Opinion

Sinn Féin should learn lessons from Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand and not make promises on housing they cannot keep – David McCann

David McCann

David McCann

David McCann is an Irish News columnist and commentator on politics and elections.

Former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern
Former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern Former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern

A centre-right government came to power in New Zealand last week.

Remember Jacinda Ardern? A prime minister who captured worldwide attention in 2017 and then during the pandemic with her landslide re-election in 2020. In October, Kiwis reversed the transaction in their droves with her successor, Chris Hipkins, seeing Labour lose nearly half of their seats.

How did it all go wrong so quickly and what lessons are there for Sinn Féin, in particular?

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Like most Western societies, New Zealand’s main urban centres in places like Auckland have a major issue and that is housing. Promising to fix the escalating housing crisis, Ardern promptly banned foreign buyers from the market, promised to build more social housing and build thousands of new homes.

These ambitious plans were convincingly argued for and sold by the Labour government, which promised to get on top of the problems built up by their Conservative predecessors. However, the results have been mixed. Like many other countries, house prices surged during the pandemic, meaning that the median house price in Auckland is now $200,000 more than it was in October 2017.

In Ireland, it is really easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick are the only places in the world facing a housing crisis. Well, they are not. The issue of housing is eroding support for governments in places like New Zealand, Canada and Australia, with those on middle incomes struggling to get themselves or their children onto the housing ladder. In turn, opposition parties are surging in support, based in part on pledges to fix a growing housing crisis.

Voters will punish parties if they fail to fulfil promises on housing
Voters will punish parties if they fail to fulfil promises on housing Voters will punish parties if they fail to fulfil promises on housing

New Zealand has just shown a warning for these opposition parties. It is not as easy to fix this problem as you think it is. Simply building more houses and tinkering with regulations does not bring down house prices. Where you have a strong economy and pull of people who want to work in your main urban centres, you will see prices go up.

Housing will likely be a main issue going into the next Irish and UK general elections. There is a set of angry voters who are determined to punish incumbent governments for their failure to stabilise rising house prices.

Yet what New Zealand shows is that what these voters give, they can quickly take away if progress is not made. This is the bit that opposition parties are not giving enough thought and consideration to. As the former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo once said: “You campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose.”

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I do not doubt that like New Zealand Labour in 2017, parties like Sinn Féin sincerely believe that they can quickly turn around the housing crisis.

The argument that this column is trying to hammer home is that as Jacinda Ardern found, good intentions and committing to build more homes is not enough. This problem is complex and the voters who want quick results are going to end up in a perpetual cycle of disillusionment as a variety of parties fail to solve the housing crisis quickly.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald hope to become the next taoiseach
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald hope to become the next taoiseach Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald hope to become the next taoiseach

This is where the conversation around housing needs to go. Sinn Féin needs to have a plan B in place for what they would do if what happened in New Zealand gets repeated in Ireland. That requires setting realistic expectations for voters and putting the problems in Ireland into a wider international context.

Solving the housing crisis will take time. Whilst the world gave so much positive attention to how New Zealand managed the Covid-19 pandemic, other issues were eroding support for the government. Parties on the opposition benches in Dáil Éireann should look at how things went so quickly wrong for the Labour government and why voters abandoned them. If you set a standard in politics, voters will punish you if you do not meet it.

As we go into election season next year, setting those expectations for delivery will be just as important for the longer-term success of any future government.