Abroad, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand remains a leading liberal light. During a recent trip to the United States, she delivered the commencement address at Harvard University, cracked jokes with Stephen Colbert and met in the Oval Office with President Joe Biden. At each stop, she highlighted her successes in passing gun restrictions and handling the pandemic.
At home, Ardern's star is fading. Rising prices for food, fuel and rent are making life increasingly difficult for many New Zealanders, and an explosion of gang violence has shocked suburbanites not used to worrying much about their safety.
More fundamentally, there are deepening doubts that Ardern can deliver the "transformational" change she promised on systemic problems, as housing prices reach stratospheric levels, the country's carbon emissions increase despite her Government's pledges, and child poverty rates stay stubbornly high.
Polls show her centre-left Labour Party at its lowest level of support in five years, with an election looming in 2023. That, said Morgan Godfery, a liberal writer and senior lecturer in marketing at Otago University in Dunedin, reflects a view that Ardern is "missing in action" on the issues voters care about.
"New Zealanders who see this day to day are getting frustrated by a lack of change," Godfery said. "But if you look from overseas, you don't see the lack of policy, you see the personality. And that's where the mismatch comes in."
Ardern built an international profile as a progressive feminist and a compassionate leader, which stood out all the more as a wave of right-wing populism swept the United States and other countries. It has allowed her to amass unusual star power for the leader of a small country.
In her first term, she won widespread praise as she guided her country through the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque massacre and through the emergence of the pandemic. Within days of the mosque shootings, she announced a sweeping ban on military-style weapons. And after the arrival of the coronavirus, she took swift action to eliminate the virus through lockdowns and border controls, largely preserving normal life.
Her pandemic success helped lift her party to an outright majority in Parliament during the last election, in October 2020 — the first time any party had won a majority since the country moved to its current electoral system in 1993.
But it may also be causing her current troubles. As New Zealand emerged from the pandemic with one of the world's lowest death rates, "there was a sense the Government really can do the impossible by holding up a virus ravaging the rest of the world", said Ben Thomas, a conservative commentator.
Now, with most of its virus restrictions lifted, Ardern's Government has lost its unifying fight against the pandemic and, with it, much of its bipartisan support. What remains is soaring inflation, increasing gun violence and little progress on issues that have bedevilled New Zealand for decades.
"The prime minister has gone from untouchable — almost Olympian — levels back to being an ordinary politician again," Thomas said.
Ardern, 41, is one of many world leaders whose support has fallen amid the economic snarls caused by the war in Ukraine and pandemic-related supply chain problems. Biden's approval ratings are in the low 40s, and President Emmanuel Macron of France lost his party's parliamentary majority in an election marked by frustration with the cost of living.
New Zealand's inflation rate of 6.9 per cent is lower than the 9.2 per cent in the developed world as a whole, and Ardern has responded to criticism by pointing to the global pressures beyond her control.
"The whole world is experiencing the worst economic shock since the Great Depression, with the war in Ukraine and Covid-19-related supply chain issues adding to it with the worst inflation spike in decades," said Andrew Campbell, a spokesperson for Ardern.
Her Government has announced, among other measures, a payment of $350 to middle- and low-income New Zealanders to help alleviate increases in the cost of living. Many, however, see the Government's responses as inadequate and are dissatisfied by overseas comparisons.
"It's not the Government's fault, but it is the Government's problem," Thomas said.
Ardern has also found herself grappling with rising gun violence, with at least 23 gang-related drive-by shootings reported in late May and early June as two once-allied gangs battled over territory.
At times, police officers, who are typically unarmed in New Zealand, were forced to carry rifles in parts of Auckland, the country's largest city. Last week, Ardern demoted her police minister, saying she had lost "focus".
Ardern's difficulties are the latest twist in an unexpectedly rapid political ascent.
After her sudden elevation to the Labour leadership in 2017, her party rode a surge of "Jacindamania", fuelled by her fresh face and promises of major reform, to form a Government with two smaller parties in an upset victory over the centre-right National Party.
Three years later, in the next national election, 50.01 per cent of voters supported Labour. Until February of this year, polling showed the party still winning the support of up to 50 per cent of voters.
That month, the Government began loosening coronavirus restrictions. With the pandemic fading as an issue, Labour is now averaging 35 per cent support in polls, and the National Party stands at 40 per cent. Including their allied parties, the two sides are evenly matched in polling.
Political analysts are unsure whether Ardern can achieve breakthroughs on any of the long-standing issues to help improve her standing.
Successive governments have failed to rein in an overheated housing market. The problem has intensified under Ardern's Government, with average home prices rising 58 per cent from 2017 to 2021. Last year, the average home price passed $1 million.
The country has also battled persistent child poverty, which causes rates of rheumatic fever and lung ailments that are surprisingly high for a developed country. In 2017, Ardern declared reducing child poverty a core goal. Currently, 13.6 per cent of New Zealand children live in poverty, a decrease from 16.5 per cent in 2018 but more than the Government's target of 10.5 per cent.
And despite Ardern's promise to treat climate change like her generation's "nuclear-free moment", emissions have increased by 2.2 per cent since 2018.
Campbell said the government had made progress on major issues despite Covid's challenges. "We have got on with addressing the long-term challenges our country has faced, including overseeing the largest government housing programme in decades, lifting tens of thousands of children out of poverty, and taking real climate action," he said.
But Godfery, the liberal writer, said Ardern had not gotten enough help from her team in translating her rhetoric into policy.
Ardern "is a genuinely caring and compassionate person who has a deep commitment to issues of inequality, climate change and child poverty", Godfery said. "But often that doesn't translate to a concrete policy programme."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
• Pete McKenzie is a Wellington-based journalist who writes on politics, foreign affairs and social issues for outlets including The New York Times, The Guardian, North & South and The Listener.
Written by: Pete McKenzie
Photograph by: Doug Mills
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