Jacinda Ardern Andrew Barr NZ Election ACT ELECTION 2020
NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr (AAP Image/David Rowland/Lukas Coch)

Between two election results in our own corner of the globe on Saturday and the seemingly imminent defeat of Donald Trump, there is mounting evidence that the right-wing populist moment is now in the rear-view mirror.

A few short years after obituaries were being written for social democracy, Jacinda Ardern has led New Zealand’s Labour Party to the most comprehensive win in its history, making her the first leader of a majority government since the country introduced proportional representation in 1996.

Of course, the result may not reflect a move to the left so much as a renewed regard for political professionalism and a corresponding disillusionment with the “disruptive” qualities of leaders like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson — their deficiencies in managing the actual work of government have been exposed by the emergence of a real crisis.

It is perhaps also indicative of the fact that xenophobia has gone into remission amid an apparent abatement in Islamic terrorism, with voters instead finding cause to fear the lunacy of an emboldened far right — a matter of particular poignancy in New Zealand.

Even without a favourable shift in the zeitgeist, a naturally relatable first-term leader who had built an unusually high profile internationally was always going to be hard to beat.

However, it’s certainly not the case that Ardern had given her opponents nothing to work with: an affordable housing project has delivered only 600 out of 100,000 promised homes, a light rail line that was to be up and running in Auckland by next year is currently on ice, and Ardern’s commitment to vanquish child poverty is looking barely less forlorn than Bob Hawke’s.

From an Australian perspective, it’s tempting to imagine how different things might have been if New Zealand had a stable of bellicose News Corp tabloids bludgeoning the government for its failures with a drumbeat of front-page hit pieces. This is presumably what Greg Sheridan of The Australian had in mind when he complained that Ardern had gone “unchallenged by a tepid and under-resourced local media”.

Pre-COVID, News Corp’s hostility to Ardern manifested in assertions that her popularity abroad was not matched at home, with one columnist at The Australian going so far as to invoke the “increasingly remote” prospect of her re-election.

This reading of the situation seemed selective enough at the time, but it looks doubly dubious now that the polls have proved to be just as wide of the mark as ours were last year, having underestimated the gap between Labour and National by around 7%.

Misplaced expectations also abounded among the Canberra Liberals, who have apparently been left stunned by the scale of their defeat in Saturday’s election in the Australian Capital Territory.

There is no reason they should have been. The result was the entirely predictable consequence of presenting a conservative fundamentalist face to the most liberal polity in the land.

In a town that takes some pride in having Australia’s first openly gay head of government, the Liberals had in Alistair Coe the only major party leader in Australia who voted against same-sex marriage. This put him at odds with 74% of his constituents.

No less damaging was the issue of abortion. Coe had sought to downplay his views on the matter, only to be thwarted by loud public pronouncements from Liberal MPs Andrew Wall and Vicki Dunne (the former lost his seat on Saturday, while the latter brought down the curtain on a 19-year parliamentary career spent entirely in opposition).

Such questions matter a great deal in Canberra, where voters tend towards what political scientists categorise as “post-materialist” — which is to say, affluent enough to prioritise social over economic concerns.

What remains of the Liberal party room has yet another term to ponder such matters from the sidelines before its next shot at government in 2024. By this time it will have been in opposition for as long as federal Labor was before Gough Whitlam finally led them from the wilderness in 1972.