• New Zealand and Davos

    New Zealand is a small country located, as some would have it, “at the end of the world”. But we like to think that “we punch above our weight” and actually lead the world in some respects – in some sports, particularly rugby of course, and in social matters where our image is that of a socially advanced country – the first to introduce the vote for women, a pioneer in developing the welfare state, and engaged in a brave project to create a genuinely bicultural, even multicultural, society where two or more races can live in harmony.

    That sense of New Zealand as world leaders, in a minor way, has been alive and well over recent days as the Prime Minister’s attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos has shown. It is not only that a political leader who is also a young mother is, not surprisingly, something of a novelty and she has accordingly been feted wherever she goes.

    It is rather that what she says has seemed to capture the spirit of the times and has therefore been listened to with attention. On many of the great issues of the day – climate change, mental health, the alleviation of poverty and inequality, well-being as the proper measure of success – she (and New Zealand) have been at the forefront and she has in some instances taken the lead in shaping the discussion.

    New Zealand’s standing in the world has undoubtedly benefited from all of this, and hopefully – and not least – in material terms as well; Jacinda Ardern has succeeded it seems in at least opening the door to free trade talks with both the EU and the UK.

    While she has been an undoubted hit overseas, however, her problems at home now demand her urgent attention. Her government has now entered a critical phase. The fascination with novelty has gone; the readiness to excuse newcomers to government for occasional lapses due to inexperience has been exhausted; the ability to blame the government’s predecessors for inherited failures cannot retain credibility forever.

    The time has come, in other words, to deliver not only on the promises made but also on the promise shown. The government’s opponents will want to check that promises have been kept; their supporters will hope to see the promise shown – their potential for good – realised. It is on these issues that the government will now be judged.

    What we saw of the Prime Minister in the northern hemisphere suggests that she has it in her to meet these challenges and there are many who will expect the same leadership and far-sightedness, the same readiness to grapple with difficult issues, to be displayed at home as well as overseas.

    Part of her difficulty in meeting those expectations is that the bar for reforming governments has been set so high. The great Labour governments of the past have been transformative; they have introduced changes which have shaped and benefited our society over generations. They have shown how powerful a government with imagination and courage can be in setting us on a new and fulfilling course.

    The current government may not quite recognise that they will be judged according to the expectations of their supporters as well as by the hostility of their opponents. It is their ability to overcome problems that are hardly recognised as such by their opponents – problems such as the element of racism which remains endemic in our society, the growing inequality between different sectors of society in terms of respect and influence and not just financial resources, the narrow base of our economy which limits our economic prospects and leads us to be too tolerant of the damage done to our environment by the demands of primary industry – that will determine how well the government is perceived to have done.

    The successful management of the day-to-day (and inevitable) problems of government matters of course; but real success in terms of transforming our society will demand the vision, courage and leadership she showed in Davos. I think she can do it.

    Bryan Gould
    31January 2019