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From plastic bag bans to tackling poverty, New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern makes progression look like child's play

Analysis: Country’s youngest ever female PM appears to be coming up trumps when it comes to revolutionising a government focused on ‘kindness’


Amy Nelmes Bissett
Saturday 01 September 2018 18:33 BST
New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern to ban plastic bags: 'I underestimated the impact of plastics on our environment'

When Australian politics was once again thrown into chaos last week, with Malcolm Turnbull ousted from his position as prime minister, there was a slight eye-roll from across the pond in New Zealand.

In fact, in the days before Scott Morrison was announced as replacement, becoming the fifth leader in five years, a meme swept the internet. It featured New Zealand leader Jacinda Ardern telling partner Clarke Gayford to “hold the baby, off to sort Australia out”.

Sadly, the countries that once boasted to having the most prolific political prowess are, in simple terms, a steaming hot mess. And the victims are always the citizens left at the feet of bickering politicians.

On the day that Australia decided to push out Mr Turnbull, a family law amendment bill was set to be debated. The bill proposed to prohibit the direct cross-examination of family violence victims by self-represented litigants. It now sits in a dusty corner, pushed aside for another day.

In the US, as Donald Trump enjoys the fast-food model of conveniently ordering-in new staff to replace the two dozen Cabinet-level staff members he’s forced out since his inauguration, his strategy is slammed as nothing more than erratic and improvisational ideas voiced via angry tweets.

And in Britain, Theresa May’s government has been dubbed the worst since 1945 due to her handling of Brexit and those Boris Johnson barneys. Her absence and lack of action over London’s increasing death toll has been slammed as being as grisly as 100 murders this year alone.

But like all homes, political or family, it’s hard to think about the dirty dishes when, say, a thunderous storm has ripped off the roof. A house needs to be in order before improvements can be planned and executed.

Luckily for those in Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand, her governmental synergy is so sweet, she even sneaked off for six weeks to have baby Neve Te Aroha. On her return, it was business as normal. Progressive business as normal, in fact.

The most headline-generating is her quickie decision to ban single-use plastic bags, with supermarkets having six months to make the change. But the plastic bag chat is fairly universally trendy right now.

But what about child poverty? It’s never really revved engines in the same way. But earlier this year, Ms Ardern revealed a rather ambitious plan to lift every Kiwi kid out of poverty. It’s Ms Ardern’s labour of love and the reason she got into politics at 17, she has said.

In the next four years, $2bn (£1.5bn) has been set aside for housing, health and education. With a boost to the Family Tax Credit taking a large $370m chunk to be handed out to almost 70 per cent of families in New Zealand.

And paid parental leave has also increased from 18 weeks to 22 since the start of the year. By July 2020, it will increase again to 26 weeks. While that’s still behind the generous UK benefit of 50 weeks, it’s now ahead of Australia, America and Russia.

Jacinda Ardern announces new measures to tackle homelessness in New Zealand

But Ms Ardern’s proudest moment is the Best Start Scheme, which launched this July, releasing the first dribble of that hearty $2bn. She jumped onto Facebook Live to tell her 276,000 followers how the idea was birthed at the start of her career.

“It was based on all of the research and evidence that was telling us the most important period of a child’s life is those first early years,” she said, with baby Neve sleeping on her chest.

The scheme will ensure that every newborn will receive $60 a week until the age of one, on top of Family Tax Credit and parental leave. It continues for children in low-income families until they are three.

It has perhaps made even more palatable by Ms Ardern’s altruistic announcement in August, stating that MPs’ salaries would be frozen after an “unacceptable” proposed 3 per cent pay increase.

“It is about values. We are focused on raising the income of lower to middle income earners,” she exclaimed.

When Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s 40th prime minister in October last year, she was an instant hit with the Kiwi nation. The Labour Party rose in the polls to a final result of 36.9 per cent.

It increased its seats from 32 to 46, its highest election result in 12 years.

In fact, her rise was so meteoric, it was dubbed Jacindamania by political commentator Bryce Edwards. It was all down to that clear vision, wanting to revolutionise politics by “bringing kindness back”, and her affable manner.

It appears that a large part of that kindness is the restructuring of the country’s failing welfare service.

New Zealand was faced with massive welfare cuts in the 1990s, in a bid to get more of the nation working. Instead, it’s still having massive repercussions for low-income families to this day.

Dr Russell Wills, a Kiwi doctor based in Hastings, Hawke’s Bay, was hired to advise on Ms Ardern’s child poverty legislation after publicly noting how he still sees children with “diseases of poverty”, such as respiratory issues, walk into his clinic every day.

“New Zealand is a wealthy country. We love our children. We do a good job of looking after our old people already and we can do the same for our children,” he said.

But could the world’s youngest ever female leader, becoming PM at 37 years old, actually make a government “empathetic”? There were plenty of critics who said she lacked the experience.

“Put her alongside Helen Clark, the last Labour prime minister, and Jacinda looks like a rank amateur,” former Labour politician Michael Bassett remarked earlier this year.

And when Ms Ardern announced that she was unexpectedly becoming a mum less than a year into office, the same critics were twitching at the prospect that it would derail her.

Instead, as Sheryl Sandberg, currently chief operating officer at Facebook, recently noted, “In a world that too often tells women to stay small, keep quiet – and that we can’t have both motherhood and a career – Jacinda Ardern proves how wrong and outdated those notions of womanhood are. She’s not just leading a country. She’s changing the game.”

Next month, the PM will head to a refugee camp in Naura, where she’s promised to accept 150 refugees into New Zealand, prioritising children over adult men. She recently said, “My message to them, and beyond, is New Zealand is ready and willing to help.”

Later this year, she will host a governmental debate about women getting paid leave when they have miscarried. Currently, parents who have lost their baby can’t access bereavement pay and have to take unpaid leave.

The PM also states that abortion will be moved out of the Crimes Act. Currently, legal grounds for abortion under 20 weeks’ gestation is only allowed if the pregnancy poses serious danger to life, physical health, or mental health. Rape isn’t even seen as a justified cause.

And it doesn’t end there. Ms Ardern also recently announced there’ll be a 2020 referendum about medical marijuana – even though the PM doesn’t yet know where she stands on the issue – and she has also voiced pro-views on euthanasia being made available for the elderly.

It’s all pretty forward thinking for a tiny speck in the Pacific Ocean, which has more sheep than its 4.7 million population, but Jacinda Ardern is proudly progressive and as the rest of the world stumbles and fumbles with its politics, she simply makes it look like child’s play.

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