'After Jacinda'
Colin James to Fabian Society, 26 March 2020
[Reworked from original to U3A, Wellington September 27, 2019]
I titled this talk, originally given in September 2019, 'After Jacinda' not because I
think the Prime Minister is about to disappear or evaporate or crumple. Jacinda
Ardern is far tougher underneath than she looks on the surface and has very strong
personal approval ratings. She has demonstrated that in the demeanour and substance
of her handling of responses to COVID-19 and that, plus the 'devil you know' factor
may work in this first-term government's favour in the election on 19 September.
If not, she might be 'gone by lunchtime', to quote someone who was gone by
lunchtime. Never say never in politics, I learnt decades ago. But my aim in this talk is
to take the wider and longer view than just of one person in one place at one time.
First, look back half a century. I have been doing that in the book I have drafted – my
final book, probably not publishable. It covers 50 years in our politics of the
generation born from 1942 to 1961, whom I call in the book the Upstarts, from Sgt
Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967 to Jacinda Ardern's swearing in on
26 October 2017. As a journalist I watched the Upstarts' noisy prancing in 1968 – a
Peace Power Politics conference, the Governor-General evading a huge protest by
sliding in through a side door to open Parliament – then, from 1969 (aside from four
years in London) from the vantage point of the parliamentary press gallery. This
cohort's peak was from 1984 to 1992 when it dug over the whole policy paddock and
sowed new varieties of seeds, many regenerative of the policy ecosystem, some toxic.
This was a 'values revolution'. The Upstarts installed their values in place of those of
their parents.
I should explain that I chose to push the start point for my Upstarts back to 1942
because, being 3 or younger at war's end. their moral, civil, then political development
– their 'values' gestation – was postwar. Thus, I am not strictly speaking of the much
celebrated and much maligned 'baby-boomers'.
I also allow that there was a long baby-boom 'shadow', or tail, stretching well through
the 1960s, as demographer Ian Pool has argued. So I start the next cohort in 1969. It
used to be called the 'X generation'. Then came the 'Ys', born around or after 1979.
Jacinda Ardern was born in 1980. And I allow that some born in the five years before
1942 were more in tune with the Upstarts' values than the values of their parents.
My choice of Jacinda Ardern''s accession to the ninth floor as the Upstarts' endpoint is
not a statement that the Upstarts are dead and buried. Otherwise I would not be
standing here. Winston Peters, born in 1945, is Deputy Prime Minister. David Parker,
born in 1960, is a key figure in the cabinet: Attorney-General, Minister for the
Environment and Trade and Export Growth, Associate Minister of Finance and, until
June last year, also Minister of Economic Development – an impossible workload
which he somehow carried. The Labour party's deputy leader, Kelvin Davis, was born
in 1967. A number of other ministers, notably Phil Twyford, Andrew Little and
Damien O'Connor were pre-X generation. And most Upstarts and older will continue
to vote and are engaged in many ways besides voting. The Upstarts' influence in and
on our politics and policy – and society – will be felt a while yet.
But half the cabinet ministers are Xs or Ys, that is, post-Upstart. And, with the
exception of Winston Peters, David Parker, Phil Twyford and Andrew Little, the
critical cabinet posts are dominated by X-Ys: Jacinda Ardern herself; Grant Robertson
(the real deputy prime minister) in finance; Chris Hipkins in education and state
services; Carmel Sepuloni in social welfare; Megan Woods in energy and housing;
David Clark in health; James Shaw in climate change. The Upstarts still have a voice
but the post-Upstarts, the X-Ys, have the volume and that volume will rise.
Moreover, Parliament as a whole is younger. At the end of the 2014-17 Parliament, 13
MPs were under 40. On election day in 2017 a fifth of the incoming Parliament were
under 40: 25 in total. Another 19 were aged 40-45. Those 45 or younger totalled 37%.
Add in the older Xs – the 46s, 47s and 48s – and look ahead: the post-Upstarts are
almost certain to be a majority by 2023 and possibly after this year's election.
In short, the John Key-Bill English government was the last in which the Upstarts
unquestionably ran the show. The 2017 election was the first post-Upstart election –
or if you prefer the old terminology, the first post-baby-boomer election.
The X-Ys are the sons and daughters of Upstarts. They grew up in different
circumstances from those of their parents'. X-Ys who made it into Parliament almost
all went to university and had to pay fees far higher than their parents paid. They were
children or teenagers when the Upstarts let rip in government in 1984-92 so have
never known the earlier New Zealand Winston Peters yearns to revisit. They have
known only an independent Aotearoa New Zealand en route towards a bicultural
nation, a morally and civilly liberal society and a relatively lightly regulated, open
economy. The Xs can scarcely recall a Parliament not elected under MMP and the Ys
have known only MMP.
In short, the X-Ys grew up in a different society, morality and economy from the
society in which their parents grew up, then radically refashioned. Those different
formative influences have sculpted different priorities and ambitions, personal, social,
economic and political.
Helen Clark's government searched for a 'third way' that accepted a much more open
society and economy and aimed to settle the country down, anchored to a new centre
built around and heeding middle New Zealand as it had adjusted after 1992. This
'third way' softened some of the impact of the open economy on the less-well-off and
took some small steps on the environment and climate change. Two big innovations
were the National Superannuation Fund (the 'Cullen Fund') to future-proof Upstarts'
state pensions through the 2020s and KiwiSaver which injected more saving into the
provision of superannuation for the X-Ys (and Upstarts). Notably, Helen Clark parked
the Greens on the sideline.
John Key and Bill English, both born in 1961, accepted that 'third way' settlement and
edged it a bit rightwards: pro-market, pro-business, pro-farmers, pro-better-off-people
and wary of too much environmental and climate change action where it added to
business, personal or government costs. That government's main innovation was Bill
English's search for a better way of developing social policy and delivering social
services, aided by much more, and much more analysable, data. That evolved into
'social investment' which the Treasury, then the present government, have developed
into 'wellbeing economics'. Whanau ora, the Maori party's principal contribution
while it was attached to National, fitted that rethink and devolution.
In the Key-English government's third term pressures began to build on social
services and infrastructure, strained by population growth and Bill English's demand
that public servants somehow 'do more with less'. More with less eventually turned
into less with less, exacerbated by strong inward migration. When Steven Joyce
asserted an $11.7 billion hole in Labour's campaign promises in 2017, he knew what
he was talking about: it was the shortfall in the National-led governments' funding for
health, education, social housing, law-and-order and infrastructure. Had Bill English
been able to put together a fourth-term government with Winston Peters, that funding
shortfall would have become increasingly, and damagingly, apparent.
In about the third week of July 2017, as Labour was sliding ungracefully down the
polls, Grant Robertson outlined to me his post-election strategy: put Jacinda Ardern in
as leader straight after the looming election disaster, give her maternity leave to have
her baby (at that point still to be conceived), then steam to victory in 2020. That 2020
government would almost certainly have been a Labour-Green government because if
Winston Peters and New Zealand First had been locked up in a declining fourth-term
National-led government New Zealand First would almost certainly have crashed
under the 5% threshold in 2020.
You know what happened. Before I could muse on Grant's strategy in a column,
Jacinda Ardern was rocketed into the leadership and generated a gush of enthusiasm
and relief which got Labour to 37% and into government. That was the most
extraordinary election of the 16 I covered as a journalist, starting in 1969. And, no, I
will not be covering the one in September.
As I noted above, the resuscitated Labour party, then government, was commanded
by people younger than, and different from, the Upstarts. But what would these X-Y
post-Upstarts do differently?
Jacinda Ardern stated at her election campaign opening that climate change was 'my
generation's anti-nuclear moment'. In the Speech from the Throne in November 2017
she said she would head a 'government of transformation'.
Those two statements evoked 1984. As Sir Geoffrey Palmer exhaustively chronicled
in his 'memoir' in 2013, not to go anti-nuclear was not an option for the 1984
government. The Labour party would not have worn it and expectation of it was
growing in the population at large. But anti-nuclear was just a start. As Sir Geoffrey
makes clear in his detailing of the astonishing breadth and depth of the policy change,
he and his colleagues were bent on transformation – of policy and the country. When
National swamped Labour in the 1990 election Ruth Richardson and Simon Upton
drove the transformation on: hence the 'mother of all budgets' in 1991, the conversion
of hospital boards into companies (likewise the dismembered bits of the Department
of Scientific and Industrial Research), the near-total deregulation of workplace rules
(a fixation of Jim Bolger) and the carry-through into law of the world-leading
Resource Management Act Sir Geoffrey had drafted.
These two frenetic governments left behind a freer, more open society and economy,
a more independent and bicultural country and also a much more unequal one. That
inequality has become embedded into a third generation, at substantial social and
fiscal cost.
Is this the sort of fast, deep change Jacinda Ardern had in mind when she talked of
Take tax. No tax on the income from capital gain, which privileges some, mostly
better-off, incomes. Little so far on environmental taxes to replace some income and
consumption tax – that is, taxing pollution, damage to the environment and
conversion of the 'commons' into private profit. Jacinda Ardern declared there was no
mandate for tax on capital income and said while she is Labour leader she will not
revive the idea. In effect, she said she will not try to build a mandate. Contrast Roger
Douglas's determined, sweeping tax changes in 1986 which did actually get backing
from a sceptical Labour conference and an increased vote in the subsequent election.
Alongside tax take welfare. The response to the welfare working group report last
year was modest (though a modest lift was intended for the 2020 budget and was
incorporated in the first anti-COVID-19 package). Because tax and welfare were sent
off to separate working groups, the tangled muddle of tax, benefits, rebates, special
allowances and phase-downs endures at the bottom end of the income and benefit
Take education. Chris Hipkins' changes are supposed to set us up for the 'future of
work' in the 2020s on which Grant Robertson ran a 'commission' in 2015-16. But
Chris is more adjusting the 2010s system than building a system for the digitised
2020s where 'work' will be different from what we knew in the twentieth century. His
solution seems to be more central control at a time when the need is for individualised
learning so people can switch activities as the economy changes – some would say
revolutionises – under the impact of digital technology.
And, talking of the future of work, not much has yet been seen of the vaunted 'just
transition' to better, greener, more reliable employment and income. There is a Green
Investment Fund but it is not swamped with investments.
Take Jacinda Ardern's 'anti-nuclear moment': climate change. Two and a-half years in
there is at most a gentle push towards electric cars. There is no push to solar panels,
no push on office and other big building heating systems, next to no push on industrial
processing. There has been legislation which set targets for net reduction of
greenhouse gas emissions (note the 'net') and a climate commission to generate
'budgets' that will see us to those targets – if future governments agree and then carry
through. How animal methane will be dealt with has been pushed out half a decade.
There is no true cross-party consensus. So businesses, local councils and citizens
remain uncertain about what to do and when to do it. And, given that we are going to
have to adapt to the effects of climate change because governments around the world
are not doing enough to contain it, we are still some way short of a strategy to prepare
to adapt. Adaptation needs to include managed retreat for 'climigrants', those pushed
out of home and work by sea-level rise and other climate impacts (though a start has
been made on assessing the risks and options). Just don't buy a house in south
Dunedin or a farm on the northern Hauraki plains.
Yet a climate mandate is evolving. Even the United States public, which installed a
climate change disbeliever as President in 2016, is agitated. Polls there show around
two-thirds think climate change a 'crisis' or a 'serious problem' and within that number
is an endorsement of Jacinda Ardern's 'my generation's anti-nuclear moment': the
young are significantly more likely to say it is a crisis or serious. My grandson is very
clear on the issue and grumps about what we Upstarts are leaving behind. Schoolkids
hold climate strikes. Greta Thunberg is a major global figure – at 17.
Climate change minister James Shaw, co-leader of the climate change party, the
Greens, explains his failure to get urgent action on this 'crisis' in three words: New
Zealand First.
Which brings us back to Jacinda Ardern. She has been determined to operate by
government consensus. So any significant decision has to be worked through with
both governing partners but particularly with New Zealand First – even if the topic
was not a factor in the coalition negotiations. Tracey Martin is New Zealand First's
go-between. She brings to any discussion a 300-page summary of New Zealand First's
pre-election positioning which she pulled together for the coalition negotiations. And
even when she is able to reconcile a government position with those 300 pages, she
can be gazumped, as in her caucus's very late undermining of the agreed stance on
abortion reform last year.
One result of the Prime Minister's accommodation of New Zealand First is that the
government doesn't stray too far from middle New Zealand where New Zealand First
is anchored (or hopes it is) – and where most voters are. A second result is to strain
Green rank-and-file support for the Green leadership. One cabinet minister said last
year there will be no new major initiatives this term beyond what is already in train.
So, transformation? Hmmm. But hang on a minute. The real test of any government is
its second term. So if there is a second term Jacinda Ardern government, maybe there
will be more action on tax, climate change, the future of work and so on.
And there is one dimension of this government which does hold promise of change in
a second term – though promise is not assurance.
This is the first government to take mental health seriously. It puts that alongside a
focus on children, who are our most important investment for the future – the most
important infrastructure, you might say. And those are just two elements in what
amounts to an attempt to reframe the way policy is thought, developed and delivered.
This is called 'wellbeing economics'. It comes out of work the Treasury started doing
in 2014, building out from, and trying to operationalise, its 'living standards
framework'. This was a lurch too far for Bill English, the developer of 'social
investment'. And initially Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson stared blankly at me
when I started recounting to them in 2015 and 2016 what the Treasury was doing. But
gradually a little light went on. By the time the election came, they were on board
with this remarkable Treasury revisionism, the biggest since its early-1980s
conversion to the much-more-market, neoliberal creed.
'Wellbeing' measures government success, including economic success, not just by
how good the government and national accounts and economic output are but also by
how well are our natural resources, our social cohesion and our human capability.
That is now being written into the Public Finance Act. The idea of wider measures is
not new: the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has
been working on it for years and has produced a cross-country better life index on
which the Treasury has modelled its own living standards index to measure wellbeing.
What is different is that this government is trying to live by this doctrine. There is
growing interest from academics and governments abroad in what the Treasury and
the government are trying to do.
Few people measure the value of their life by money alone. Most also bother about
how they get on with their neighbours, how well they are, whether their kids are doing
well at school and whether they can swim in their favourite river. 'Wellbeing' makes
logical sense. Of course, having enough to eat and a good house and the income to
deliver both and a bit of fun besides are core to 'wellbeing'. But they are not the whole
of wellbeing. If too many kids get a bad start in life and don't end up as productive
citizens (and so taxpayers) and end up instead on benefits and, too often, a charge on
the health system or in our mental asylums, known these days as prisons, that
ultimately reduces everybody's quality of life and material wellbeing.
To do wellbeing policy requires a very different approach. Bill English was edging
towards it by trying to get government agencies to focus on outcomes, not outputs,
and to work through this in a CBAx (cost-benefit analysis plus) system which
required longer-term aims and measures, signed off by agencies' external science
advisers. Damned hard to do. And that's not all. Outcomes (as distinct from simple
'targets') almost always involve more than one government agency, often several, and
often not-for-profits as well. So to develop real outcome-based policies requires
joined-up, multi-agency bids for funding – which in fact was the case for some bids in
the 2019 budget round. Multi-agency mechanisms have to be developed to deliver the
services and account for the money spent. Also damned hard to do. A bill reshaping
the public service is aimed at doing this but is likely to fall well short in practice.
One innovation, which began in 2016 under Bill English, is a family and sexual
violence 'joint venture' which attempts to coordinate the work of 10 departments and
umpteen not-for-profits. Fiona Ross, formerly a Treasury Deputy Secretary whose
degree is in art history, was made head of this unit in April last year. It is still finding
its feet. Whether it works or not, we will not know for five years or more.
The same goes for getting rigorous numbers against which to test the government's
success or failure in the environmental, social and human capital spheres. The
numbers in the Treasury's index are just a start. Getting good enough numbers to stack
up beside the economic ones will take five to 10 years – if, in fact, they can be found.
Subjective measures and proxies will not convince the sceptics and for 'wellbeing'
policy to be successful and durable, the sceptics will need to be quietened.
Which brings me back to my title: After Jacinda.
If National regains the Treasury benches in September 'wellbeing' is tossed. A range
of other policies of this government will stop or slow or be subjected to tougher
budgeting. While National now has X-Ys as leader and deputy leader, it is in lookback,
not look-forward, mode: not reform and certainly not transformation.
More likely – though this is my instinct, not a forecast – Labour will lead the
government after September. Might Labour and the Greens have a majority whether
New Zealand First is in Parliament or not? That is doubtful but even if Labour and the
Greens have a majority, if New Zealand First is in Parliament, I expect Jacinda
Ardern to want it in the government. But if the Greens have more votes, it would be
time for Sir Winston to go to London. Then Labour could – though rarely – face down
New Zealand First's blocking, derailing and diversion of policy initiatives.
But let's imagine there is just a Labour-Green majority government. In terms of
getting things through Parliament it could conceivably take long steps on taxation
(more environmental taxes, offset by lower income and consumption tax), on climate
change (a speedup of initiatives and real work on transport, buildings and industrial
processing and even methane) and on 'wellbeing' – improvements in health, housing,
education, welfare, justice and prison reform and on 'pre-distribution', an extension of
the living wage to contractors, then suppliers to the government. Plus the coming to
fruition of the first term's reorientation of infrastructure investment.
The important word in that list is 'conceivably'. Even if Labour and Greens have a
majority, then, leaving aside the impact of a shock (which I will come to later), there
would be a constraint: Labour's reading of the effect on its vote of the impact its
policies have on middle New Zealand. And the evidence in this first term is that that
would be a material constraint. Recall Jacinda Ardern's comment about having no
mandate for tax on capital income and by implication no intention to try to build such
a mandate. Would she build a mandate for urgent action on climate change?
I doubt it. The X-Ys are fixit reformers, not revolutionaries as were the Upstarts. The
X-Ys' difference with their parents' values is not as great as the Upstarts' difference
with their parents', which amounted to overthrow. So a second term of Jacinda
Ardern, Grant Robertson, James Shaw and Co would more likely be more fixit reform
than a policy excursion into new territory. Whether that is a good thing is for voters to
decide, not me here.
What I can say is that there is something in that restraint. The mood of middle New
Zealand has been for some fixing up, not radical initiatives. At least up to the
COVID-19 outbreak, our society and politics have not been wracked as they have in
Europe, the Dis-United Kingdom and the Dis-United States.
But I detect more vibrancy in the 15s-30s, who will become a force over the next
decade and a-half or so as they push up against the X-Ys. Small indicators here are
last year's schoolkids' climate strikes, the Ihumatao occupation (some think this is a
pointer to a different era for the Treaty of Waitangi) and teens and 20-somethings in
council seats. Abroad it has been evident strikingly in Hong Kong and Chile and
significantly in Iraq and even Russia. These post-XYs are an echo of the Upstarts in
the years before, then during, their 1968 pushy explosions of self-righteous, know-itall
protest and clamour in the United States, France and Czechoslovakia and
elsewhere, including here. Those outbursts did not overturn the established order.
Richard Nixon, Charles De Gaulle and Leonid Brezhnev asserted control. Here Sir
Keith Holyoake and conservative National stayed in charge. Within the Labour party
the Upstarts were squashed by the misogynistic old men who ran the party
organisation and Norman Kirk was unmoved as leader.
Except that Kirk turned out to be a pivot between the old and the new-to-come-later.
In government after 1972 he was conservative on moral, societal and labour and
economic issues. That held to the orthodoxies of the 1940s-60s. But he wanted an
independent, anti-nuclear New Zealand, canned the Springbok tour in 1973 (after
saying before the 1972 election he wouldn't) and talked of 'partnership with Maori' in
running the country. That all pointed forward toward the changes that eventuated in
the 1980s.
Is Jacinda Ardern similarly a pivot? Is she in effect holding to much of the 2000s
'third way' while pointing toward a 2030s wellbeing-focused, climate-change-active
Aotearoa/New Zealand? What comes 'after Jacinda'?
Contrary to some popular belief, history does not repeat itself. But, properly
discounted, it can help us ask more searching questions about what is in front of us.
If 'after Jacinda' comes a National-led government in 2020, then, just as Sir Robert
Muldoon in 1975 stalled the change toward which the Kirk pivot signposted, so would
National stall the changes toward which the Ardern pivot may be signposting.
National needs a bit longer to get in 2020s mode. In the event of a National
government from September, Labour without Jacinda Ardern would likely languish
because it has yet to rebuild a strong social foundation as, to use Grant Robertson's
words the Monday after the 2014 election, 'part of the communities we live in' – that
is, build deep, wide roots through society. Also, like social democratic parties
elsewhere in liberal democracies, Labour has yet to compellingly update, adjust or
restate its century-old ideals and ideology.
But that is the short view. After Jacinda Ardern come those younger cohorts now in
their teens and twenties. And they are restive. The activists among them, who seem to
be growing in number and voice, want major social and environmental policy change.
They are an echo of the Upstarts in the late 1960s.
Take climate change. For most over-50s action on climate change is a 'yes, unless'
matter. 'Yes, something should be done, unless it costs me too much or otherwise
disturbs my life too much.' For most under 30, and more particularly for those under
25, it is just 'yes': a matter that has to be dealt with, the urgency growing with every
passing half-measure. For them 'unless' is 'unless something is done, and quickly,
there will be disaster for me and my children'.
Of course, the post-X-Ys have not invented agitation for action on climate change.
Plenty of over-50s and X-Ys are on the case. But nor did the Upstarts invent
opposition to sport with South Africa and nuclear weapons. Those movements were
started by pre-Upstarts in the 1950s. But it was when the Upstarts populated, then
took over, those and other movements for change that they developed unstoppable
momentum. It is the post-X-Ys who will build the mandate for big change, if there is
to be big change (and note that 'if'). They are starting in Jacinda Ardern's time and
some X-Ys are with them. But their real time comes 'after Jacinda'.
The Upstarts were of a mind for big change. That was the endogenous factor. But
there was also an exogenous factor: global events and shocks in the lead-up to 1984
strained New Zealand's international connections, the economy and society.
If anything, there is far more of that sort of exogenous impetus building as we enter
the 2020s. A short list: China flexing its economic, technological and military biceps;
the Middle East in fragmentary turmoil, Russia aggressive and autocrats abounding;
the United States struggling through its decline of empire, echoing a very sad and
punctured Britain; $US15 trillion dollars on negative interest rates as central banks refight
past wars, reciting verses from an old testament; the distortion of materially
enhancing Schumpeterian capitalism into reclusive rentier capitalism; water shortages
parching widening stretches of the world, notably in India and China; accumulating
evidence of climate change damage and acceleration; ecosystem decline; pandemics
(we have the first real one with COVID-19, which could trigger a chain of
geopolitical, geo-economic and ways-of-thinking ramifications and worse ones are in
store) or serious misuse of digital technology or gene editing. The list is long and
lengthening. The external threat to prick our little bubble here is growing.
In short, a serious shock is near certain sometime in the next 15 years, probable in the
next 10 and possible in the next five. That will fuel the basis for radicalism.
So, too, on the plus side, will the digital revolution and genetic and associated
technologies. They will reshape our societies, potentially enable wider democratic
engagement, improve health care and education and make producing things and
delivering services easier and more precise. For our own good, we will need to adapt.
So at some point 'after Jacinda', serious policy change is more likely than not. Some
will be by design and some a response to shocks from abroad.
Get set for the 'after-Jacindas'. By comparison the 'actual Jacinda' bubble of moderacy
may be remembered as a 'time of mildness and hope' as the 1950s were.