Essay by Keith Rankin.
I recently watched Season Four of ‘The Crown’. Yes, it’s a drama, not a documentary. The two dominant characters – outside of the Windsor bloodline – were Princess Diana and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Both characters were probably overplayed, but only slightly.
Diana was a social but shallow ‘girl’ (“younger than her biological age” according to Princess Anne in The Crown), the diametric opposite to Prince Charles’ austere and detached persona. We know that, after the couple formally separated in 1992 – the Queen’s annus horribilis – Diana aspired to be a “Queen of people’s hearts”. Indeed, that’s very much what Diana was.
Margaret Thatcher – the Iron Lady – was austere in a different way to Prince Charles. She was portrayed as constantly rabbiting on about the government’s financial deficit and about the United Kingdom’s inflation rate. And, indeed, that is how she is known in posterity.
It struck me that our prime minister – Jacinda Arden – is a blend of these two famous women; a queen of hearts with teeth.
Jacinda Ardern is a political maestro. She understands and exploits the importance of political optics in our uniquely shallow political age. She understands the need to look and seem ‘progressive’, even if she is not; and she does the optics very well. Basically, Jacinda Ardern is a career politician, who doesn’t really stand for anything, but very much wants to be loved. She is also well versed in the art of politics; she has teeth, she is not soft and fluffy like Diana’s public persona, and she knows how to exploit a good tragedy and to use such tragedies to fill policy vacuums.
We don’t really know what Ms Ardern’s feelings about inflation would be. Most likely they would be ‘hawkish’, much like Margaret Thatcher’s and Helen Clark’s were. What we do know – albeit from clear inference rather than public proclamation – is that Jacinda Ardern is a fiscal conservative.
Like a good Swabian housewife (and here), Ms Ardern wants to balance the books, and leave a bit to spare. That is a priority that comes to her before properly addressing acknowledged problems like poverty, pay equity, climate change, ‘deficits’ in health and education and infrastructure, and housing. She is not unlike a late medieval English queen who would toss just enough alms from her not-too-ostentatious carriage. (I have in mind Elizabeth of York – the ‘White Princess’, wife of King Henry VII, allegedly the face of the Queen of Hearts on a deck of cards. Her miserly husband – though not a bad king in the wider scheme of things – was supposedly the lead character in the nursey rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence.)
Politically, Jacinda Ardern is not unlike Germany’s Angela Merkel. She has planted herself firmly in the political centre, the centre of liberal democracies’ one dimensional political spectrum. In the absence of future global shocks far more shocking than Covid19, Ms Ardern could be New Zealand’s prime minister until 2040 before moving on to a United Nations’ career.
Ms Merkel – leader of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic party – effectively sidelined her main opposition party. She included the Social Democratic Party in her government (out of necessity, given the electoral arithmetic that she faced), much as New Zealand First was included in the previous New Zealand government. In Germany, the two centre parties are like “Saatchi and Saatchi” (to quote the late Jim Anderton describing New Zealand’s Labour and National). In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern occupies political ground zero, and I don’t see her budging for a while. There’s nothing the other parties can do unless they take political risks and move off the one-dimensional political spectrum. Issues like public equity and unorthodox public finance should be central to any appropriate political risk-taking.
Some people believe that women are on average better (for example, more consensual) political leaders than men. And it has certainly been claimed that female leaders have performed better on Covid19 than have male leaders (though most claimants ignore European Union president Ursula von der Leyen). While for the most part the biological sex of a country’s political leader is probably a minor factor – women differ markedly from each other, just as men do – it is just possible that women are more predisposed towards conservative public finance than are men. Certainly, the four political leaders in New Zealand who stepped outside of this self-imposed political constraint are now recognised as four of our most important political leaders ever: Julius Vogel, Joseph Ward, Michael Joseph Savage, and Robert Muldoon. All were important because of their financial radicalism; in all cases except Savage this reputation began with these men’s tenures as Ministers of Finance. On the other hand, all our five major female political leaders – and like Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel – have been known for their commitments to orthodox financial rigour. (In New Zealand’s case I include Ruth Richardson as an important political leader. In 1991 it was Ruth Richardson – Finance Minister – and Jenny Shipley who pushed through the benefit cuts; I remember driving over the Rakaia Gorge bridge in 1991, and seeing the distasteful left-wing graffiti Burn Shipley Burn. Ms Richardson’s swansong was the 1994 Fiscal Responsibility Act, which is now firmly embedded in our Public Finance Act. This piece of egregious legislation effectively makes illegal political contributions such as those of Vogel et. al.)
One policy issue worth noting is that of pay equity, which is about narrowing the average remuneration gap between male and female employees. The biggest problem here is that females are disproportionately employed by government, or government organisations (eg health and education), or government-subsidised markets (eg rest-home care). This means that emphasis on orthodox public finance is probably the greatest impediment to the achievement of pay equity goals. Government is a miserly employer. This government likes to govern by exhortation, and not by ‘putting its money where its mouth is’.
Another policy issue to note relates to infrastructure. The 2020s is going to become the decade of international air freight, whereby – as in shipping and railways – freight operations will become the bread and butter of the aviation industry. Just as the Auckland Harbour bridge represented a necessary subsidy to the trucking industry in New Zealand, so international air freight subsidies will be necessary to maintain the global trading economy, and New Zealand’s part in it. Quicker action in this area would allow for relief to the many problems now faced by container shipping, and would lead to significant fiscal returns.
Finally, I note that an important part of the optics of our Queen of Hearts is the well-placed famous picture of Michael Joseph Savage, first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand, the genial Australian immigrant who was known for both his kindness and his willingness to entertain – and indeed to implement – financially progressive policies. While I would like Jacinda Ardern to prove me wrong, I am sure that she is tough but rigid (like Frau Merkel), and not at all like the man whose image she gains political advantage from.