Redefining successful government

  • Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern
Prime Minister

Speech at International Conference on Sustainable Development

Columbia University, New York


Kia ora koutou katoa

I bring you the warm greetings of Aotearoa, New Zealand, and can tell you that it is a true honour and a privilege to be here.

I began preparing my comments for today’s event while sitting at my constituency office in Auckland, New Zealand.

It’s a pretty humble space; made all the more so by the fact I have never quite unpacked it properly.

On my desk sits a photo of my nana, who died when I was 12, but was a staunch member of her local Labour Party branch, the party I am now privileged to lead. 

Next to my Nana sits a framed image of Kate Sheppard, the suffragist we credit with New Zealand becoming the first country in the world to give women the right to vote 125 years ago.

A framed box nearby holds a letter I received from Hillary Clinton after the 2017 election in New Zealand, which she has signed off with the words “never, never, never give up.”

And finally, on my far wall hangs a cartoon. It’s of Nelson Mandela and underneath it contains his words “overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice.”

You could say the artefacts I sit amongst in that office sum up my life in politics.  It started with my family, has been full of role models and support, but ultimately is motivated by the idea that politics is a place you can address injustice.

I grew up in two small towns in New Zealand. Given our population is roughly 4.5 million here in America you probably consider our entire country a small town.

I’m talking something like 3000 people.

It was a town called Murupara and it taught me about inequality.

I was raised the daughter of a policeman, and was a product of the 1980s where New Zealand went through a rapid period or privatisation and economic liberalisation. We called it Rogernomics after our Finance Minister of the time, in America the same phenomenon was called Reaganonmics, and the impact on working families was similar. Jobs were lost, manufacturing moved off shore, regulations removed and the gap between rich and poor rapidly expanded.

Then came the 1990s. A conservative government in New Zealand introduced reforms that brought user pay to the fore and welfare cuts for the poorest.

I was young when all of this was happening around me, but I still remember it. If it’s possible to build your social conscience when you are a school girl, then that is what happened to me. I never looked at the world through the lens of politics though, but rather through the lens of fairness.

And that sentiment captures one of the most pervasive values that we have in Aotearoa New Zealand. We are proud but also self-deprecating. Dreamers but also pragmatists. And if there is one thing we hate, it is injustice.

We try our best to do right by one another. Perhaps it comes from being a million miles from anywhere, isolated and reliant on one another.

We think a three hour flight is a short commute, and hardly bat an eye lid at 12. It takes a full 24 hours in the sky to connect us to Europe and don’t even get me started on a 20 hour flight to New York with a three month old baby!

Yet despite our geographic isolation we are acutely aware of the impact we have on the world, and that the rest of the world has on us.

These are the values I believe we need to display in our politics. Because politics is increasingly a dirty word, but values are not.

Values have always been my starting point. I signed up to a political party when I was 17, not because I was looking for a career, but because (perhaps naively then) I wanted to change the world. I was promptly handed 300 leaflets and started changing said world one mailbox at a time.

But what does it look like to bring that values based approach into politics? How do we make the rhetoric meaningful, and make sure we’re delivering genuine changes for our population?

Some would argue that if you’re looking for a long list of values-based reforms, look no further than the SDGs, and they would be right. An earnest politician would be hard pressed to argue with goals like halving poverty, preserving the sustainability of our oceans or inclusive education.

And yet they haven’t been treated as a given, and on a number of measures I know we in New Zealand have a long way to go.

Our response to this challenge hasn’t been to create a tick box list. Instead, we have decided to try something no other country has done before and embed indicators like the SDGs into everything we do.

And we’ve started by redefining what success looks like.

Traditionally, success or failure in politics has been measured in purely economic terms. Growth, GDP, your trade deficit and the level of debt you carry. On those terms, you would call New Zealand relatively successful. But in the last few years the deficiency of such measures has become stark.

We have had rates of growth that international commentators have remarked upon and commended, but at the same time we also had some of the worst homelessness in the OECD and growing inequality. I don’t consider that success. Economic growth accompanied by worsening social outcomes is a failure. 

So we are establishing brand new measure of national achievement that go beyond growth.

We have for instance created a tool called the Living Standards Framework. It puts the notion of sustainable intergenerational wellbeing at the centre of the different decision making processes we have - policy advice, government expenditure and long term management of our assets.

We will start tracking our progress using a range of new and different tools.  Our Statistics department is at the moment working on an ambitious project called Indicators Aotearoa New Zealand that aims to create a comprehensive set of indicators across the different dimensions of the current and future wellbeing of New Zealanders; economic, cultural, social and environmental.

These new tools will help us deliver, and monitor the delivery of goals like the SDGs.

Our first test of this new approach in some ways will be early next year. That’s when we will deliver our first budget using these new measures, and new approach. We’ve called it the well-being budget, and it will unashamedly look to invest in generational change.

But all of this is the how – the way we are choosing to work. It doesn’t tell you much about what it is that we will be rolling out. Our agenda for change. For that, I want to reference again the starting point for New Zealand.

Like many, New Zealand has not been immune to a period of rapid and transformational change these past few decades. Globalisation has changed the way we operate, but it has also had a material difference on the lives of our citizens.

Not everyone has been well served by those changes, however.

While at a global level economic growth has been unprecedented, the distribution of benefits has been uneven at the level of individuals and communities. In fact for many, the transition our economy made in the wake of globalisation has been jarring,

Now as politicians, we all have choices in how we respond to these challenges.

We can whip up resentment or we can build a response.

My choice is action.

That’s why one of our key priorities is to grow and share more fairly New Zealand’s prosperity.

We’re investing more in research and development so that we improve the productivity of our economy, we’re focusing on shifting away from volume to value in our export, and we are committed to lifting wages. 

We know we can’t fund our social programme unless we generate income from exports. We are supporting exporters but also workers and the environment by pursuing a new form of progressive free trade agreements and developing a trade for all agenda

We are modernising our Reserve Bank so that it works to keep both inflation and keeps unemployment low, and we’re committed to a better balanced and fairer tax system.

But we also need to do better at lifting the incomes of New Zealanders and sharing the gains of economic growth.

We are signing pay equity settlements with new groups of predominantly women workers, taking the pressure off families by extending paid parental leave to half a year, closing the gender pay gap and raising the minimum wage.

When fully rolled out our Families Package – a tax credit policy aimed at low and middle income earners – will lift thousands of children out of poverty.

But economic gains and growth matter for nothing if we sacrifice our environment along the way, or if we fail to prepare for the future. That’s why we are transitioning to a clean, green carbon neutral New Zealand.

That means making the transition to a net zero carbon economy, and we want to do that by 2050. Our $100 million Green Innovation Fund will help business to tap opportunities in smart, low carbon industries.  We have also launched a programme that will see one billion trees planted over the next ten years to support our climate change agenda, and generate jobs, put an end to new offshore oil and gas exploration and set a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2035.

We also need to bring back some authenticity to our clean green image by better managing the waste we produce, investing to protect our unique biodiversity and ensuring our rivers are swimmable for future generations. We have plans in each of these areas.

But of course, we are nothing without our people. We have set ourselves some big goals, like ensuring that everyone who is able is either earning, learning, caring or volunteering – including making the first year of tertiary study completely free of fees.

We’re supporting healthier, safer and more connected communities, ensuring everyone has a warm, dry home, and last but not least, making New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child.

This agenda is personal to me.

I am the Minister for Child Poverty Reduction.

I took that portfolio because of the importance we place on lifting tens of thousands of children out of poverty and the importance I place on ensuring that every child, no matter their background, has the basics and the opportunity to thrive and reach their potential.

We are determined to make a difference. This year we will pass into law the Child Poverty Reduction Bill that will make it a legislative requirement to lift more and more kids out of poverty.

But we also know that it’s not just about family incomes, but whether a child has all of their needs met, including good health, a roof over their head, a great education, and perhaps the thing that we are too quick to place last on the list – time with their parents or caregivers.

If I were to sum up our agenda though, it would be simple. I want to demonstrate that politics doesn’t have to be about three or four year cycles. It doesn’t have to be self-interested or have a singular focus.

It can think about long term challenges, and respond to them. It can be designed to think about the impact on others, and show that it’s making a difference. And it can even be kind.

As an international community I am constantly heartened by our ability to take a multilateral approach, to sign up to a set of aspirations that are values based.

But perhaps it’s time to also challenge ourselves to move beyond aspiration to action.

That is what we will be doing in our corner of the world.

And I can assure you we will never, never, never give up.