New Zealand smoking ban U-turn could be first of many steps to demolish Jacinda Ardern’s legacy

The progressive prime minister was lauded around the world, but not universally popular at home  (AP)
The progressive prime minister was lauded around the world, but not universally popular at home (AP)
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New Zealand‘s decision to reverse its landmark generational smoking ban to fund tax cuts could be just the first step of many by the new conservative coalition government to chip away at Jacinda Ardern’s progressive legacy.

The smoking ban, passed last year by the Labour government, stated that anyone born after 1 January 2009 would never be able to buy tobacco, with the age limit to purchase cigarettes rising by a year every 12 months.

The policy shift was a step towards preventing thousands of smoking-related deaths and saving money in the healthcare system. Unveiled by former prime minister Ms Ardern, the legislation also included a significant reduction in the permissible nicotine levels within tobacco products and aimed to restrict tobacco sales exclusively to designated stores, drastically reducing the number of authorised outlets from 6,000 to just 600 nationwide.

It was the world’s first policy of its kind and has inspired other governments, including that of the UK, to consider similar measures. Ms Ardern – the flagbearer of the smoking ban – is widely believed to be the inspiration behind Rishi Sunak’s announcement at the Conservative Party conference last month that he would effectively outlaw smoking among younger generations.

New Zealand’s law change was supposed to be implemented from July next year. Now, however, the new conservative coalition led by 53-year-old businessman Christopher Luxon says the prohibition will be repealed, and that it would have created “an opportunity for a black market to emerge, which would be largely untaxed”.

In her five years as prime minister, Ms Ardern emerged as a symbol for left-leaning politics and women in leadership around the world, elevating New Zealand’s profile in the process. Despite facing challenges on the domestic front, largely fuelled by unhappiness over economic concerns and Covid-19 restrictions, she became something of a global icon.

Jacinda Ardern, centre, waves as she leaves Friday prayers at Hagley Park in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 (AP)
Jacinda Ardern, centre, waves as she leaves Friday prayers at Hagley Park in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 (AP)
Ms Ardern grabs a selfie with students of Addington School in Christchurch, in 2017 (AP)
Ms Ardern grabs a selfie with students of Addington School in Christchurch, in 2017 (AP)

In 2019, in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks which killed 51 people, Ms Ardern promptly took action to strengthen New Zealand’s gun regulations, announcing a ban on military-style semi-automatic firearms within a week of the tragedy. She met the families of victims of the attack wearing a hijab, telling them New Zealand was “united in grief”.

As one of the world’s few female heads of state, she also made international headlines when she brought her baby to a United Nations meeting. She used the moment to advocate for more support for working mothers, saying: “I have the ability to take my child to work, there’s not many places you can do that.”

However, the going was not always smooth. During the first wave of Covid, Ms Ardern’s government implemented a strict national lockdown – a move which divided opinion. Some credited her with saving thousands of lives but a section of health experts called it “archaic and misinformed”.

Challenges persisted with the increasing cost of living, a shortage of affordable housing, rising inequality, and unfulfilled election promises. In January this year, she announced her resignation saying she “no longer had enough in the tank” for the job.

Despite the perception that Ms Ardern’s Labour government failed to accomplish significant tasks at home, the former leader did make contributions towards welfare and poverty reduction.

Now that the centre-right National Party-led coalition has formed New Zealand’s next government, experts say most of the reforms she announced could be at risk.

Mr Luxon was officially sworn in as New Zealand's 42nd prime minister and said his top priority was to improve the economy (NZME)
Mr Luxon was officially sworn in as New Zealand's 42nd prime minister and said his top priority was to improve the economy (NZME)

There are fears that important changes to housing regulations – such as preventing landlords from evicting tenants without cause and banning the deduction of interest payments – are on the agenda for reversal, according to local media.

Ms Ardern was also credited with revolutionising workers’ rights in New Zealand. Her administration significantly expanded unions’ collective bargaining power through the format of fair pay agreements (FPAs), bringing unions and business associations together to agree pay rates that would then apply across entire industries.

Mr Luxon’s National Party, however, says the new law “was harmful to productivity and business”. In its coalition agreement, the new government pledged “to repeal the Fair Pay Act by Christmas”, according to Stuff.

Several observers believe that given the complexity of FPAs, they were not necessarily the central focus of the election campaign. But they hold implications for Ms Ardern’s legacy as they represent the conflict between interests of capital and labour in the country’s political landscape.

A sign on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed between Maori and the British Crown on 6 February 1840 (AP)
A sign on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the Treaty of Waitangi was first signed between Maori and the British Crown on 6 February 1840 (AP)

The newly formed government has also vowed to re-evaluate the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document that establishes the relationship between the government and the Maori people. Last year, Ms Ardern issued a “long overdue” apology to the Ngati Maniapoto tribe for “warmongering” and nearly two centuries of Treaty of Waitangi breaches. Her government committed to providing $155m in financial and commercial redress and returning 36 culturally significant sites to the Maori community.

During the election, leader of the right-wing ACT Party (which forms part of the new coalition) David Seymour announced that his party aims to end the co-governance and eliminate “division by race”. “This country deserves a say on what the Treaty means. It’s everybody’s country and everybody should have a say in how its constitutional arrangements evolve and develop,” he said.

Another coalition partner, New Zealand First, also outlined proposals to strip Maori names from government departments and introduce legislation designating English as an “official” language of New Zealand. “Our very democracy is at risk from a rising tide of racism and separatism that has given birth to secret social engineering that you were never warned about and most certainly never agreed to,” New Zealand First leader Winston Peters (now deputy prime minister) said before the election.

Maori community leaders and politicians have warned that there could be civil disobedience if there are changes made to the treaty.

The then prime minister carries her newborn baby Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, alongside her partner Clarke Gayford, as she walks out of the Auckland Hospital on 24 June 2018 (Reuters)
The then prime minister carries her newborn baby Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, alongside her partner Clarke Gayford, as she walks out of the Auckland Hospital on 24 June 2018 (Reuters)

“To my mind, there are two Jacindas – the one with superhuman emotional intelligence in moments of crisis that had us bonded in solidarity to one another, and the super-cautious domestic policy Jacinda who, despite having our hearts soar from the rhetoric of transformation, always managed to disappoint in delivery,” media commentator Martyn “Bomber” Bradbury said when Ms Ardern resigned in January this year.

“There are only so many ‘good first steps’ before you accept you are jogging on the spot. In the end, her kindness exacerbated anger because when you are hurting, having someone smile at you makes you angrier.”

In 2020, Ms Ardern gained international attention for leading the most diverse parliament in New Zealand’s history comprising over half female members and the largest representation of indigenous Maori lawmakers. And in April this year, New Zealand achieved gender parity in its cabinet for the first time – albeit after Ms Ardern left office.

The shift to the right in this year’s general election saw New Zealand’s parliament “become less ethnically diverse, with a few exceptions”, wrote political scientists Alexander Tan and Neel Vanvari in news and academic research website The Conversation.

Mr Luxon’s 20-member cabinet met for the first time on Tuesday this week, and is no longer equal in terms of gender, with eight women and 12 men in the government’s top roles. The new prime minister refused to be drawn on policy announcements, saying cabinet needed to meet first to discuss them. “We’ll work out how best to implement all the commitments that we’ve made over the coalition, but some of it won’t all happen in the first 100 days, some of it will,” he added.