New Zealand holding its ranking of 18th suggests a somewhat uneventful year, but this is far from the case. “Jacindamania” swept across the nation as the Labour Party returned to power for the first time since 2008 through a coalition agreement with the New Zealand First party. Jacinda Ardern’s optimistic and youthful spirit reflects a small but ambitious nation that punches well above its demographic weight, and her appeal continues both at home and abroad. Her appearance at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting wearing a traditional Māori cloak won praise, and she recently became the first female prime minister since 1990 to have a child in office. Not only can she take credit for boosting the country’s international appeal, Ardern has no doubt contributed to New Zealand’s strong performance in the Government sub-index. Last year we recommended a more concerted tourism push. This year, we were pleased to see the tongue-in-cheek “Off the map” campaign featuring Ardern and fan favourite Rhys Darby. This is a step in the right direction in boosting New Zealand’s performance in the Culture sub-index, attracting more international visitors, and stepping further away from Australia’s cultural shadow.
An effective and efficient government is once again New Zealand’s strongest asset. Ardern has injected new life into Kiwi polity, a tough ask given the popularity of the country’s two previous prime ministers. Her commitment to tackling inequality was reflected in the most recent budget, suggesting that New Zealand will continue to make strides in this sub-index.
Geographic and demographic barriers prevent New Zealand from featuring at the top of the Engagement sub-index, but it is heading in the right direction. This may have been helped by the decision to boost its foreign aid budget by almost a third as part of a “Pacific Reset” strategy. The West is also increasingly looking to New Zealand as a leader in Asia Pacific affairs – something which can be leveraged to strengthen its Engagement performance.
Ardern should use her current popularity to make good on promises for increased environmental protection. Global players like France are looking for partners in protecting the climate, and Ardern can propel New Zealand as a major voice on this issue. Improved environmental policies will also protect New Zealand’s stunning natural beauty – critical if the nation wants to continue attracting international visitors.