An Australian view on the 'Jacinda Effect'

Jacinda Ardern at the centre of her newly sworn in cabinet. Image Wikimedia from Governor-General of New Zealand.
As we head towards the 2020 election, our friends at ArtsHub Australia weigh in on the New Zealand Prime Minister, and what her leadership means for the arts.

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By Brooke Boland, originally published via our friends at ArtsHub. 

In 2017, Jacindamania was rife. At a time when the world seemed to lack leaders with compassion and a clear vision for progressive reform, the newly minted leader of the New Zealand Labour Party impressed many as a likeable candidate invested in environmental and social reform.

But when New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, threw his support behind Labour after the 2017 election with the line, “It’s time for capitalism to regain its human face,” it was still a surprise for many. With the new coalition government formed, suddenly the conservative National Party’s nine year stint in office was over, and New Zealand had its youngest leader in 150 years.

No one was really prepared for what followed. Cemented as a Prime Minister who serves a progressive left, there was a rush of excitement for what New Zealand would see from their new leader. This fascination turned into the kind of tabloid frenzy that usually ripples around the Royal family when she revealed on Twitter that she was pregnant. Cue #babywatch.

Ardern became a feminist icon to many. The usual discourse surrounding women in power was trotted out, with commentary often focused often on her age, looks and uterus. It was easy to see how her campaign platform that promised to end child poverty and introduce better environmental management had not merited the same media spotlight. We watched with fascination as she parried conservative ideology on gender roles with ease, while delivering a promised surplus of NZ$7.5b in 2018 that would support ambitious social policies in future.

Testing times

Then, in March 2019, the Christchurch terror attack occurred, leaving 50 victims dead and many others injured. Following the attack, the world followed closely as New Zealand dealt with the aftermath.

Ardern responded quickly and with great compassion. She passed better gun control laws in April 2019, making it illegal to own military style semi-automatic weapons, and founded the Christchurch Call pledge. When Donald Trump asked what the United States could do, she reportedly said, they could show 'sympathy and love for all Muslim communities'.

Her words ignited compassion, and artists responded to this empathetic and proactive leader seemingly overnight. The image of her embracing and comforting a woman in the wake of the Christchurch attack appeared on silos in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick and lit up Dubai’s Burf Khalifa (the world’s tallest building). On an entirely different scale, artist Aman Singh Gulati, from Uttar Pradesh in northern India, painted a miniature Jacinda Ardern portrait on an almond for her birthday. Her appeal was global.

For many, the Ardern government represented a changing of the guard and a new generation coming into power, with Jacinda Ardern herself positioned as the next Helen Clark. But now that New Zealand is looking forward to the upcoming election in 2020, some are wondering if, despite her popularity in the past, Ardern will remain Prime Minister. Even if Labour is re-elected, will Ardern remain at the helm? Hopefully so.

The Ardern government is finally positioned to deliver on election promises after the release of the 2019 Wellbeing Budget, which prioritises initiatives to strengthen wellbeing over economic growth. The budget includes additional funding for the arts to the tune of NZ$87.5 million, with key initiatives that will help New Zealand artists achieve fairer pay in future.

“There is no doubt that there have been a lot of promising initiatives,” said Annie Ackerman, Chief Executive of The Big Idea NZ. “Creative New Zealand, our national arts funder, are in good heart and responding to a Minister that genuinely values the arts and is wanting change. 

The Wellbeing Budget has underpinned a lot of this work. There have been new programmes, like creatives in schools, more money going to Maori and Pasifika projects, and work on sustainable careers,” she added.

Ackerman says that what is remarkable about Ardern is that she is “one of us.”

“She has always been committed to the arts and knows artists personally, we are her tribe,” Ackerman says. “So the portfolio and taking up the Minister’s role was no doubt something she genuinely aspired to. She wanted to champion the arts … It never felt like a portfolio assigned to her.”

The 2019 Wellbeing Budget identifies a need to increase wages for artists – an issue Australian artists are also grappling with, vocalised in large part by NAVA’s Fair Pay for Artists campaign and current wage review. Ardern has delivered NZ$4 million in funding to Creative New Zealand to improve remuneration for artists, as well as creating job opportunities through allocating NZ$7.2 million for the Creative in Schools program. Meanwhile, our own Australian Minister for the Arts, the Hon. Paul Fletcher, is unwilling to comment on our current issue of whether he feels more literary awards should be tax exempt, let alone suggest artists should be paid more across the board.

At the heart of the Wellbeing Budget is a vision to embed culture and creativity in everyday life, and as an avenue for reform around key social issues facing New Zealanders.

Integral to this is the Living Standards Framework that appears in the 2019 Wellbeing Budget, which identifies cultural identity as one of twelve 'domains of current wellbeing'. Add to this the NZ$87.490 million allocated to the arts, culture and heritage sector, and the Ardern government appears to be paying more than lip service. It’s the beginning of a positive shift towards embedding arts and culture within many of the social development initiatives it outlines, particularly (it is hoped) the emphasis on mental health support, which as we know from international research can be improved through access to arts and culture.

The challenge for Ardern is implementation of an ambitious budget that still has its critics. It is uncertain how this will unfold, but for the arts at least, there is still a lot to be hopeful for.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

4 Nov 2019

The Big Idea Editor

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