Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Maarten Holl/Stuff
It’s Labour Weekend in New Zealand in more ways than one. The worker’s spring holiday (which takes in Monday) kicked off last night with the news that the Labour Party will lead the new government, thanks to a coalition deal with New Zealand First and a confidence and supply arrangement with the Green Party. Adding spice to the mixture, the Prime Minister elect is a 37-year-old woman, Jacinda Ardern, who rocketed into the limelight only two months before the September election.
This result, which came after two weeks of haggling with both Labour and National, hung on the decision of NZ First and its leader, Winston Peters. Peters failed to win in his own electorate and his party gained 7.2 percent of the national vote. The Greens’ share of the vote was 6.3 percent. Labour’s was 36.9 and National, on the opposition benches, can console itself with a 44.4 percent share. But that’s MMP politics, and it certainly makes life interesting.
What does it mean for the country?
Peters last night explained his decision by saying that “far too many New Zealanders have come to view today’s capitalism, not as their friend, but as their foe… That is why we believe that capitalism must regain its human face.”
That seems a fair enough generalisation in a country with the most inflated housing market in the developed world, and where the government has lately been renting motel accommodation for homeless people.
Housing was a prominent issue in Ardern’s campaign, along with child poverty and stretched mental health services (young Kiwis, in particular, seem to be in poor shape psychologically). She has already confirmed Labour’s commitment to build 100,000 affordable homes over 10 years. Other priorities, shared with NZ First, include cutting back on immigration and stopping sales of land to foreigners. The coalition partners intend to give more weight to full employment and regional development. Further tax cuts budgeted by National will be dropped.
Much of that may find acceptance outside of their own support base. But not everyone who wants to see housing more affordable and more jobs in the regions also wants the kind of social agenda that Labour and the Greens favour. According to research by advocacy group Family First, the following is where the party leaders stand on family and moral issues.
Greens leader James Shaw has the most negative profile on this score, but Ardern’s is a pretty near match. They are both gung-ho with same-sex marriage (already legal here) and same-sex adoption (Ardern debates the issue here) as well as the gender agenda. They have not responded to Family First inquiries about the legalisation of surrogacy.
They also both support removal of abortion from the criminal law, where it remains despite virtual abortion on demand, and legalisation of euthanasia. They have not responded to questions about the full resourcing of palliative care. They are generally unresponsive to parental rights and choice issues and Shaw, for one, opposes parental notification for teen pregnancies.
All three leaders have signalled that they want charter (or partnership) schools and national standards abolished.
Peters and his party have a conservative record on marriage, family, and pro-life issues. Moves to change the abortion law or legalise euthanasia would involve a conscience vote. Otherwise NZ First is unlikely to have much influence against progressive bids to enshrine same-sex adoption in law, legalise surrogacy, decriminalise or legalise marijuana, and accommodate transgender demands. Such moves are quite likely.
What seems unlikely is that this government will come to grips with any of the social trends underlying the issues of poverty, inequality, deteriorating mental health and educational failure. To do so it would have to be honest about the state of marriage and the family.
A report, Child Poverty and Family Structure, published by Family First last year, shows that the New Zealand family is on shaky ground. According to 2015 figures:
* Just over half (53 percent) of our children were born to married parents, while for Maori the figure was only 21 percent. Some 27 percent of registered births were to cohabiting parents – relationships that have 4-6 times the risk of breaking up by the time the child is five. Cohabiting parents are poorer than married parents.
* Poorest of all, however, are the 28 percent of families with dependent children headed by a single parent. Some 51 percent of children in poverty live with a single parent and will struggle to improve their lot over time. The majority of these parents are mothers receiving a single parent benefit.
* Higher rates of poverty among Maori and Pasifika children are reflected the greater number of sole parent and cohabiting families among these groups.
These figures and linkages tally with international patterns. They also show that any politician serious about solving child poverty (or teenage depression, for that matter) has to do more than raise benefits and build people houses. If they want to make life better for children they need to encourage marriage, make it easier for couples to have children and stay together.
Increasing paid parental leave (from 18 weeks to 24) is one step all the partners in the new government support. They should also pursue income splitting to lighten the tax burden of parents – something neither Ardern nor Shaw will commit themselves on.
Meanwhile, Millennials continue to delay having children, or cohabit and have few, with the result that the completed fertility rate, which has held up better than in most other OECD countries, thanks to higher rates among Maori and Pasifika, has now sunk below two (1.87). And since the new government is anti-immigration, this will become an economic problem in time without some moral and financial inducements to higher fertility.
However, the fact that Ardern herself is cohabiting and childless does not make one optimistic that she will see the sense of this. We shall have to wait and see how the realities of governing a country whose basic social unit is so fragile change a political outlook that is not altogether positive right now.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She lives in Auckland, New Zealand.