Digital Snapshot

by Eva U Wagner

NEW ZEALAND – State of Play

Digital Snapshot #12/21

A potpourri of current affairs topics from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific brought to you by KAS Australia and the Pacific. The weekly digital snapshot showcases selected media and think tank articles to provide a panorama view and analysis of the debate in these countries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect KAS Australia’s position. Rather, they have been selected to present an overview of the various topics and perspectives which have been dominating the public and political debate in Australia and the Pacific region.


New Zealand owing to the coronavirus pandemic was in a state of national emergency from 25 March until 13 May 2020. The emergency was declared by the then Minister for Civil Defence Emergency Management, Peeni Ereatara Gladwyn Henare, under section 66 of the Civil Defence Emergency Management Act 2002. The national emergency was followed by a national transition period under section 94A of the aforementioned Act, which in turn ended on 8 June 2020. These periods went along with an early and hard lockdown and equally strict measures in response to subsequent outbreaks. Similar to Australia, New Zealand remains closed for almost all travellers to date. The government’s strategy has resulted in the quasi-elimination of the coronavirus, for which it has been widely praised. At the same time, tourism and immigration, two important sources of revenue and driving factors of economic growth, have come to a near standstill.

Where does this leave New Zealand, its people, politics and economy? In terms of government, the general elections held in October 2020 have brought stability, in that the Labour Party continues to govern, see Digital Snapshot #29/20 New Zealand – General Elections. Since then, the government is primarily concerned with keeping the country free of the coronavirus, managing returned travellers in hotel quarantine and the economic recovery. While the media reported a v-shaped recovery in the end of 2020, they saw New Zealand at risk of a double-dip recession last month. The unemployment rate fell to 4.7% in March, lower than expected, possibly due to the construction industry making up for tourism. These figures may, however, not give a true picture of the number of people out of work. Other domestic policy issues on the government’s agenda include housing, health, education and infrastructure. The Guardian reports that New Zealand’s 10-year housing crisis has worsened dramatically since the pandemic, with ultra-low interest rates and a faster-than-anticipated economic recovery exacerbating pre-existing issues of affordability and supply. In response, the government recently announced a new housing policy package, which has been judged as just a new tax package – and a shambles. A pre-Covid review into New Zealand’s health system identified racial inequities, chronic under-resourcing and variable quality of care known as “postcode lottery”. In response, the Labour government recently announced radical changes to be made to the sector. New Zealand’s education, standards have been reported to be in freefall, even before the pandemic. The reasons given range from teacher shortage to truancy and a flawed child-centred approach. Calls for a more detailed curriculum and standardised national assessments were rejected by some as euro-centric, risking to ignore the needs of indigenous communities. Decades of underspending are said to have left New Zealand with an enormous infrastructure deficit. The government’s former coalition partner’s opposition to various projects was detrimental to resolving this issue. With the government’s “handbrake” gone, planned upgrades may gain momentum again.

As regards New Zealand’s foreign policy,the appointment in November 2020 of the country’s first female Maori foreign minister was held to send a clear message about its foreign policy priorities. In her first media speech after she was sworn in, Nanaia Mahuta emphasized she would like to work strongly on relationships in the Pacific. The announcement was in line with the Labour government’s 2018 Pacific Reset,  aiming for a heightened focus on and engagement with the region. Last month, the Foreign Minister hit the headlines by saying that the government was “uncomfortable” with expanding the 5-Eyes role beyond intelligence sharing and preferred to look to multilateral opportunities to express their interests. Her statement has been interpreted as attempt to avoid a breakdown in relationship with China of the kind that Australia is currently experiencing. The Guardian comments:

The move confirms New Zealand’s independent streak on foreign policy. In recent decades, Aotearoa has walked a different path to Australia, with fewer formal ties to the United States and a more comfortable working relationship with China.

The Foreign Minister’s remarks reportedly blindsided Australia, with the Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne seeking to calm tensions during her first visit to New Zealand since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern essentially endorsed the Foreign Minister’s approach, arguing her government would make its own decisions on how to communicate its concerns about human rights abuses, thus resisting increasing pressure from western allies for her government to take a harder line. She, too, made it clear that it was “becoming harder to reconcile” the political systems of the two countries. The Australian summarises:

The Five Eyes group was formed in 1941 to share secrets and signals intelligence during World War II. Over the past few years, it has gradually expanded into a diplomatic grouping, issuing joint statements criticising China over crackdowns in Hong Kong and the province of Xinjiang. While New Zealand has joined many of these statements, it was notably absent from some over the past year.

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