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Jacinda Ardern: when domestic issues have an international impact

Claire Benson, Founder and Co-Director of SDG Changemakers highlights the challenges that faced the New Zealand Prime Minister domestically.

While Jacinda Ardern's resignation as the Prime Minister of New Zealand shocked the international community, those who lived in New Zealand were not so surprised.

In December 2022, a month before Ardern's resignation, the approval rating of her Labour Party was at a historic low of 27.5%, which was, as highlighted by the statistics company Roy Morgan Research, a whole 22.5% down from when she was re-elected in 2020.

During her time in office, Jacinda was a polarising figure. While she enjoyed widespread popularity abroad, many New Zealanders criticised her leadership style, policies, and approach to various issues.

Media and armchair commentators cited the lack of progress on critical issues such as immigration, housing and transport. The KiwiBuild scheme indeed failed to prevent housing inequality over her five years in office, and since Chris Hipkins took over as PM, several unpopular policies have also been canned.

As a New Zealand resident dipping in and out of the country, the dislike towards her was palpable, and as several commentators have noted, there appears to be a disturbing amount of misogyny associated with the abuse.

On the surface, Ms Ardern had it all: young, a communications expert, a new mother with a devoted partner. She was empathetic and determined to create a new type of leadership, wanting to rise above the mud-slinging often associated with parliamentary debate around the globe. Yet these factors also contributed to her downfall, from rumours that partner Clark was wearing an 'ankle bracelet' for drug smuggling to the idea that she was creating a communist state and using her PR skills to dupe the world.

And it wasn't a particular right-wing faction who believed this; Kiwis from all backgrounds and ethnic groups were sharing the rhetoric, including the kids.

One of the significant reasons for the division was her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ardern's swift response to the outbreak, including the implementation of strict lockdown measures, helped New Zealand achieve one of the lowest death tolls worldwide, with just 27 reported deaths as of August 2021. However, her decisions were also criticised for causing significant economic damage, with the country's GDP decreasing by 12.2% in the June 2020 quarter. Emotions came to the fore as time passed, and the criticism got stronger.

Vaccine mandates and the subsequent job losses caused a 23-day protest occupying parliament grounds. It came to a fiery and violent end in March (2022), and according to research from The Disinformation Project, it fed on 'an unprecedented surge in the sharing of disinformation and conspiracy' theories across digital platforms in New Zealand.

The working paper, which draws on analysis of tens of millions of social media posts and comments and many hundreds of hours of online video, found that those in the "misinformation and disinformation ecologies" were able to outstrip mainstream media audiences online, with as few as a dozen figures responsible for the vast majority of the material shared.

There is a deep sense that New Zealanders' fear and uncertainty about being isolated from the rest of the world during Covid-19 border closures were manipulated; using the effective communication technique of telling the truth while skewing the message. It must be noted that the Socialist Equality Parties were equally scathing of Jacinda's time in government.

Ardern's immigration policies were another source of division, with policy reversals shining the spotlight again on her track record.

However, it is the former Prime Minister's progressive policies on climate change and sustainability that seemed to receive the most criticism. In 2019, her Government announced a plan to make New Zealand carbon neutral by 2050. While the country has made significant progress in reducing its carbon footprint, with emissions decreasing by 12% between 2013 and 2018, some critics felt that the policies were unrealistic for a small country and an unnecessary burden on the economy which is heavily reliant on the agricultural sector.

There is no question that Ardern's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, approach to immigration, progressive policies on climate change and sustainability and leadership style sparked controversy; but from the 2019 election onwards, the abusive rhetoric appeared to gather strength across society.

While emotionally intelligent and representing a more progressive leadership vision, Jacinda and her communication team needed to take a better read of the country's mood, understand that a conservative outlook still dominates New Zealand and taken the public with her on the journey to create a more socially, environmentally and financially sustainable future. Instead, disinformation and misinformation permeated society on an unprecedented level, causing confusion and detracting from the real issues facing the country.

As I write, another cyclone is racing through New Zealand. Flooding and landslides have become regular features of our summer, impacting communities, and the environment, causing financial risk and putting further stress on the economy.

Further analysis is needed for definitive conclusion on the role of dis- and mis-information in Jacinda Ardern’s term of office, but this piece of history will certainly make an excellent PR case study for future communication students.


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