“Times may be challenging but I absolutely believe politics can be a place for change, disruption, and a force for good. Good government need not be an oxymoron.”
This was the key message from the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, at her Melbourne address on Thursday night.
The address, hosted by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG), was attended by a captivated crowd of 2000.
Arden spoke about the need for good government in an increasingly divided world, her inherent trust in humanity, and the critical changes that are needed within her own nation’s public service as well as international structures to achieve a better future for all.
On the rise of extremism
Ardern spoke about the “increasingly noisy environment” in which society operates, through politics, fake news and “fragmented interest groups”.
“Increasingly, voters see their governments as not hearing what their interests are, or at worst, working against their interests, even in long-established democracies,” she said.
“It’s an environment made for shock politics, where only the noisy, or the surprising are heard.
“What underpins all of this is the sense of fear, that people don’t have the level of security that they perhaps feel — perhaps somewhat nostalgically — they once enjoyed.”
Ardern originally intended to deliver her speech at the Paterson Oration in March, but cancelled in the aftermath of the devastating Christchurch shootings.
Her nurturing response to the terrorism — free from the opportunism and staged grief that so regularly plagues politics — surprised the world.
Ardern said, quite frankly, that the global admiration she received for her response was saddening.
“It shouldn’t have been noteworthy,” she told ABC’s Virginia Trioli in an onstage interview following her speech.
“It’s instinctive when you’re mourning with someone to reach out in that way.
“It just felt to me like a human response.”
On good government
“Good government matters because it affects everything,” Ardern asserted.
She noted that her own country has not been free from bad decisions. For example, child poverty emerged in NZ when Ardern was a child and is still a major problem, among several other increasingly concerning issues.
“Most obviously for countries like New Zealand and Australia, booming housing markets have put home ownership out of reach of a growing number of younger people, especially when coupled with the debt many accumulate trying to further their education,” she said.
“That same generation that is facing the prospect of new challenges – climate change and digital transformation putting people out of work now and into the future.
“Stunningly, our most connected generation in New Zealand, has also been found to be our loneliest.”
Ardern suggested that events such as Brexit are the results of governments attempting to respond to their societal challenges in a negative way.
“In recent years, we have seen politicians and governments of all stripes respond to the stresses and challenges I have outlined by turning inwards.”
“After all, fear and blame is an easy political out.”
But Ardern has refused to take the easy route. She said people need to be supported in more ways than one and the idea of what prosperity means must be widened to consider social and environmental factors as well as the more traditional measurements of wellbeing, such as finance.
“Because if a country has been growing economically for 30 years, yet large numbers of its citizens haven’t felt the benefit, is it really moving forward?”
She discussed the focus on child wellbeing, mental health and the aspirations of Māori in NZ’s new wellbeing budget, which was unveiled in May.
“All of this responds to the idea that New Zealanders’ wellbeing must be the foundation of our public spending.”
On public service reform
Arden emphasised that the “idea of wellbeing” must also be embedded in the public service.
Planned changes to the NZ public service include strengthening its culture and leadership, increasing flexibility and capability, and working collectively to achieve better outcomes.
Ardern noted that the NZ public service is currently ranked second overall for performance out of 38 countries, while public satisfaction is at a record high.
“So why are we embarking on the biggest reforms to the statutory framework of our public service in more than 30 years?”
“It’s simple. We know we can do better.”
To tackle complex issues such as child poverty and domestic violence, Ardern argued a whole-of-government approach is crucial.
“That’s why under the changes, boards, made up of chief executives from relevant government agencies, will be established to tackle cross cutting challenges. These boards, or joint ventures, will be accountable to a single minister and receive direct Budget appropriations. Public servants from across the system will be deployed as required,” she said.
However, a cultural change is also required to ensure structural changes have the desired impact.
“A unified public sector around common purpose, principles and values is crucial and we believe we can encourage that practically by making it easier for public servants to move seamlessly through the public service as a whole.”
But, this is not a quick fix. An inclusive, diverse public service will take time, Ardern said, and ideally, such values should be applied globally.
“For countries like New Zealand and Australia, that means prioritising international rules and norms that work for all countries,” she said.
“It means encouraging trade, not retreating behind protectionist barriers – trade that means jobs and livelihoods, but also trade shaped by an open, honest dialogue with our communities.”