Humanity is at war with a virus. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister and possibly the globe’s most successful Covid general, is this week leading another battle. Ardern placed the entire country into lockdown on Tuesday after the discovery of a single Delta variant infection in Auckland. Her goal is the same now as it’s been since the pandemic began – identify, isolate and eliminate Covid from day-to-day New Zealand life.
I’ve been witnessing this firsthand from my wife’s hometown of Ohope, in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, where we’ve lived since January after moving from California. Watching Ardern perform in daily press conferences this week I couldn’t help thinking about Winston Churchill. I know, I know – older white guys always seem to think of Churchill. But loan me three more minutes of your time and you may glimpse a surprising future.
Same Themes, Different Eras
Comparing the two prime ministers fascinates me because, despite being almost unimaginably different people – Churchill was a round, aristocratic conservative with a deep belief in the British Empire while Ardern is a fresh-faced former youth socialist who still gets a packed lunch from her Mum – both have been very effective wartime leaders. And, perhaps strangely, their messages are ultimately very similar.
Churchill’s speeches used vivid imagery and waves of sound to tap into patriotism and an absolute refusal to quit. Ardern asks Kiwis to “be kind” and talks of a “team of five million” in a manner that manages to be both friendly and assertive. Their metaphors and styles reflect very different times and messengers, yet share the same core idea- togetherness and resilience will prevail.
But could these two leaders also share a less triumphant fate?
Just two months after leading Britain to victory over Nazi Germany, Churchill was swept out of office. His Conservative party lost the popular vote for the first time in four decades and suffered its worst vote swing since 1800. The decisive leader and inspiring communicator who helped save his country from an existential threat was gone. Why?
After the horror, trauma and destruction of the War, Britain was looking to the future. Its priorities were domestic and largely focused on creating a more equal and fair economy. Churchill had proven wildly ineffective in dealing with those problems in the 1920s and so he was sent packing.
Winning The Covid War…So Far
New Zealand’s Covid war is far from over, but so far Ardern’s strategy has been successful- only 25 deaths and a better economic growth rate than the U.S., despite the lockdowns. Do New Zealanders recognize this?
Yes. My experience has been that most people here are supportive of her strategy and grateful for its success. I played in a local tennis tournament on Sunday and before the first match someone marched up to me and said, “What a great day to be a Kiwi, eh mate!”. Noticing my slight pause, he added, “ Wait, you’re not Aussie are you?”. When I confessed to being American, he said, “Ah, sorry. ..bet you’re happy to be here”. I really was.
And yet. Over the last eight months as I’ve quietly listened to (eavesdropped on?) conversations, read the press and chatted to people here I sense the potential for Ardern to experience a post-pandemic moment similar to Churchill. New Zealand has a lot going for it, but it has important problems too. These problems are being subordinated to the Covid war now, but they could very rapidly lead to dissatisfaction once that battle is seen as over.
Foremost among these is the least affordable housing market in the developed world. It baffles and frustrates Kiwis that a country with vast amounts of open land and massive timber resources should have a housing shortage, but it does. My sister-in-law Sharon Brettkelly, whose podcast The Detail is one of New Zealand’s most popular, has done a series of fascinating shows looking at both causes and possible solutions. My take – this problem will not be solved soon. Electorates and people being who they are, I’d expect Ardern to take a lot of the blame for this, even though the problem has deep roots.
Then there is China, where New Zealand must navigate an exquisitely complicated relationship. China consumes about 30% of New Zealand’s exports and is the largest destination for its ultra-profitable SunGold kiwi fruit. But of course it’s not shy about exercising power. For example, Chinese growers ignored New Zealand’s patent on the SunGold varietal and may now be growing 10,000 acres of the fruit domestically. Does New Zealand challenge this and risk killing the goose that laid the golden kiwi fruit? Or does it look the other way? Similar quandaries exist in both timber and dairy markets. Layer in human rights concerns that matter a lot to Ardern’s progressive base and one can easily see her falling off this narrow and wobbly policy tightrope.
Finally, like all modern leaders, Ardern faces criticism about immigration. Her strict border controls have kept Covid out but created a huge issue for agricultural and construction industries that depend on labor from the Pacific Islands. Meanwhile, while in opposition Ardern’s party was outraged about billionaires like Peter Thiel purchasing citizenship, but last year it essentially sold residency to Google co-founder Larry Page. Storm in a tea cup perhaps, but values-centric politicians like Ardern can find these emotive issues difficult to shake.
Ardern has two years until she must face the electorate again. Can she use this time to win final victory against Covid and turn her skills to these other difficult battles? You can be sure she will run a much better campaign than Churchill in 1945 who, out of touch with his people, lamented at one point “I have no message for them”. But it’s not assured that in 2023 post-war New Zealand, like Britain two generations ago, won’t look for a fresh start.