Ardern: transformation now or a pivot towards transformation in the future?

Our country was not “forever changed” on 15 March. Jacinda Ardern’s assured skill, instincts and empathy kept the nation on course.

But can she generate the innovative policy that will be necessary to keep that nation intact through the turbulent 2020s. Or is she a pivot between two eras, not the architect of a new era – as Norman Kirk was a pivot between the 1940s-60s orthodoxies and the revolutionary 1980s?

I joined the parliamentary press gallery 50 years ago, give or take a few days. That was as the Kirk pivot was shaping. As I pass on, is history repeating itself?

Ardern’s post-massacre leadership of the nation, which the usually acerbic Judith Collins called “outstanding”, earned her celebration, even reverence, across the globe, from Arab Dubai to whites-in-charge New York.

“They are us,” she said three hours after the mosques slaughter. “She is us,” was the response of most of the “us” who make up Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Ardern ordered a ban on military weaponry in private hands which all parties in Parliament had flaccidly left undone until tragedy pulled the trigger.

Some shooters and legalistic sticklers griped that her fast-track gun bill did not follow due process. Yes, if the foremost need was the constitutional propriety of the state — how we organise power. But actually the foremost post-massacre need was the integrity of the nation.

The nation is the story we weave to bind us together.

Until 1981 that national story was “better Britain”. That year a Springbok rugby team, symbol of brutal racial oppression in a country which “lived” our “national sport” as we did, stirred large numbers to object noisily and noisomely and frequently unlawfully, outside the bounds of due process.

After 1981 we found ourselves on a path to a nation of two cultures, two worlds, not one: Aotearoa/New Zealand, not simple New Zealand. The 1984-90 Labour government took a big step down that path and Jim Bolger kept us on it in defiance of a majority of his National cabinet and party.

We are still weaving that post-1981 national korowai. Large social disparities persist between those with whakapapa and those without. Most of the travel between the “two worlds” is one way.

Finished or not, we must also weave into that two-culture cloak many other cultures. We have to find a way to fit many other “theys” into “us”.

Complicating that is a decade ahead promising major disruptions.

Among them: the grandest global political and economic rebalancing since the European takeover of the Americas and Asia; an existential threat from overexploitation of natural resources; a digital technology which could radically reshape “work” and “wealth”, and so society, and do that far faster than any previous reordering; new untreatable diseases (and a pandemic or two?) and gene technology which might cure them but also opens up scary possibilities if ill-used.  

Can born-in-1980 Ardern and her X/Y-generation colleagues mark out a forward route for the nation through those disruptive 2020s?

Roll back those 50 years to when I joined the parliamentary press gallery — a time without security staff and bodyguards infused through the precincts.

Keith Holyoake’s 1940s-60s policy certainties of empire and secure incomes and social order were fraying. A boisterous generation wanting far more freedom and an independent, principled international policy was growing through its 20s.

Kirk took power in 1972. He proved to be a pivot between the fraying era and one to come.

He upheld the 1940s-60s economic and social settings. But he cancelled a Springbok tour and took action against French nuclear tests. In 1967 he had talked of partnership with Maori and in 1975 a tribunal was set up to examine future breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. These pointed toward big changes that came in the 1980s.

Those 1980s changes were the work of the 1960s noisy 20-somethings who by then were 40-somethings. From 1984 they ran a government that was radical — “transformative” — in the economy, in staking out national independence and in setting off down the bicultural path and much more.

Ardern’s government has begun alleviating some of the social damage left over from that 1980s economic lurch and is pointing towards, and taking some action on climate change and to reshape economic management.

But are those changes transformative, as Ardern promised in 2017, or incremental? Is she shaping a new era or pivoting, like Kirk, between a passing era and one yet to come?

While Ardern leads Labour, some people, especially the very-well-off, will go on not paying tax on some of their income. That is immoral and, in fact, a net upward tax transfer from the less-well-off to the well-off. GST, in effect an income tax which unfairly hits the least-well-off, stays.

Rebalance tax from income to environmental misuse? “Consider for inclusion in work programme”, the cabinet said in response to the tax working group recommendations — in other words, maybe, sometime.

Fix welfare? Alleviate some of the inequities and do better by children. But do it separately from tax even though the two are interleaved.

That is, uphold and fix up the inherited settings, as Kirk did the economic and social policy settings. Much the same goes for health, education and housing — so far.

Next: Ardern’s “nuclear moment”, climate change? Framework legislation will pass this year on limiting greenhouse gas emissions but so far action on “complementary measures” such as transport, industrial processing and temperature management of big buildings has ranged from limited to zero.

Rebalance economic and fiscal policy from GDP maximisation to wider “wellbeing” by investing in the natural environment, social cohesion and human development? A start in this month’s budget and some other change coming to prod silo-ed, risk-averse public servants to work together and work with, not over, not-for-profits. But getting the numbers to make “wellbeing” budgets work will take five or more years.

Add the beginnings of a “just transition” of work and business to a low-carbon world which Ardern thinks can foreshadow a wider “just transition” for businesses and workers to a gig economy and one reshaped by artificial intelligence and robotics.

In all three — climate change, “wellbeing” and “just transition” — the first term falls short of transformation. Ardern — so far — looks more a fix-it reformer of the 2000s “third way” than a revolutionary builder of new systems for the 2020s.

If she stays in that mode and if global disorder breaks into our comfortable bubble and insecurities of work and income damage, frighten and anger middling and less-well-off people, they may turn (as many have in northern democracies) to ad hoc populism. Rob Muldoon demonstrated in his rule between Kirk and the 1984 radicals that populism compounds the damage.

Give Ardern time? What if Labour and the Greens have a majority post-2020 and are freed of constraint, as the 1984-90 Labour government was? Would they then be like the 40-somethings in the 1980s?  

We can’t know yet. But if not and especially if there is then a populist lurch, the repair and rebuild would have to wait for a government of those now in their 20s and early 30s – if they can.

History would then put Ardern alongside Kirk.

Still, history seldom repeats itself, even if sometimes it appears to. How Ardern lives in history will be for some nowadays-20-something press gallery journalist to tell us 20 (or 50?) years from now.