Ardern’s Government is Not Loving

Aug 17 · 7 min read

Most people believe that New Zealand’s government is loving. Many liberal New Zealanders clearly think this way, and internationally, its reputation seems to be even stronger.

The reasons for this are not what they would like to believe, though. One reason our government is perceived as loving is because the Prime Minister herself has suggested it is. When Jacinda Ardern formed her government, she declared that it would be ‘focused, empathetic and strong’; and when she spoke at the United Nations last September, she talked about ‘kindness’. Another reason is that things are pretty dire everywhere else…

When I talk about the Politics of Love, which I sketch in my book Love Notes, people often tell me that Ardern’s government embodies that vision. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

While there is a lot about her politics that hints at love, there is even more that betrays it. We saw an example of this in the speciesist imagery she and her partner, Clarke Gayford, casually employed when they announced her pregnancy.

(There is nothing ‘kind’ about a fishhook. Future historians, writing beside dying oceans, will give their Instagram post a damning review.) All of this is surface-level, though, because words and symbols, while a very important part of loving politics, are far from its most significant dimension.

The Politics of Love emphasises the importance of action. Ardern’s government has done everything it can to present itself as ready for change, but so far, it has failed to implement transformative policies. It isn’t that Ardern hasn’t got the political capital necessary to bring about change — she has. It’s that her politics are not radical.

One reason I am so critical of Ardern’s leadership is that, as a New Zealander, I recognise its potential. We saw many examples of loving leadership following the white supremacist terror attack in Christchurch in March. A shining example of this was the message she gave to US President Donald Trump: ‘He asked what offer of support the United States could provide,’ she reportedly said. ‘My message was: “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities”.’ And her resolve to immediately ban semi-automatic weapons set a loving example for the rest of the world to follow. (The way in which this has played out has been disappointing, though. Paying people to relinquish weapons of violence that never had a legitimate place in our society is problematic. A loving use of those funds would be to support victims of violence.)

Unfortunately, her ‘love’ has not extended to our entire community.

One need only look to Ihumātao, and the conflict there, to see that economic gain is being placed above love. The struggle at Ihumātao, which is essentially a struggle for indigenous sovereignty, is being compared to the protests at Mauna Kea in Hawaiʻi and Standing Rock in North Dakota. Ihumātao is the site of clear historical injustices — the Crown confiscated the land in 1863, creating legislation to do so; the government then granted that land to a Pākehā [European] family, who in 2016 sold it to Fletcher Building, the company that is now trying to build on it. The government has an opportunity to act, now, to redress past wrongs — to return the land to the people, and to build bonds of love that will hold us into the future. But Ardern has been reluctant to intervene, refusing to even visit Ihumātao, saying that the people have exhausted their legal options, and that it is not her responsibility to resolve the dispute. (It is worth noting that the Green Party has demonstrated support for the protectors, with one of the party leaders Marama Davidson, joining them. She and co-leader James Shaw have written to Ardern, saying, ‘we feel it merits a Government intervention’.) In protesting the planned development, Pania Newton of SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape), who is leading the resistance, has spoken of love. ‘Our kaupapa [purpose] is peaceful and passive,’ she has said. ‘We want to fight hate with aroha [love].’ What might a loving response from Ardern’s government look like? It could declare the place a heritage site, compensating Fletcher Building and returning the land to mana whenua — and commit to working in partnership with them to honour the place. In doing so, the government would be expressing love for people and the land.

As another example, consider the so-called ‘Wellbeing Budget’, which was unveiled in May. While I agree that well-being should be at the centre of our policy — and, to be clear, this is clearly an improvement on what was — that budget is far from the radical policy we need. Mental health received much-needed support, but the rest of the care sector did not see significant increases in funding. It is telling that Child Poverty Action Group has been critical of the budget. As Renee Manella writes, ‘We’re supposed to be making New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child, but this Budget’s spending in the name of reducing child poverty isn’t going to transform the lives of kids whose caregivers are struggling to make ends meet.’ The budget initially received praise from some social agencies — but the jubilation that greeted its release is indicative of how bad things were allowed to get under the National Party. When we consider the increasing frustration being articulated by teachers, healthcare workers, and others, which they have expressed in strikes and through other forms of action, the poverty of the ‘Wellbeing Budget’ is evident. Of course, some people will point out that there will never be enough money to fund everything we want… but this budget also contains a lot of unnecessary spending — most notably, an increase in military funding, to $5 billion.

In the lead-up to our last general election, I wrote that Aotearoa New Zealand needed to meet two challenges: as well as addressing inequality, we had to begin to transition away from animal agriculture. I still believe that these are the challenges we face. Addressing social inequality is important if we are to achieve justice for all New Zealanders; and ending animal agriculture is necessary not only in response to the climate crisis, but also to realise justice for non-human animals, who are as important, morally-speaking, as we humans are.

Addressing inequality will require structural change, which will take time to realise; but there are things the government could do now, which would immediately remove some of the disadvantages experienced by our society’s most vulnerable people. Clearing debt is one of these. By writing off debt — beneficiary debt, medical debt, and student debt, to begin with — the government would be taking radical action. This would be loving, because it would provide relief to those most in need, as well as opportunities to those who require them. A universal basic income — a payment made to every member of society, so that we can all meet our needs — is another. We would need to fund these policies, of course, but the way to do that is simple: we need to stop making excuses, and tax the wealthier members of our society at a much higher rate than we currently do. As New Zealand economist Shamubeel Eaqub has written, ‘At its core, tax is about pooling our resources and redistributing, so that society is better off. Tax is love.’ This point can be articulated slightly differently: a community in which some people live in luxury while many of us struggle to meet our basic needs is unloving.

Unsurprisingly, the government has proven resistant to calls to end animal agriculture. All of us should find this worrying. It is no secret that the dairy industry is polluting our whenua [land] and awa [rivers]. What is less well known is that here in Aotearoa New Zealand, animal agriculture accounts for more than 48% of our greenhouse gas emissions — which is to say, it is the single-largest contributor to climate change. This, by itself, should be enough to force us to change. But as animal rights activists have pointed out, farming also violates the rights of non-human animals, and is as problematic as many forms of human oppression. Still, the government has not only made huge concessions to the agricultural sector in its proposed climate change legislation, Ardern herself has literally laughed at the notion of animal rights. In response to filmmaker James Cameron’s call for New Zealand to ditch meat and dairy, she joked, ‘I’m from the Waikato. I don’t know that I’d be allowed to go home if I became vegan.’ Then, deathly serious, she said: ‘And I love cheese’. (Is this the ‘fearless moral leadership’ we’ve been hearing about recently?) Our treatment of other animals is disgraceful: it is unloving to them, to the environment, and to future generations. Again, there are things the government could do now to begin to address this injustice. It could, for example, set an end-date for the use of animals in agriculture — say, December 31, 2049 — and establish working groups to negotiate the transition. We need farmers to be at the forefront of this action — they are the ones with the knowledge, skills, and experience to lead us. Although they get a lot of bad press in vegetarian and vegan circles (some of which is deserved), most of their concerns — foremost among which is being able to provide for themselves and others — are legitimate. But they also need to accept that our use and abuse of animals is, ultimately, unjust; and that, regardless of what may have been necessary in the past, now change is necessary.

Unlike the majority of her predecessors, Ardern has the political capital to lead for real, transformative change. Now, more than ever, my country needs radical action. A government that was committed to love — one that really did embody the Politics of Love — would be taking much bolder steps, not only for all of our nation’s people, but for non-human animals, and for the planet itself. Ardern’s government is not loving — but with courage, along with a commitment to doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, it could fulfil its potential, helping to realise love in Aotearoa New Zealand, and setting a loving example for people everywhere.

Philip McKibbin

Written by

I am a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand.

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