The Culture War of Jacinda Ardern and Judith Collins

Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand is a cosmopolitan liberal society governed by the ‘politics of kindness’. Many share her vision. But it would be a mistake to think that Ardern speaks for all, or even most New Zealanders. To be successful in 2020, National must speak for those who do not identify with Ardern’s New Zealand.

When — and it is only a question of when — Judith Anne Collins is named Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, Prime Minister Ardern will finally meet her match. The two women are opposites in just about every respect. Yet both have the same basic appeal. Ardern and Collins are as much cultural icons as they are political leaders. Both represent a side of the New Zealand character, embodying certain values and traits that we see in ourselves. They appeal to images and ideas that define what it means to be a New Zealander in the 21st century.

Since its formation in May 1936, the party has been served by 12 leaders. Only three did not become Prime Minister. Simon Bridges is set to join Adam Hamilton, Jim McLay and Don Brash as the fourth leader to miss out. But there is a more humiliating title Bridges could wear. Bridges, like McLay before him, might have the distinction of not contesting a general election. He cannot blame circumstances for his failure. For over a year, Bridges has led a party of formidable electoral strength that can boast the title of ‘strongest Opposition’ in history. Despite the popularity of Ardern, National’s polling has remained in the 40s.

The Coalition’s broken promises on housing and child poverty, the unpopularity of tax reform, and a perception it is ‘soft on crime’ have sowed seeds of doubt. Come election time, the fruit will be ripe for harvest. Those on the left who shake their heads in disbelief at the continued support for National should consider this: in its 83 years, National has spent 48 of those on the Treasury benches. In that time there have been two one-term Labour governments, and one two-term Labour government. When the electorate turns to National it does so for the long haul.

Understood another way, the perennial conflict between Labour and National is a permanent struggle to define the experiences of ordinary New Zealanders. Both claim to stand for fairness and the New Zealand dream. What this means will depend entirely on who you are. For Labour, fairness is free tertiary education and welfare payments. For National, fairness is tax cuts and self-reliance. Neither disagree that the lack of affordable housing is a problem. But whereas Labour’s solution is for the government to build more homes, National prefers to subsidise social housing projects and leave the rest to the market.

In practice, the two parties govern more or less the same. There is a slavish adherence to fiscal conservatism and basic market principles. Labour and National ministers both fret about upsetting business confidence. Yet they maintain a fidelity to the welfare state and existing tax structure. But their narratives of the New Zealand dream could not be more different. Ardern’s appeal during the 2017 election cannot be attributed to policy or even political strategy. There was nothing that Labour said, or did, that it would not have under Andrew Little. Rather, it was her authenticity, and ability to speak directly to the moral conscience of those New Zealanders who share her values.

Those voters felt a deep sense of injustice or guilt every time they read a story about child poverty, flinched over the latest reports on climate change, and asked why the government wasn’t doing more. They refused to accept that this was the best New Zealand could do. Ardern gave them cause for hope. While it is debatable whether problems such as poverty and climate change can be solved without a radical change in our way of life, people are willing to put their faith in Ardern to make things right. And her cultural leadership in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings has vindicated them.

But it would be a mistake to believe that Ardern speaks to all, or even most New Zealanders. In a sense there are two different New Zealands. The contrast was illustrated in Bridges’ hyperbolic response to a proposed capital gains tax. If only he were to be taken seriously. Whether it is due to a lack of charisma or bad messaging, there is no question that Bridges has failed to connect with voters on an emotional level. To win, National must capture the public’s imagination with a powerful counter-narrative of what life means for those New Zealanders who believe in the virtues of self-reliance and personal responsibility. Those New Zealanders who don’t believe in ‘collective guilt’ or that all our problems can necessarily be solved by government. While it is uncomfortable for the progressive left to admit, they are us too.

Enter a former tax lawyer from Hamilton. A woman steeped in the experiences of small business, family and community in provincial New Zealand. Her voice is heard by all. Collins’ tough, no-nonsense approach to crime has defined her in the media. But she is more than this. She is a political cynosure of conservative Pakeha and others who do not fit into the educated liberal middle-class milieu of Ardern. In that regard, she channels the legacy of Sir Robert Muldoon. While Collins and Muldoon are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to economic management, they share the same conservative political philosophy.

Muldoon stood for New Zealand the way it was in 1975. Collins stands for the way New Zealand is now. Don’t underestimate how many other New Zealanders stand with her.

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