A meeting with US President Donald Trump was always a fraught proposition for New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern. It was never going to deliver any clear wins, and was unlikely to do her progressive reputation any favours. And that’s the outcome – Ardern’s reputation has probably taken a hit, at least amongst her own progressive constituency.
Ardern’s liberal supporters see her as the polar opposite of the US President, and she has even been labelled the “anti-Trump”. They expected her in some way to speak truth to power when meeting the man who has become synonymous with the most reactionary problems in politics today. More than anything, Ardern might have been expected to use the opportunity to push Trump hard on the issue of climate change.
Instead, Ardern came out of the meeting typically upbeat, exuding her trademark diplomacy. She described the meeting as a “perfectly productive, warm, solid bi- lateral”, trotting out the usual platitudes about US-NZ relations, and highlighting Trump’s purported interest in New Zealand.
There were some tidbits: we were informed of Trump’s somewhat incongruous interest in the gun buyback scheme established by Ardern’s government immediately following the Christchurch mosque terror attacks. But, as signalled prior to her departure for the US, trade was top of Ardern’s agenda, with climate change seemingly barely touched upon.
Unfortunately for Ardern, the New Zealand media is now giving plenty of coverage of her positivity towards Trump, mixed with reports of dissatisfaction over her failure to push climate change action at the meeting. And to make matters worse for her, Trump has now tweeted that the good news stories about their conversation are “true” and that it was “A wonderful meeting!”
In one sense the meeting was a success. Many conservatives will be very happy with a positive diplomatic outcome, and Ardern’s focus on trade. Prior to the meeting conservative pundits congratulated Ardern for even securing the meeting with Trump and lobbied for her to use it to push a free trade agenda, which has long been New Zealand’s diplomatic focus with the US.
Ardern’s meeting ticked the usual objectives for a New Zealand prime minister meeting the US President. Business as usual has been achieved. Therein lies the problem for Ardern.
Ardern isn’t supposed to be a traditional PM. She came to power riding a wave of enthusiasm for being different. Jacindamania was based on the expectation that she would do politics differently and would reject business as usual. She promised “transformational change”.
Now this anti-Trump politician has had her first formal meeting with the real Trump, and nothing much has changed. While no one can have reasonably expected that her meeting with Trump would produce immediate results, there was certainly an expectation that she would at least emphasise the need for action on climate change.
Ardern has previously campaigned on making climate change her “generation’s nuclear-free moment”. In inviting this comparison, she was consciously evoking a time when New Zealand stood up to the US Government, banning American nuclear ships from visiting our ports in the face of enormous diplomatic and trade pressure. While contentious at the time, this defiant stance is now a source of immense national pride for New Zealanders.
Climate change is also why Ardern travelled to New York this week. And her meeting with Trump was preceded by her speech at the UN in which she determinedly remained on message and suggested trade was an answer to climate change.
To her misfortune, Ardern had to follow Greta Thunberg, who excoriated world leaders for their failure to act on climate change, describing this as a betrayal.
Thunberg’s address made it clear that there is now a new anti-Trump on the world stage – one who it is impossible to imagine meeting with Trump and letting him get away with business as usual, or proposing trade deals as a solution for climate change.
Ardern is also fighting a rising tide of cynicism at home over whether her actions match her rhetoric. The New Zealand Labour Party and, crucially, Ardern’s own office, is currently embroiled in a major sexual assault scandal. This is on the heels of failures to deliver promised changes – most notably the flagship housing policy has turned into a train wreck that her government is trying to salvage, without much success.
Ardern’s performance in New York is not going to be enough to assuage the uneasy feeling that for all Ardern’s claims to be different, it’s very much business as usual.
She described climate change in her speech this morning as an “extraordinary threat” but, right now, her response to that threat is looking – as we say – “pretty ordinary.”
Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and commentator at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.