Why New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern’s much-lauded coronavirus response may not be enough to win a third term
- Ardern’s world-leading pandemic response, which helped the country keep the virus at bay for a long time, earned her a landslide victory in the 2020 election
- But some voters, tired of years-long tough curbs that were finally lifted this week, are deserting her Labour Party ahead of the 2023 polls
But their removal hasn’t come soon enough for some voters, who have grown tired of controls on daily life and are deserting Ardern’s Labour Party ahead of the 2023 general election. An economic slowdown also looms next year as the full impact of pandemic measures such as the closed border plays out.
“It looks like a pretty close election for 2023,” said Lara Greaves, a political scientist at the University of Auckland. “Ardern’s world-leading Covid response impacted hugely on the 2020 result. In the time since, every little bit of public opinion polling we’ve seen has shown a decline in that social license or collective consent for restrictive measures.”
While Ardern’s elimination of the virus from the community in the early days of the pandemic was hailed around the world, her management of subsequent developments has been less successful. Opposition parties are calling for a public inquiry into the government’s decisions during one of the biggest events in New Zealand history, alleging a “litany of stuff-ups.”
As the virus finally ran rampant through the population earlier this year, support for Labour waned. It dropped to 33 per cent in a 1News Kantar poll last month, the lowest since 2017 and down from 50 per cent at the 2020 election. The main opposition National Party was on 37 per cent.
By keeping Covid at bay for so long, the government reduced the harm it caused because most of the population was fully vaccinated by the time the virus started spreading widely. With just 1,962 deaths to date, New Zealand’s mortality rate from the virus is among the lowest in the world.
But Ardern’s early success also prolonged the period in which restrictions were used, increasing pandemic fatigue.
The border fully reopened at the end of July and the last vestiges of the pandemic framework were done away with this week.
As of September 13, New Zealanders are no longer required to wear a mask in indoor public spaces like supermarkets, household contacts of Covid cases don’t need to isolate for seven days, and inbound travellers no longer have to present proof of vaccination or submit rapid antigen test results after they arrive.
Opposition parties say the measures were left in place too long, while the business community says isolation requirements for close contacts contributed to a labour shortage.
“We seem to be the last country in the civilised world to actually have made some of those changes,” said Leeann Watson, chief executive of the Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce. “There was a degree of frustration that we hadn’t acted sooner.”
When Covid-19 first arrived in New Zealand, Ardern’s caution proved to be well placed.
In March 2020, with just a handful of confirmed cases, she closed the border to non-residents and threw the country into one of the strictest lockdowns in the world. That crushed community transmission of the virus, allowing a swift return to normal life.
But the emergence of more infectious strains in the second half of 2021 – first Delta and then Omicron – proved too much for her elimination strategy. The virus gained a foothold it would never relinquish despite ongoing lockdowns, both national and regional.
Meanwhile, quarantine hotels for returning citizens were overflowing, and a malfunctioning ballot system used to allocate rooms caused an uproar as thousands of Kiwis were left stranded abroad.
Ardern had to call in the military to police the so-called managed isolation facilities, with several cases of people escaping and other lapses in security.
And the government’s vaccine roll-out was slow, forcing it to delay reopening the border as it scrambled to inoculate the population first.
“I think the government’s initial response was good, but from November 2020 it went wrong,” National Party Covid spokesman Chris Bishop told NewstalkZB radio last week. “Delta, when it hit in August 2021, just 20 per cent of New Zealand was vaccinated. It is unforgivable.”
Ardern is still the most popular politician in the country and her chances of winning a third term at the next election, due in late 2023, shouldn’t be discounted.
She has more political allies than her main rival, National Party leader Christopher Luxon, with both the Green Party and the Maori Party potential coalition partners for Labour against the lone ACT Party on the right for Luxon.
Even so, she is likely to be campaigning against the backdrop of a weak if not recessionary economy, which is expected to slow next year as the central bank hikes interest rates aggressively to contain inflation. That’s partly due to the prolonged border closure, which cut the supply of migrant workers, squeezing the labour market and driving up wages and prices.
Asked this week if all of the government’s pandemic moves were the right ones, Ardern said it had often had to make decisions with imperfect information.
“There will always be things, once you have that full set of information and knowledge, that you may have done differently,” she said. “But I still believe that we made those decisions with the best intentions to protect people, their lives and their livelihoods.”