When a Labour government in New Zealand is the subject of a page of commentary in the London-based The Economist, you know it is on a roll. And the Ardern government has won its place in history through its performance in winning a second term so decisively.
Not only that, but the Prime Minister herself has made her own mark on the international stage.
The Economist is impressed with NZ legalising assisted dying, among other progressive steps, and is impressed that NZ’s new foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, sports a Maori tattoo known as a moko kauae on her lips and chin.
It reports Mahuta as being part of the most diverse cabinet in NZ’s history, appointed by Ardern, following a thumping re-election for the prime minister and the Labour Party she leads. Ethnically, almost half the 20 members are not white and include five Maori. There are eight women, two of whom are lesbians, with young children and the first openly gay deputy prime minister, Grant Robertson.
The Economist argues the prime minister’s liberal stances are not so much shaping the country’s attitudes as being emblematic of them. NZ, after all, was the first country to give women the vote. The country is content, even occasionally smug, about being so very progressive.
As Andrew Geddis, of the University of Otago, observes about Mahuta’s moko kauae, NZ’s public face
“ … says something about how we’re changing as a society and what we’re comfortable with showing the world”.
The question, as Point of Order sees it, now becomes how Ardern and her new team can perform on the world stage.
Ardern herself is understood to have accepted that in her second term she will have to play a bigger role in international affairs. Climate change and the environment are top priorities for NZ.
She is fortunate to have as advisers two of NZ’s most able public servants, Brook Barrington, head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Chris Seed, Secretary for Foreign Affairs & Trade.
It seems Ardern chose Mahuta for the key ministry of foreign affairs post ahead of other candidates such as David Parker because she believes they will make a more effective team . Parker, for example, has his own views on how NZ should relate to other countries.
Mahuta is confident she has a strong contribution to make. She told Audrey Young, political editor of the NZ Herald, she believes she can bring a different perspective, a perspective that is rooted in a culture which allows her to have a different entry point as she forges relationships with counterparts,
“ … but also as we start to carve out our unique contribution as a country to the international relations we want to forge” .
Clearly, one of the most difficult diplomatic tasks confronting the Ardern-Mahuta team will be in handling NZ’s relations with China, NZ’s largest trading partner. As Mahuta told Young:
“We are a small country, critically aware of where we are positioned in the world, where are geopolitical interests lie and what we need to do in order to maintain stability in our part of the world”.
Now the country awaits the first moves of the Ardern-Mahuta team in shaping a new chapter in NZ’s foreign relations. The nation will hope they can emulate other great Labour leaders—Peter Fraser, for example —in elevating NZ for a period at least at the top table.