New Zealand has led the world in many areas of progressive politics, but a BBC article has questioned how true that really is, highlighting "casual racism" and poor health outcomes for Māori.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her leadership in the country's globally praised Covid-19 response are highlighted in the article as causing many to see New Zealand as a "bastion of progressive government".

"In three years, the 39-year-old has risen from a minor player in the low-polling opposition Labour Party to a global figure on Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people.

"The New York Times described her as 'the progressive antithesis to right-wing strongmen like Trump, Orban and Modi'."


The article highlighted Ardern's "empathetic leadership" after the Christchurch mosques attack, the Whakaari/White Island tragedy, and "compassionate approach to politics" such as measuring a nation by the welfare of its people rather than GDP.

A lot of this was continuing a long line of progressive leadership in the country, such as creating Māori parliamentary seats in 1857, and granting women the vote in 1893.

"From 1890 to 1920, New Zealand was regarded as a 'social laboratory' due to its progressive policy initiatives, and Ardern's determination to measure national progress in 'wellbeing' targets – raising income, improving environmental and social good – has been characterised as a return to that aspiration."

This originated through early British settlers and politicians who were driven by notions of equality, fairness and honesty, the article said.

"Unlike other British colonies, the islands were not conquered, but founded on a Treaty between Māori and the Crown: the 1840 Te Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi."

The egalitarianism bred other traits, such as intense modesty - "Tall Poppy Syndrome", and New Zealanders grew to see themselves as practical, coping with anything thrown at them, with good life-skills and a co-operative "can-do" spirit, the article said.

Covid 19 coronavirus: Piers Morgan heaps praise on Jacinda Ardern, wishes we 'had a leader like her'
Covid 19 coronavirus: Whoopi Goldberg praises Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for being a 'voice of reason' during Covid-19
Kiwi video game makers receive international praise
International experts praise local garden centres

"But this remote nation is not as perfect as it seems," said the article, part of BBC travel series Why We Are What We Are, which investigates whether a country's apparent characteristics are true.


The article cited a 2018 RNZ interview with Massey University sociologist Dr Paul Spoonley, where he said: "Our race relations when seen globally are not too bad. We don't have hate crimes to the extent that you would find in European countries.

"But we do have everyday and often casual racism around the country and you'd be naive if you don't think it's there."

Social and racial stresses arose from widely differing interpretations of the Treaty, the article said, which led to 135 years of conflict and grievance until the document was enshrined in law in 1975 and a truth and reconciliation commission formed.

"Today, the nation has shamefully unequal rates of Māori health, educational and judicial outcomes, and youth suicide statistics are tragically high."

Because of these disparities, many contemporary local commenters viewed the country's progressive label with scepticism, the article said.

Many social advances previously occurred because of the nation's values of fairness and equality, but now some of the motivation was to be seen as a world leader.

"If you look at the right of women to vote, in the 1890s, no one was saying, 'We want to be the first…'," historian Professor Paul Moon told the BBC.

"The concern was, 'This is an important right because it will enfranchise women or be more representative, more democratic and so on'. "

These notions of equality and fairness continued until the 1970s and 80s, but were starting to change, he said.

New Zealand continued to pass socially progressive laws – marriage equality, decriminalising prostitution, treating abortion as a health not criminal issue – but Moon told the BBC he sensed a change in motivation.

"Now a lot of the rhetoric goes, 'Well, if we do this, we'll be a world leader'. That has overtaken the importance of the progressive initiative in a lot of cases."

Aotearoa was "not Utopia", the article said, but the national response to the coronavirus pandemic so far appeared to lead the world.

On April 28, after five weeks of lockdown, and Ardern eased the restrictions, announcing that the country had contained the community spread of Covid-19, global attention once again turned to the nation.

"While there was some criticism over how the government reacted, others said New Zealand offered a model response of empathy, clarity and trust in science."