Monday, 26 Oct 2020

Election 2020: Australian columnist Greg Sheridan criticises Jacinda Ardern as ‘shabby, fraudulent’

With New Zealand’s election just two days away, the rest of the world will cast their eyes on the outcome in part due to the international profile of Jacinda Ardern.

The Labour leader had been widely praised initially for her handling of Covid-19 around the world, with many championing the country’s strong lockdown approach, and success against the virus.

But columnists from international media agencies have had their say ahead of the election, with many singing a different tune to the one that saw Ardern become a cult figure globally.

“Ardern has done three positive things. She has just about eradicated Covid-19. She has navigated the politics of the virus so well she stands on the brink of electoral triumph. And she responded with moral clarity and decency to the Christchurch massacre.

“However, she has still been a poor Prime Minister, elected almost by accident under the Byzantine protocols of her country’s eccentric electoral system, though she won far fewer votes than the National government she replaced,” Greg Sheridan, of The Australian wrote.

“No international halo is so shabby, or so fraudulent, as that worn by New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Politically she resembles Dan Andrews. They excel in woke gesture and progressive symbolism. Their achievements in real policy terms are thin or negative.

“It goes without saying that her achievements should never be diminished because of her gender or age; she was only 37 when she became Prime Minister. But undoubtedly part of the international Jacindamania comes from the fact she is a young left-wing woman who gave birth in office and took maternity leave. That is all wonderful but it has no bearing on policy achievement.

“Even on Covid-19, the Ardern government has done much less than it seems and at much greater cost than other countries have paid. There are other countries whose governments have even better records of eradicating Covid-19. And they are? Fiji with 32 cases, Solomon Islands with two cases and Vanuatu with none. Their leaders are not worldwide media sensations yet they got those numbers for the same reasons as New Zealand. They are isolated island nations. Auckland, with something over a million people, is one of the most isolated cities of its size.

“Before Covid-19, Ardern was trailing in the polls. Her list of undelivered election promises is staggering: 100,000 affordable homes promised, 600 built; homelessness to be eradicated, it increased; zero carbon emissions by 2050, emissions went up; reduce child poverty, it went up; regional public service emphasis, more public servants based in Wellington than before; light rail from Auckland airport to CBD, abandoned. But then came the virus and she could do her high priestess of the woke religion stuff, day after day.

“Validated by a swooning international media, unchallenged by a tepid and under-resourced local media, she has sold the narrative that her government has saved NZ. With Peters gone, and the Greens more influential, she will move left in her second term, presaging a lost decade for our beloved cousins across the ditch. One consolation: the best of them will come here.”

Peter Hartcher from the Sydney Morning Herald highlighted Ardern’s failures on housing, tax reform and poverty.

“She took power promising to solve real-world problems. A signature promise – housing affordability – has become a signal failure. NZ home prices are among the world’s least affordable compared to income. Auckland prices aren’t as outlandish as Sydney or Melbourne but they’re more out of reach than London or New York measured against average incomes, according to the 2019 annual Demographic survey,” he wrote.

“Labour proposed a government program called KiwiBuild to construct 100,000 affordable new homes over 10 years to help middle- and low-income people buy their first homes. Ardern abandoned the scheme after two years in office. It was not building homes fast enough. In the initial 18 months, 141 were finished, against a target of 1000, and the ones that were built were often unwanted. The minister in charge was removed, the government announcing NZ$5 billion to build 8000 homes over five years.

“Another measure proposed to help with home affordability was a capital gains tax (CGT) on real estate, designed to curb speculation and runaway price rises. Much as Australia, and many other countries, already impose. First she delayed and then dumped the proposal. ‘While I have believed in a CGT, it’s clear many New Zealanders do not. That is why I am also ruling out a capital gains tax under my leadership in the future,’ she said last year. Even though, as she said, ‘I believe it would have made a difference’.

“‘The government has done pretty much nothing about tax reform,” says Arthur Grimes, former chair of the NZ Reserve Bank. “The previous government didn’t do much, either. This government and the previous [National Party] government are similar: they look at doing something, then they don’t do it.

“This is very short-term thinking. The long-term fiscal position isn’t sustainable; it’s not going to be feasible to tax income very much. People with money are increasingly able to switch income and residency around the world. We need major tax reform.'”

“Ardern has said her initial impulse to go into politics was to help get kids out of poverty. As Prime Minister, she took portfolio responsibility for it herself. How’s that going? She inherited a country with one child in six living in poverty. Pre-Covid, at least, it seemed to have improved to one in eight, mainly because of a range of measures her government took to lift incomes at the lower end: raising the minimum wage from NZ$15.25 per hour to NZ$17.70, then to NZ$18.90 in April, extending paid parental leave and creating the Best Start payment of NZ$60 a week for the first year of every newborn’s life.

“And, until Covid struck, these same measures will have narrowed the overall gap between rich and poor, too.”

BBC’s Shaimaa Khalil also touched on poverty under Ardern’s leadership, versus her unquestionable charisma.

“Throughout her tempestuous first term as New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern has maintained a message of kindness. But as she seeks another term in power, critics say that it will take more than kindness and charisma to get the economy on its feet and lift tens of thousands of people out of poverty,” she wrote.

“Jacinda Ardern has captured the world’s imagination and been widely praised for her strong and compassionate leadership as she steered the country through turbulent times including a terrorist attack in Christchurch, a natural disaster when the White Island, or Whakaari, volcano erupted, and a global pandemic.

“But critics say her government has failed to tackle child poverty – one of her key promises when she came to power in 2017.

“Under the Child Poverty Reduction Act, Stats NZ is required to annually report on nine different measures for child poverty. Material hardship is one of the most prominent measures which includes not eating fresh fruit and vegetables, putting off a visit to the doctor, or not being able to pay bills on time.

“For June 2018 to June 2019 there was no significant change to the percentage of children living in material hardship, compared to the previous year. The figure remains at about 13 per cent – that’s 151,700 or one in eight of New Zealand’s children.

“Poverty is remarkably high in Māori and Pacifica households, with nearly 1 in 4 (23.3per cent) of Māori children and nearly 1 in 3 (28.6 per cent) of Pacific children living in material hardship.

“These are sobering numbers and in many ways jar with New Zealand’s global image of prosperity and general stability.

“‘European/white New Zealanders have a very different life experience to our Maori or Pacifica citizens,'” says Unicef NZ executive director Vivien Maidaborn.

“The situation has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown.

“Ms Maidaborn praised the government’s response to Covid-19 but said it did little to alleviate the pressure on poor families.

“‘The subsidies at the welfare level have been quite focused on business. What we may have done is entrench the inequality between people who are already struggling and people who have wealth or assets but in terms of cash flow now are struggling,'” she said.

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