AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
Not too long ago, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was hailed by Western liberals as a model of successful left-wing governance for others to emulate. Now, with her Labour Party falling out of favor with voters heading into an election next year, Ardern’s only recourse has seemed to be doubling and tripling down on her left-wing authoritarian impulses, yet another sign of the fatal flaws in the “progressive” governing model.
Ardern first rose to power in New Zealand in 2017, becoming the youngest Labour Party leader in history and just the second female prime minister of the island country. A former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, Ardern’s left-wing bona fides were clear from the start, and her government has unsurprisingly pursued one of the most left-wing agendas anywhere in the world. Soon after taking office, Ardern called capitalism a “blatant failure” – an ominous sign of things to come.
Hints of Ardern’s authoritarian side began to emerge in 2019 following the tragic Christchurch shootings in New Zealand that left 51 dead. Not content with merely enacting a series of stringent new gun laws, Ardern also demanded Big Tech companies restrict “extreme speech” – defined presumably as anything the left finds objectionable – in the name of “preventing terrorism.”
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Ardern became one of the leading global faces of crippling lockdowns and draconian “zero COVID” policies. She proudly touted that New Zealand had the “widest ranging and toughest border restrictions of any country in the world.” New Zealand had long been considered one of the freest economies in the world, with a notably “hands off” government approach. The lockdowns represented a sharp departure from that philosophy. Nonetheless, her leadership in the early days of the pandemic was widely celebrated, with a domestic approval rating of 77 percent.
Initially, this strategy appeared successful in the sparsely populated, geographically isolated island country. From February 2020 to January 1, 2022, the number of active cases in the country never exceeded 4,000. Soon, however, it became clear that lockdowns were destroying the economy and were unsustainable over the long-term. At the same time, the world began to learn that the virus was, thankfully, not especially harmful to the vast majority of healthy people. The experience of countries like Sweden, which pursued a strategy of minimal lockdowns while protecting the vulnerable, showed that the lockdown strategy would likely only delay an inevitable surge of cases. Yet Ardern shut down anti-lockdown protests and labeled anyone who dared question her policies a threat to public health.
When the country began relaxing restrictions in 2022, COVID rates predictably exploded. While other nations were recovering and reopening, New Zealand was in crisis. Every day in 2022 surpassed the worst days in 2020 and 2021. Four times as many people have died in 2022 than in all of 2020 and 2021.
Ardern finally ended most restrictions in September 2022, but her fall from grace with voters was already complete. The country is still reeling from the unintended consequences of her severe lockdowns, with youth academic performance, mental health, and public safety all cratering under the weight of her pandemic policies. Still, some of Ardern’s most loyal supporters have expressed outrage at the decision to end restrictions.
Despite lifting the lockdowns, it’s clear that Ardern still harbors deep authoritarian impulses. Last month at the UN General Assembly, Ardern openly compared free speech to “weapons of war,” calling for the regulation of online speech. Even as she faced growing backlash for her policies at home, global elites applauded as Ardern openly and unreservedly voiced her support for government censorship.
It may well be the case that Ardern is simply setting herself up for her next career move – perhaps leading an international organization aimed at curbing free speech like the one she set up following the Christchurch shootings. Ardern’s approval numbers have plummeted, and she has gone from the most popular New Zealand Prime Minister in recorded history, with a +76 approval rating, to an all-time low of 30 percent. She is now trailing her top challenger, Christopher Luxon, who is currently favored to win in the country’s elections next year.
In Ardern’s case, global elites may swoop in to save her from complete disgrace and embarrassment. But for progressives elsewhere, the landing might not be so soft if they continue to alienate voters and discard long-established democratic norms and values.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.
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