‘Returning to normalcy in Ardern’s New Zealand’

Stephen Levine

For New Zealand, as elsewhere, 2021 was dominated by efforts to protect against COVID-19, with the pandemic continuing to pose challenges for policymakers, healthcare professionals and the public.

A slow start to organising a vaccination program initially intended for frontline workers, hospital staff and medical professionals acquired greater urgency with the arrival of the Delta variant. With enough Pfizer vaccines obtained, a nationwide vaccination program was implemented by mid-year, beginning with vulnerable New Zealanders and eventually encompassing everyone 12 years and older.

The program led to high levels (90 per cent) of double-dose vaccination by year’s end. Additional efforts through involvement with community leaders increased vaccination rates among Maori (81 per cent) and Pacific Islanders (90 per cent). Compliance with a government-prescribed system of digital vaccine passports allowed access to facilities only to those fully vaccinated.

By the end of the year, the success of the vaccination program allowed the government to declare that borders were likely to open to vaccinated travellers in early 2022. But the emergence of the Omicron variant overseas was greeted with concern, and quarantine-free travel has been deferred until the end of February 2022. Regional and nationwide lockdowns were to be things of the past, none too soon for the nation’s largest city, Auckland, where inhabitants endured 107 days of home confinement.

With much of the country not in lockdown, Auckland’s circumstances disrupted the highly effective 2020 rhetoric about New Zealanders being ‘united’ against COVID-19, a ‘team of five million’ that together was experiencing the same constraints, hardships and sacrifices. The stress of a three-and-a-half-month lockdown, and the inability of the government to keep New Zealanders 100 per cent safe from COVID-19, contributed to a decline in support for both the Labour Party and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Even so, both Labour and Prime Minister Ardern retained their substantial lead over all alternatives. In November, the principal opposition National Party experienced further self-inflicted upheaval. Its leader, Judith Collins, was toppled in a caucus no-confidence vote, followed days later by the elevation to the leadership of MP Christopher Luxon — formerly chief executive of Air New Zealand — who was first elected to Parliament in October 2020.

While COVID-19 established new norms and a new vocabulary in which references to ‘MIQs’ (managed isolation quarantine facilities) and ‘travel bubbles’ became commonplace, the government continued to proceed with elements of its at times ambitious agenda. This included taking legislative steps to expedite the construction of new homes, restructure the healthcare system and overhaul the country’s water services infrastructure. The government also established a Ministry for Disabled People and strengthened a counter-terrorism statute following what should have been a preventable terrorist attack.

In international affairs, Prime Minister Ardern presided over ‘virtual’ APEC summits as the 2021 APEC host. In cooperation with French President Emmanuel Macron, she led a second Christchurch Call event aimed at mobilising against the use of the internet for terrorism and violent extremism. Ardern also met with Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and jovirtual’ APEC summits asined Australia in expressing concerns over China’s policies in the South China Sea, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

New Zealand emerged largely unscathed from the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, bringing several hundred evacuees out before the suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport. The Prime Minister reaffirmed New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy, by now a feature of the country’s identity, indicating that the policy would remain unchanged irrespective of Australia’s eventual deployment of nuclear-powered submarines. Agreement in principle on a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom, and the ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, offer the promise of tangible benefits for New Zealand exporters.

Despite difficult global circumstances, 2021 gave New Zealanders some cause for optimism. Who could complain as the Prime Minister fulfilled a campaign promise establishing a new national holiday, Matariki, to mark the start of the Maori New Year? Sporting triumphs delivered further bright moments amid perilous times, with the country claiming a victorious America’s Cup defence, victory by the country’s national cricket team at the inaugural World Test Championship and a record number of medals (20) at the Tokyo Olympics. A low COVID-19 death toll — 50 fatalities, 25 of them in 2020 — provided further evidence of success, particularly when compared to developments in Europe and the United States.

The prospects of open borders, a country protected by widespread vaccination and a revived economy mean that all concerned can look to 2022 as marking something of a return to normalcy. ‘Building back better’ may prove more than just a politically motivated marketing slogan.

Stephen Levine is Professor of Political Science at Victoria University of Wellington. He is editor of (and contributor to) Politics in a Pandemic: Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s 2020 Election, Victoria University Press, launched in November 2021.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2021 in review and the year ahead.