Jacinda Ardern speaks at the Auckland Town Hall fresh from winning the 2020 election. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

A day to define Jacinda Ardern’s second term

Threads of a political career, woven together: climate change, child poverty and global leadership.

Within weeks of a history-making victory, Jacinda Ardern and the Labour party face a growing list of demands. Local government is in disarray, the housing market is out of control and the spotlight is once again on children being removed from their parents by Oranga Tamariki. Following a campaign in which her promise was “Let’s keep moving”, the prime minister’s challenge is to show she is not stuck in neutral.

With parliament sitting for only one further week, today Ardern will want to put her agenda clearly on track ahead of the summer lull.

The climate emergency

Just after question time, the prime minister will rise in parliament and ask for the house to declare a climate change emergency. The declaration is the culmination of what she’s called her generation’s defining challenge.  The call won’t hold the same power as an emergency declaration after a natural disaster, there won’t be money or any new powers, but the prime minister said it could focus attention on the government’s climate programme.

The Labour government has faced criticism that its approach to climate change has been more rhetoric than reality, including from Britain’s high commissioner in Wellington. Newsroom has reported that New Zealand might be excluded from a climate leaders summit because it doesn’t fit the bill. In a press conference Monday, Ardern was combative when asked about the story, challenging its conclusion. Ardern didn’t explain why she wasn’t invited. 

The prime minister has conceded that the emergency declaration itself isn’t an answer to climate change. Today’s announcement is expected to be accompanied by a suite of proposals to further the country’s climate goals.

Labour’s promise to make the country’s carbon-neutral by 2050 is cemented in legislation. Before then, the government has committed to emissions-free electricity by 2030. Last week, the governor-general said in the throne speech that new transit buses would need to be electric after 2025. Expect more goals to be added today.

The award

But first, Ardern will begin her day doing something her office has been reluctant to let her do: accept international honours. Harvard is giving her, virtually in the era of Covid-19, an international activist award from the Kennedy school. The university cited her response to terrorism, earthquakes and now Covid-19. New Zealand has become a global symbol of victory over the coronavirus and Ardern might be the most recognisable prime minister the country has produced, especially in the United States. 

The prime minister’s office said she is only accepting the award because the $210,000 prize will be turned into a scholarship for one student from New Zealand at the Kennedy school, which is one of the most prestigious public service institutions in the US.

After a series of splashy front-page features in international magazines after she first entered the prime minister’s office, Ardern’s staff has kept her away from most of the airbrushed global attention. The celebrity moniker, which the National Party has tried to throw at the prime minister, doesn’t help her in parliament or out in the country’s communities.

A reminder of why she’s stayed away from international outlets can be seen in the name of a biography of Ardern that went on sale in the US last month. It’s been on bookshelves in New Zealand for months, but was given a slightly different title overseas. Instead of its modest title of Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader, the Americans renamed it: The Most Powerful Woman In The World, no matter what the subject or the book’s author might think.

Any Google search today would give that honour to German chancellor Angela Merkel. Ardern’s office would like to leave it that way.

Child poverty

The prime minister’s day will end in the Beehive Theatrette. Standing behind the pulpit she wielded during lockdown, Ardern will face a problem that has intensified under her watch. Dealing with child poverty is one of reasons she says she entered politics. Ardern has given herself the child poverty portfolio in cabinet. National argues that child poverty has worsened under the prime minister. Ardern says under some metrics it has become better. Regardless of the which numbers you choose, it remains a grim situation.

On Monday, the Child Poverty Action Group said progress has been “unjustifiably slow” and none of the 42 key recommendations made by a welfare expert advisory group two years ago have been fully implemented. Just over half haven’t been touched at all. The rest have seen some work.

“Fixing welfare is long overdue, and the government has now been sitting on the blueprint for essential work for nearly two years. We need to turn the vision into reality with urgency,” wrote Innes Asher, who served on the advisory group.

There have been no promises from Labour to implement more of the policies from the expert advisory group. “Children cannot wait – their minds, emotions, bodies are constantly developing and this development can be affected by chronic stress and lack of essentials,” Asher added.

Ardern, along with minister for children Kelvin Davis, will host child poverty experts and her poverty advisors in the Beehive this afternoon. They’ll be joined by children who will ask them about wellbeing. One member of the welfare expert advisory group has been asked to join them.

The set-pieces of today will deliver no judgment of Ardern’s second term. But taken together they define its ambitions, and plot its path.




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