New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered a speech to a packed audience in Melbourne on Thursday, outlining the value of good government and how her government was widening its focus from economic growth to a budget which improved New Zealand’s wellbeing.
Ms Ardern’s address - entitled “Why does good government matter?” - was organised by ANZSOG and hosted by the City of Melbourne at the Melbourne Town Hall.
A crowd of more than 1500 people gave Ms Ardern a standing ovation as she took to the stage. Meanwhile, the event was sweeping social media, trending Australia-wide.
After receiving a gift from Aunty Joy during the Welcome to Country, Ms Ardern began her address by stating that good government matters, because government affects everything.
“We have an impact on people’s daily lives. For better or for worse, whether they know it or believe it. We make decisions that impact on their environment, on their jobs, on their wages and on their healthcare,” she said.
She warned that many people were feeling insecure about their futures and losing trust in governments, that society was becoming more fragmented, and that governments needed to be honest about their failures and the need to address those challenges.
“We cannot turn inwards. We can build the system back up not tear it down, and acknowledge where things have failed.
“Fear and blame is an easy way out and I reject it,” she said. “We can offer a counter-narrative of hope”.
Ms Ardern said one way to rebuild trust was to “widen our definition of what prosperity means” and look beyond economic indicators to define it.
She said that while developed economies were continuing to grow in overall economic terms - if not as quickly as they once did - they had too often failed to share the benefits of that growth.
“In many countries, while the very wealthiest have grown consistently wealthier, the rest have seen little or no real rise in their incomes. Inequalities that deepened with the great deregulating reforms of the 1980s and 90s have become a permanent feature of these economies – not a brief moment of pain.”
Ms Ardern said New Zealand was a small country, which meant it was often at the forefront of global trends – including pioneering free market reforms of the 1980s and 90s. Under her leadership, the government had this year had tried to push back on that “old economic orthodoxy” by introducing its first ‘Wellbeing Budget’ with a broader focus on social issues.
“We didn’t abandon the previous approach to public finance. We widened it,” she said.
“We said not only ‘what will be most conducive to economic growth?’ but also, more fundamentally: What will do the most to improve the lives of New Zealanders and help them to pursue lives of dignity and purpose?’
The Wellbeing Budget contains major initiatives to halve the rate of child poverty, by lifting benefits, and to provide early care for mental health to reduce the estimated $12 billion annual cost to the economy.
“Children who are quite literally the future of New Zealand, who have done nothing to choose their situation, are in unacceptable hardship. We talk about New Zealand being a great place to raise a child. We want New Zealand to be the best place to be a child,” she said.
“Our mental health and addiction services are often orientated to those with the highest needs. People with emerging issues, or mild to moderate mental health or addiction needs, are largely our missing middle.
She said that the New Zealand government was restructuring the public service to reflect the Wellbeing Budget and its priorities, and encourage greater cooperation.
“One department dealing with one part of the problem at a time, can’t fix complex issues like breaking the cycle of child poverty and domestic violence, planning for climate change or providing more effective mental health services.”
After her speech, Ms Ardern was interviewed by ABC journalist Virginia Trioli, using questions from the audience. The Prime Minister was asked about her unifying and compassionate leadership in the wake of the Christchurch massacres earlier this year.
Asked whether she saw her response as a “feminine way of holding power”, she disagreed – saying it was simply a human response. She said she felt she was mirroring the reaction of New Zealanders and what she had done should not have been noteworthy.
When asked for her views on the debate on constitutional recognition for Australia’s First Peoples, she said: “As someone from a country with an imperfect record, I would not tell another country how to conduct itself. Our focus is ensuring that the Treaty is a living document, that we live up to its principles.”.
She said that at a global level, it was important for smaller countries like New Zealand and Australia to prioritise international rules and norms that work for all countries.
“Times may be challenging but I absolutely believe politics can be a place for change, disruption, and ultimately a force for good,” she said.
“I see hope every day. I’m an absolute optimist, I’ve seen hope in the darkest of spaces,” she said.
Professor Smith concluded the event, thanking Ms Ardern for her “important speech on why good government matters”.
“At ANZSOG, we similarly advocate for the importance of public value—it is important that we retain a belief in the role of government. As you’ve said, good government matters, because it responds to the aspirations of the community it serves,” he said.
City of Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp said that Ms Ardern was a leader who exemplified considered and caring leadership, and who was changing New Zealand – and the world.
“Good government is about our values, the respect we show each other and how we behave as a society. The economics are important, but our values will equally determine our success,” Ms Capp said.
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