This Could Be The Most Progressive Country On Earth

Its prime minister Jacinda Ardern is receiving widespread attention for her “anti-Trump” style of politics.
New Zealand's parliament buildings, the Beehive, in Wellington.
New Zealand's parliament buildings, the Beehive, in Wellington.
Sage Robinson Photography via Getty Images

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – When 6-year-old Eddie Writes decided the world needed a little more kindness, he did the only thing he thought would work ― he wrote to his city’s mayor and asked for help putting on an annual “Kindness Day.”

Much to Eddie’s surprise, Wellington Mayor Justin Lester wrote back.

On Nov. 16, New Zealand’s capital city will be holding its first Manaaki Day (manaaki being the Maori word for kindness), taking Eddie’s ideas of how to encourage and celebrate charitable acts ― “We can buy toys for children that don’t have any,” for example ― to improve the social well-being of citizens.

“I am pleased to see a change in politics in New Zealand that I hope focuses more on listening,” says Eddie’s mother, the noted Kiwi writer and feminist Emily Writes. “Kindness should be what politics is all about. When you become a politician, it shouldn’t be for money or power or privilege ― it should be because you had a dream right from childhood that you could work with others to make our world better.”

Wellington Mayor Justin Lester and Eddie Writes.
Wellington Mayor Justin Lester and Eddie Writes.
Wellington City Council

The mayor’s support for the new holiday is part of a new wave of progressive, child-centred politics sweeping New Zealand, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, herself a new parent.

Ardern was met with thunderous applause at the United Nations last month for her speech calling for kindness and cooperation from world leaders. Watched by her partner and their then 4-month-old daughter, Ardern pledged New Zealand would be “a kind and equitable nation where children thrive, and success is measured not only by the nation’s GDP but by better lives lived by its people.”

Ardern’s call for a different kind of economy was viewed by many commentators as a direct rebuke to the more prominent trend of right-wing, populist strongmen in the U.S. and Europe.

New Zealand’s social and environmental policies already set it apart. The first country in the world to give some women the right to vote (and which has had two other female prime ministers before Ardern), New Zealand is a leader when it comes to paid leave. Under the Ardern government, 22 weeks paid parental leave has been introduced, and that will rise to 26 weeks by 2020.

Families with babies born after July 1 this year now receive the equivalent of about $40 a week in the child’s first year.

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, kisses her daughter Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, as her partner Clarke Gayford looks on during the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit September 24, 2018, at the United Nations in New York.
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, kisses her daughter Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, as her partner Clarke Gayford looks on during the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit September 24, 2018, at the United Nations in New York.

The policy is close to Ardern’s heart. She is only the second world leader in history to give birth while in office, and took six weeks’ leave when daughter Neve Te Aroha was born (although the timing left Ardern ineligible for her own paid leave).

In another world first, a new law requires victims of domestic violence be given up to 10 days paid leave from work, separate from annual leave and sick leave entitlements, to help them get away from abusive partners, relocate and protect their children.

Ardern also has her sights on New Zealand’s growing housing affordability problems. The country’s housing market is heated, with home prices rising more than 60 percent in a decade and nearly doubling in its largest city Auckland.

Housing became a big issue in last year’s elections, and Ardern blamed speculation from overseas buyers. The government responded with a law that took effect Monday banning foreign buyers from purchasing existing properties. The government has also launched a new scheme known as “KiwiBuild” that will see the government build 100,000 entry-level homes over the next decade that will be sold at a capped price.

The New Zealand government is also keen to make a mark on climate change. Among the latest environmental policies are a ban on new offshore oil and gas exploration, and plans to generate 100 percent of energy from renewables as part of an aim to be carbon-neutral by 2050.

These policies all fit into a government commitment to inject well-being and environmental principles into policies, and to report on progress, “to show a more rounded measure of success”.

“I think instinctively we all feel that money is not the most important thing in life,” says New Zealand public policy researcher Jess Berentson-Shaw. While having enough money does matter, she says, the problem is that excess wealth begins to erode the well being of a country’s citizens.

“The easiest way to think about that is that you can only take resources from the environment to make wealth for so long before the taking creates so much harm that it erodes any benefit derived from the wealth gain,” Berentson-Shaw says. “In other words, the wealth begins to destroy us.

“The move to measure something other than GDP is a significant signal for a government to make,” she continues. “It is recognition the scales have tipped too far. The benefits that wealth have brought are eroding many things that matter more.”

New Zealand is not without its share of social and environmental challenges. It has the worst rate of family and intimate-partner violence in the world, and more than 40,000 children are admitted to hospitals each year with health problems stemming from damp and moldy homes.

The country doesn’t have the best environmental track record, either, and this year was named one of the most wasteful countries in the developed world.

When it comes to climate change, however, Catherine Leining, a policy fellow at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, an independent nonprofit, says New Zealand has reached a social tipping point.

“We definitely have the possibility to show a lot of leadership here,” Leining says. “The current government is really trying to make a genuine effort to develop cross-party consensus on the long-term direction of climate change policy, and if they can put that in place then it should be transformational in terms of sending the kinds of long-term signals that businesses need to produce low-emission investment.”

However, questions remain. This week marks 12 months since Ardern became prime minister, and for some the pace of real change has been too slow. Indeed, Ardern herself wrestles with it. She acknowledges in an interview with The Spinoff: “Transformation does take a bit of time, though. If there’s anything that I’ve learnt, that I’ve struggled with, it’s how long things take.”

Politics, without a public mandate for progressive change, can be “bloody tricky,” Berentson-Shaw points out. “But building a case for it, helping nudge the public to prioritize progressive policy, may be what is happening here. And that could be the game changer.”

New Zealand’s next push will be for the compulsory teaching of the Maori language in schools led by the NZ Greens Party, which is part of Ardern’s coalition government. “There’s nothing more indicative of a progressive society than one that truly treasures its indigenous language,” says NZ Greens co-leader Marama Davidson.

And while international plaudits continue to roll in for Ardern and her “anti-Trump” style of politics, Davidson cautions against defining New Zealand simply as a little country tucked away from the rest of the world’s troubles where everyone wants to escape to ― most famously tech billionaires seeking refuge from the apocalypse.

“I hope what we can do is show leadership for how other countries can do things and more importantly support grassroots movements which are demanding these progressive societies around the world,” Davidson says.

In late September, the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior III docked in the city of Dunedin on its Making Oil History tour of New Zealand. During a public tour of the group’s flagship vessel, the international crew spoke of Ardern and her pledge to end offshore oil exploration with almost reverential tones.

Greenpeace s Rainbow Warrior III in Wellington on 26 September 2018, celebrating New Zealand's ban on new offshore oil exploration and encouraging clean energy alternatives.
Greenpeace s Rainbow Warrior III in Wellington on 26 September 2018, celebrating New Zealand's ban on new offshore oil exploration and encouraging clean energy alternatives.
plumchutney via Getty Images

Ardern’s image was projected onto screens for tour groups to see, and one American crew member became emotional as she recalled hearing Ardern describe climate change as “my generation’s nuclear-free moment.”

“That’s the best thing about New Zealand is its politics right now,” says Greenpeace NZ executive director Russel Norman. “Jacinda Ardern has given hope to the world that if people make enough noise then the politicians will actually listen. What she’s done will change the course of New Zealand’s history – and hopefully the world’s – forever.’’

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