winston Peters, has yet to announce whether it will lend its support to the National Party (with 58 seats on election night) or the Labour Party (with 45 seats).

Whatever happens, New Zealand’s 2017 election demonstrated that the openness to new personalities, evident in Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron, was to be found even in this small South Pacific democracy. If, in the end, the election endorsed three more years of ‘strong and stable government’ — the mantra repeatedly emphasised by Bill English as the essence of his party’s claim to office — it did so in a political atmosphere that made the idea of New Zealand’s politics being ‘boring’ and ‘predictable’ the true loser on the night.

Stephen Levine is Professor at the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science & International Relations, Victoria University of Wellington.

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