Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern discusses the future of New Zealand's foreign policy and lessons learned from the country's response to COVID-19 and reopening.
This meeting kicks off the 2021 Virtual National Conference and is open to all CFR members. The National Conference is underwritten by a generous gift given in memory of Peter E. Haas from the Mimi and Peter Haas Fund.
Inaugurated in 1969, the Russell C. Leffingwell Lecture was named for Russell C. Leffingwell, a charter member of the Council who served as its president from 1944 to 1946 and as its chairman from 1946 to 1953. The lecture is given by distinguished foreign officials, who are invited to address Council members on a topic of major international significance.
HAASS: Well, thank you. And welcome, one and all, and welcome to the opening session, to this year’s 2021 National Conference. I’m Richard Haass, still president of the Council after eighteen years, and I’ll be presiding over today’s meeting or tonight’s meeting or this morning’s meeting with the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern. This session, by the way, is on the record.
Before, though, we begin, I just want to recognize my namesake, Mimi Haas, for her generous support of the National Conference in memory of Peter, her late husband.
I also want to say that tonight’s conversation is this year’s Russell C. Leffingwell Lecture, which is an annual event in which we feature a distinguished foreign official. And I’d like to thank Tom Leffingwell Pulling, Ted Pulling, and the entire family for their generosity.
This is a special year for us here at the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s our centennial year. We literally go back to 1921. And to mark this milestone of what has historically been our largest annual member event, it seems perfectly fitting to have someone speak who really represents the new generation of leadership who’s been given the challenge of dealing with all that the twenty-first century has to present to us. And again, it’s the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern.
Before I welcome her, I just want to say in her bio she’s the fortieth prime minister of New Zealand. She’s been leader of the Labour Party since 2017. But listen to this: she also holds the roles of minister for national security and intelligence; minister for child poverty reduction; minister responsible for ministerial services; and associate minister for arts, culture, and heritage.
So, Madam Prime Minister and Madam other ministers, I want to welcome you to the Council on Foreign Relations. Thrilled to have you. Honored to have you.
My first question is: What do you do with all your copious spare time? (Laughter.)
ARDERN: Well, as you’ve—well, firstly, thank you for the welcome. Thank you for the opportunity. And a warm—(speaks in a foreign language)—to all of the participants today.
As you’ve just demonstrated, we are a small nation, and that means it is tradition within New Zealand and our governments and prime ministers that we hold our own portfolios. And we have the ability to choose our own portfolios. Now, some of those we each will take. National security and intelligence is one that myself and predecessors have always held but then there are ones we choose. For me, child poverty reduction is a particular passion of mine, but also arts, culture, and heritage, just because of the role I believe it plays in nation-building, are those that I’ve chosen.
In my spare time, I sleep. (Laughs.)
HAASS: Yeah, we have something in common because in addition to my title I’m also the chairman of the art committee at the Council on Foreign Relations. And my only advice to you is there’s no other membership of the art committee, so it simplifies decision-making.
ARDERN: (Laughs.) Yes. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to structure things in that manner, but I’ll keep that in mind. (Laughs.)
HAASS: Well, great. Let’s get on with it.
New Zealand’s had a really impressive record by any and every measure of dealing with the pandemic, of dealing with COVID-19, so I have—I have two questions. One is, what accounts for that? I mean, yes, I understand the geography and the rest, but what accounts for that? Because the variation across countries is enormous. And second of all, are you worried now that as well as you’ve done to date, what we’ve seen in other countries—particularly in the Asia-Pacific region—is that they’ve proven to be more vulnerable than they thought they were going to be in the absence of widespread vaccination?
ARDERN: Yeah. Two things I’d say that—firstly, that would account for the position that we hold now. One—and I’ve never trivialized this—time. You know, we did not find ourselves at the forefront of the pandemic at the same time that others did. Our first case in New Zealand we recorded on the twenty-eighth of February 2020, so that was sometime after what we were observing particularly in Europe at that time. And so that gave us a little bit of extra time to understand the nature of the virus to the extent we could in those early days, to really start and build some dialogue with our scientific and health community around our response.
But we’ve always been willing to alter our approach. So even in those early days, we took the position that many did when we modeled what the likely impact of COVID-19 on our nation’s population would be. And we started talking about flattening the curve, as many did—that idea that we would try and suppress the virus to the extent that we would be able to manage it within our health system. But I remember distinctly the day that my chief science advisor, who I leaned heavily on through the management of the pandemic, presented me with a graphic that demonstrated that even flattening the curve in New Zealand would mean we would not be able to manage those cases within our health system.
So at that point our view was, well, we need to do something differently than everyone else, and that’s when we started talking about this idea of having a zero tolerance to COVID—so every time it emerged, stamping it out. And that’s the approach that we’ve—that we’ve taken. But time was so critical, and also our willingness to just engage with the scientific community and to put health first. Our view was in doing so the economic benefit would flow from that, and that’s proven to be true although we didn’t know it at the time.
On your second point, I think we’ve always felt vulnerable. I don’t think there’s been a time through this pandemic where I’ve ever thought everything’s done and dusted, everything’s in place. Every week I read a collection of scientific research around what the virus is doing, how we see the variants behaving, the efficacy of the vaccines. And so our view has constantly been we need to change and adapt all the way through this and make sure that we keep our options open. So as we look to change up our approach as we roll out our vaccine, our starting point will be: How do we preserve our position and give ourselves options? Because the moment you change up that strategy away from elimination, it’s very hard to get it back. So constantly feeling vulnerable, I think, has actually been helpful to us.
HAASS: Just one last question on this before we move on. Did you encounter any social resistance early on? And if so, how did you overcome it?
ARDERN: Actually, you know, look, there’s always been—as with every nation that I’ve observed, always been a—perhaps a small group who may disagree with tools like lockdowns. Relative to other countries, we’ve had fewer of those. But by and large, the sense of unity around our strategy has been very, very good, and I would put that down to a couple of things.
Firstly, again, just as I observed what was happening internationally, so did the New Zealand public. They could see the devastation the virus was creating.
Secondly, we were always honest and open about the challenge in front of us and what we knew about the virus and what we didn’t know. So really, regular communication about our—around our strategy was helpful. And in those early days, because we moved into a national lockdown—a very, very significant lockdown; basically, people for, you know, the better part of a month were confined to their homes—and we were communicating with the public every single day, for the most part. And so people really understood the strategy, why we were doing what we were doing. We predicted what would happen if we stuck to it and that proved to be true. So I think it built public trust and confidence in the strategy, and that’s also stood us in good stead.
HAASS: Okay. Let me talk about another issue that you experienced at home, this one not from abroad per se though it may have been influenced by it. It was domestic terrorism, domestic extremism. In 2019 you established a commission, if I recall correctly, to investigate it. What is it now years later you have concluded about how to—how best to deal with this, how to discourage it from emerging in the first place, how to preserve what makes a democracy democratic at the same time also you keep a society secure? Where have you come out on this?
ARDERN: Fantastic set of questions, and these are the very topics that we have been traversing over the last two days. We’ve just held our first counterterrorism summit in New Zealand, and this is one of a number of recommendations that has come from the Royal Commission into that domestic terror event on the fifteenth of March.
Just to recap on that event, the perpetrator of that event was someone who identified with extremist, hateful ideology. They were an Australian citizen who specifically traveled to New Zealand in order to carry out this attack. But we’ve never taken the perspective that because they were essentially an overseas terrorist of sorts, we’ve never taken the approach that somehow that has meant we are immune to it within our own domestic population. And the reason for that is because the ideology that this individual held is not dissimilar to the ideology that you will still find in parts of New Zealand.
We’ve taken an approach of tackling terrorism and domestic terrorism from multiple angles: updating our legislation to make sure that we’ve got tools like the ability to prosecute for preparatory acts, cracking down on our firearms legislation, but also—and I think this is probably the critical part of our agenda—recognizing the role of social cohesion and inclusion in counterterrorism. And this is the area that’s probably the hardest because it’s the—what some would perceive to be the softer approach. But actually, if you’re going to take a truly preventive approach, that’s where we need to be.
The prime minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, spoke recently on an event we hosted around online extremism and terrorism as part of our Christchurch Call activity. She said something that really stood out to me. And as of course the leader in Norway, a country that is all too familiar with the devastation of domestic terror having experienced it themselves in 2011, she said, “you don’t attack that which you belong to.” And that for me really sums up what we all need to confront as nations that have experienced domestic terror. How is it that we ensure we have a generation of young people who feel a sense of inclusion, that aren’t attracted to hateful ideology, that then doesn’t lead them down a path where they may act in a violent and extremist way?
And the evidence base around this, you know, in some cases I think we’re still trying to build our toolkit as nations. New Zealand’s establishing a center of excellence around counterterrorism, and I think this is where we may have something to offer because this is the space where we all know we need to be but some of that toolkit is a little less developed.
HAASS: Interesting. It’s been a big week for this issue here because just earlier this week the Justice Department here announced our equivalent of a—of a comprehensive initiative on dealing with this challenge.
Turn, if I may, to China. You’re both close to China but not that close when I look at the map. What is—from where you sit, what is your view of China’s objectives? What do you think China now and the leadership in China, how they define success for themselves when they—when they get up in the morning and look at the region and the world?
ARDERN: Interesting starting point for the conversation because so often the first starting point or the questions that are always posed to me are around the nature of our relationship, the change in dynamic we’ve seen. But actually, if you want to hark back to what is the central motivation for that changing dynamic, I would say that in some cases you’ll find it’s not too dissimilar to many other countries who are going through rapid periods of development. They’ll be as focused on their domestic population as any of us are. And the domestic—you know, the economic development, what that means in terms of poverty eradication, those are very much the things that I hear, you know, domestically when we were engaged in bilaterals that’s driving and motivating the leadership. But of course, when those goals spill over into having a material effect on a region or on our rules-based norms or on our multilateral architecture, that’s, of course, where we are experiencing those tension points.
For New Zealand, we have a number of firsts with China. You know, our FTA—our free trade agreement—was signed in 2008, so a relatively mature trading relationship there. Harking back to some of our past prime ministers’ engagement, the recognition of their market economy, that means that we have a relationship that, as I say, is quite mature. But that almost implies that it’s been static, and it’s not. The relationship is increasingly complex.
But on—(audio break)—for our part, our goal is to remain, as we always have been, a very predictable nation when it comes to our engagement with China. What we say publicly we often say privately first. Nothing we do will come as a surprise to those in leadership because we are consistent, and that’s really important to us as a nation that prides itself on our values-based diplomacy. But there’s no question it is a much more complex relationship than it perhaps has been in the past.
HAASS: Why wasn’t your government—tell me if I’ve got this right—did not support the criticisms of the World Health Organization investigation of what—of what began in Wuhan? And you know, obviously, a big difference between yourselves and your neighbor Australia. What accounts for that?
ARDERN: Well, actually, I wouldn’t characterize our position in that way. In fact, we’ve been very supportive of the World Health Organization’s second tranche of their reporting, which is very much focused on investigating the origins of the outbreak. In our view, as nations, how do we prepare for future pandemics if we—if we don’t allow ourselves the ability to learn from those that have devastated us the most? And that includes, obviously, COVID-19. So absolutely we support the World Health Organization’s endeavors there.
We also are very clear that we need nations to participate. They need to be open and transparent. We need access if we’re to be able to determine these origins.
But all the way through, we’ve also said this cannot be seen as a blame exercise because we need to learn. And anything that might act as a barrier for nations being cooperative we need to be mindful of. But unfortunately, I think probably some of that’s being mischaracterized.
HAASS: Okay. What if it turns out that the intelligence is that the virus not purposefully but accidentally escaped from the lab in Wuhan? What would—what would be your reaction to that?
ARDERN: Well, look, again, that’s a—that’s been a—that’s been a hypothetical that’s been put on the table and—alongside a number of other hypotheticals. At this point, our support would be that we need—it’s actually in everyone’s interest that we’re able to investigate that to the point that it’s either proven or disproven. And that’s in all parties’ best interests including China’s, I would have—I would have thought. So, again, we will focus on continuing to support those investigations to be seen through to the endpoint for the benefit of our global response in the future.
When we do find the origin I expect us to respond globally, putting in place protective measures to try, whether or not it’s wet markets or so on, you know, animal-to-human, put in place the protections that will try and prevent or reduce incidents in the future no matter what that origin is determined to be.
HAASS: So, again, it’s quite possible that we might not know in no small part because China will not permit an honest investigation.
ARDERN: In which case it’s—in which case it’s incumbent on all of us—and I think we’ve got a good steer from the independent panel—co-chaired by the past prime minister of New Zealand, the Right Honourable Helen Clark—we’ve got a good steer on those things that we should be enacting regardless in the meantime.
From our perspective, we would—we would very much favor seeing the World Health Organization on a much surer footing, a global commitment from nations to support the organization and the empowerment of the organization, resourcing. There are—there are many things that we could be doing to improve our preparedness.
But as with risk with all things, you know, whenever I think about the hazards that we as nations face and the fact that we all are ultimately dominated by a political cycle, what we have to do is make sure that we don’t respond to this event and move on, that we—that we really are dogged about putting in place those preventative global measures, because this will not be the only pandemic we face.
HAASS: Well, I’m afraid you’re right there.
One last question about China. A senior U.S. official recently declared that the era of engagement with China had ended and we had entered the era of competition. How does that strike you?
ARDERN: Yeah. I saw—I saw some of the way that that was characterized as being both competition where that was—where that was the right approach, but collaborative where that was the right approach and competitive when it was called for. And so—and certainly, I can only speak from New Zealand’s perspective. We would characterize our engagement as, you know, cooperating where we have those same goals—you know, and actually, we do have examples of that, including on issues like climate change—but that we’ll never—and that should never preclude us from being able to be very frank where we have disagreements.
We are very different nations. Our histories are vastly different, our institutions, our form of government, and so inevitably there will be areas in which we firmly disagree on matters. But what we—what we need to be able to continue to adapt and build is the kind of relationship where you can continue with those areas in which you have a constructive relationship whilst also feeling that you’re freely able to raise those areas in which you do not agree. And that is New Zealand’s ongoing focus because we will continue to raise those issues. We’ve been very open that we will, particularly human rights issues, whilst continuing being a trading partner. And we need to be able to keep those principles and values as we—as we trade, as we engage.
HAASS: You mentioned climate change. I wanted to follow up on that. New Zealand is a signatory of what I think is known as ACCTS, the Agreement on Climate Change, Trade, and Sustainability. And as best this layman here understands it, it’s a way to advance climate-related goals using trade mechanisms as the vehicle. Would you say something about that, in particular since you’re part of several of the principal regional trading arrangements of your part of the world, what you see is the potential? Because some people say—me included, actually—look to this as a really interesting idea, in some ways with a greater potential even than Paris for promoting serious progress on climate.
ARDERN: Thank you for raising it, because we’re not only a signatory; we’re one of the instigators of the agreement. And you know, it is in its—it is really in its early stages, but we have built a coalition of nations who were the first to join—to join up to the agreement, including in our region the likes of Fiji.
We are a very pragmatic people. And so when we’re faced with a—with an issue, in our—in our foreign policy we’ll look for the practical ways that we can address the problem that sits in front of us. And so for climate change, our—you know, some of our initiatives have included saying, well, actually, we’ve been battling the issue of fossil-fuel subsidies for a very long time. At the same time, we’ve got friction in our borders in terms of tariffs on environmental goods and services that will actually help nations to address the climate challenges. So how do we create a trade agreement and arrangement that tackles those two issues? And so that’s essentially what we’re trying to do there.
But that’s not the only format in which we’re trying to do it. I’ll use another example. We have the privilege and the honor of chairing APEC this year. We’ll be doing it for the first time ever in a virtual format. Some have pointed out to me that it demonstrates we’re living the climate change values by reducing emissions significantly. That wasn’t our ultimate goal. (Laughs.) But within our chair—our chair role of APEC, we are looking for progress in particular on some of those really practical initiatives that are challenging us as a region, including climate.
So here what we’ll be seeking is much more ambition on things like fossil-fuel subsidies. Some ten years ago APEC economies committed to ridding ourselves of those subsidies, the value of which far outstrips the investment that as nations we’re looking for into clean tech in order to take on our climate challenge. So a simple shift would make such a dramatic difference.
But in the ten years we’ve made that commitment, fossil-fuel subsidies have increased in value. So from our APEC chair role, we’ll be looking for agreement that at the very least we don’t continue to see investment of fossil-fuel subsidies. So we try and see a form of sinking lid—because, again, you know, in order to stay relevant, groupings like APEC, like ASEAN need to demonstrate that we’re tackling the issues of our time. And I think they’re well-placed to do that.
HAASS: I’m just going to ask two last questions and then I’ll open it up.
Just today we—a few hours ago the summit meeting—or meeting, take out the word “summit”—between President Putin and President Biden concluded in Geneva, and one of the central issues on the agenda—it wasn’t on the agenda several years ago—was cyber and the whole question of what is permissible and not in terms of governments exploiting the cyber domain for their own purposes. And I’m just curious whether you—you’re as vulnerable as anybody else in this. Have you done any thinking about what you would like to see in the way of an international arrangement, or norms, or what you’re prepared to support when it comes to restraint in the realm of cyber?
ARDERN: Oh, I think you’re right. This is one of the growing challenges of our time. And this is—this is not something that we are anticipating. It is here upon us right now. And we—and it’s a—you know, it’s a great leveler for us all. No one is immune to this challenge, whether or not it’s perpetrated by state actors or just those with criminal intent. But the impact it can have on everything from economies through to health provision is significant.
New Zealand, not unlike other states, has recently experienced a cybersecurity attack that has impacted our health-care system in one region in New Zealand. Now, it might be easy to assume that they could just, for instance, put a halt to the way that we’re able to undertake some of our IT work. The effect was much greater than that. It affected people’s ability to access cancer treatment. That’s how devastating some of these activities can be.
So I would absolutely support, and do support, the work that’s being done to work collaboratively. Cybersecurity is a space where New Zealand and the United States have been working together. But I think building multilateral architecture in this space would be important, as will be the enforcement. Because actually it’s often hard for us to identify when things are being perpetrated by state actors.
HAASS: Last question, you mentioned the United States there. This is a question actually I plan to ask a lot of the leaders of other countries who come to the Council, either virtually or physically, over the next year. Which is: How do we look? We’ve been through a rather extraordinary few years here, in case one hadn’t noticed. We had the awful events of January 6. We still have problems, shall we say, passing legislation in our—in our Congress. We’ve had challenges to the normal rotation of power. How worried are you, when you look at the United States, about the resilience or robustness of American democracy? How worried are you about—that you can no longer presume—I don’t mean to put words in your mouth—but the question of continuity and predictability about the United States is not quite what it was. I’d be curious in your take on that.
ARDERN: It’s a big question. (Laughs.) And actually, I—you know, there’s research obviously that’s come out only recently around global predictions as they relate to the United States. If you’ll allow me, I wouldn’t mind taking one step back and just making a bit of a comment on New Zealand’s perspective on the world generally, but also on democracy.
I think the first point I would make is that people—when they ask me “how does New Zealand see the world?”—the first thing I say is, “well, we see the world.” Many nations may not necessarily be as globally minded as New Zealand is. But being a small nation, as we are, who has in our history felt the impacts of the choices and decisions of others, we are very internationally minded. We will almost watch another election, including the election in the United States, to a similar or perhaps even greater extent than we will a domestic election. And I know that that is not necessarily a universal trait, but that is one that we hold.
And so when we look around the world, I see, certainly, a role for us all to play in strengthening our democracies. Increasingly I think we see—and we’ve seen this since the impacts of globalization on our developed economies—that that has been for many a very jarring transition. And our people have looked to us for support in ways to overcome that transition in a way that doesn’t materially impact their well-being, in a way that they can have some hope for the future generation, that things will indeed get better for them. And when we have failed to deliver as democracies, that is the point at which we become questioned.
And we have a choice as leaders to either respond to that by actually delivering on options and policies that will make a difference for our people, or we have the option of responding by blaming others, by blaming globalization, by blaming trade, by blaming migrants, by blaming other. And so for those democracies where that has been the choice, then that is where I have some fear, because that not only butts against notions that are so important, such as inclusion, it also creates, I think, a distrust in institutions and ultimately destabilizes our democracies.
So if I come back to, I think probably a final summation, it does come down to us as leaders. For all of us who fear for the future and stability of our democracies, we need look no further than ourselves to find the solutions. And I would advocate for moving away from the politics of blame towards the politics of ownership and responsibility, where we do everything within our power to address the challenges that our people are facing, to build a more equal and inclusive society. And thus, in doing so, firming up our democracies.
HAASS: I am tempted to follow up, but I will—as is often wise, I will resist temptation. And I will—we’ll open it up. I’m not sure, Irina or Julissa, who’s going to handle the questions, but I will hand it off to whomever.
STAFF: Great. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record.
HAASS: Or Krista.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question comes from Mark Hetfield with HIAS.
Q: Thank you. I’m Mark Hetfield. I’m president of HIAS, which is the American Jewish community’s refugee agency.
I wanted to quickly thank you for your leadership and ask a question. Thank you for your leadership because in February 2020 my daughter Joni made the wise decision to spend a semester abroad in Dunedin. And one month later, when the pandemic triggered the termination of all U.S. study abroad programs, my wife and I told her not to come home, she’d be safer in New Zealand. A year and a half later, she’s still very happy and safe to be there. So thank you for that. (Laughter.)
And my question, on October 27, 2019, a mass murderer killed eleven people praying at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, immediately after posting on social media that my agency, HIAS, was bringing invaders to kill his people. As you’ve discussed, five months later in March 2019, fifty-one people praying in the mosque in Christchurch experienced the same horrible fate as those in the Tree of Life Synagogue. This coming weekend is World Refugee Day. And New Zealand has long been a very generous refugee resettlement country. Many of the people who were killed at the mosque and many of the survivors in that mosque were in fact resettled refugees that New Zealand has welcomed. What impact did the massacre, if any, have on New Zealand’s refugee program and how it reassures refugees that they will find safety and welcome in New Zealand?
ARDERN: Thank you. Thank you, Mark. Firstly, can I just say that I hope your daughter is well and enjoying her life in Dunedin. And I hope you’ll send her mittens. It can be very cold in that part of the country. (Laughs.)
On your question, you know, one of the—there were many, many things about March 15 that just added additional layers of devastation to that event. But one of the things that I know New Zealanders felt very, very deeply was the fact that so many of those who were impacted from our Muslim community came here to be safe. And in a way, I think we felt a sense of failure, because they’d come from such devastating circumstances, had made New Zealand their home, and we hadn’t been able to keep them safe. You know, refugees from Syria, for instance. And so that was—that was, again, as I say, just another layer of devastation. And one of the—one of the things that I saw repeated very often was “you should have been safe here.”
In terms of impact on our refugee quota and resettlement, the thing that’s had a much more devastating impact on that has been COVID, because actually in the aftermath of March 15 it hasn’t changed—it hadn’t changed at all our commitment to resettlement, and certainly has never been reported to me that it changed people’s perspective or willingness to be resettled here. COVID, however, because of the impact it’s had on the UNHCR’s work but also our ability to bring through large numbers of people into our quarantine facilities, did slow us down briefly.
But we have recently been able to gear back up. We have dedicated space in our quarantine facilities for our refugees who are coming to New Zealand to resettle and so we are now back into our regular rotation of resettling refugees here. And as I say, March 15 has not impacted that.
HAASS: What about from the point of view of your society? What have you done to persuade New Zealanders to essentially welcome refugees, people asking for asylum, people from abroad? Because here it’s obviously one of the most controversial public policy questions we have. What have you done to win over your own population?
ARDERN: One of the things that we—that is well-established in New Zealand is the—is the process of resettlement. And actually it’s been recognized as being—as being a very successful process. We have a resettlement center—so when our refugees first arrive, other than obviously going through quarantine, they go into a resettlement center where they spend time being supported and preparing for resettlement. And I’ve visited our center and met with the children and some of the community members and volunteers who come into that program. And it’s very—we try to create a very welcoming first stage.
Then one of the things that we have continued to adapt is a process that connects our refugee families with the communities that they resettle with. So we have those who really take a bit of formal responsibility for supporting families once they move to the town or region that they’ll be resettled in. And so that support network around our refugees is incredibly important. I mean, I don’t need to tell you, the experiences that many will be coming from, and to have that massive culture change. So that support—ongoing support is so crucial.
When it comes to the wider New Zealand community, look, there are challenges there. We have a housing crisis in New Zealand, so we need to constantly talk about the responsibility we have and our ability to continue to fulfill our international obligations, while we deal with some of our own domestic infrastructure challenges. But the message that I continually try and share is that we’re wrong to assume that it is us that is doing our refugee community a favor. It is them that brings something to us. When I look at the contribution of our refugees to the New Zealand society, it’s significant. And we have, for instance, members of parliament with refugee backgrounds that speak so openly to that.
So I really wish for New Zealand to be in a position where we amplify and highlight the contribution of often people with extensive backgrounds and working lives that really benefit us, so that we change up the nature of that conversation from it being us as the—as the ones somehow doing others a favor to ultimately being benefactors.
HAASS: Thank you. Krista.
STAFF: Our next question comes from Ted Pulling with Kora Management. Please accept the unmute. Thank you.
Q: I’ve accepted it. Richard, thank you for moderating this incredible session. And, Prime Minister, thank you very much for giving us your time. Everything I’ve seen and heard from you tonight or this morning confirms all the great things I’ve heard about you from my New Zealand friends.
My question pertains to the South Pacific, a region that is not often discussed. Geostrategically, it’s quite important. And it’s very rich in natural resources. How do you think New Zealand’s role in the South Pacific is going to evolve, especially as China plays a larger part there with its Belt and Road Initiative? Thank you.
ARDERN: An excellent question, and one that’s been top of our mind for the entire time that we’ve been in office. The first thing I should probably say is that, actually, we see ourselves as firmly embedded within the Pacific. We see ourselves as a Pacific nation. And slightly in a—obviously in a different position than other members of our Pacific Island Forum, for instance, which both ourselves and Australia are members of. But by seeing ourselves as members of the Pacific, it has caused us to reflect on the role that we play within in.
And on reflection, and having taken a good, hard look at our relationships in the Pacific, our view was that we needed a reset when we first came into office. That perhaps for too long we had—our relationships had reflected almost a donor-donee relationship, which was not a fair reflection of certainly our people-to-people exchanges and the way that we saw ourselves within the region. So we’ve been moving our relationships and, very deliberately so, onto a—onto a footing where we are alongside and embedded within the region as partners, and trying very much to change up that dynamic. Now, the only ones who’ll be able to judge whether or not we are doing that successfully will be our Pacific neighbors. So I’ll leave them to judge. But it was very deliberate decision.
Now, in terms of the geostrategic impact of that, New Zealand will never outspend some of the other nations in terms of our aid and economic relationships. However, we are not the only ones that are supporting the region. Of course, there is the presence of China in the region. But there is also the presence of Australia very strongly, the European Union, Japan, and others. What we would be thinking is, given the interest of the United States in the region—not only strategically but in terms of those longstanding relationships—is to look beyond those regional relationships, beyond just strategic and defense perspective, but actually look for the United States to embed itself more in our regional economic architecture. And I’ll say not just for the Pacific, but actually the Indo-Pacific generally. In the change in administration there’s an opportunity there, I think, to change up that approach. And if I was seeking anything from the United States, I would seek for them to think about—think about that opportunity.
HAASS: Just to be clear, the idea that we would reconsider not joining the CPTPP? That would—you would welcome our participation in that entity?
ARDERN: Well, it is—it represents 13 percent of world GDP. It would, if the United States joined, be the most significant trade agreement for the United States, I think covering something on the order of 40 percent of trade. It would be significant. And look, obviously there was—as a starting position we were very closely engaged in those—in those discussions. And we would encourage the United States to enter into multilateral trade agreements, or even bilateral trade agreements, but particularly with an eye to our region. But in doing so, we are asking for a high standard. And I think obviously that’s—you know, that won’t be—that won’t be new to those who have engaged with the text of the CPTPP. And it would require us to go through a bit of a process collectively. But, yes, we would encourage the United States to engage in those multilateral trade arrangements, because it can be to all of our benefit.
HAASS: We are one on that. Krista.
STAFF: Our next question will come from Robin Broad with American University.
Q: Thank you very much. And what an honor to be listening to you today.
I have followed with excitement New Zealand’s well-being budget and its recent 2021 focus on tackling climate change and inequality. How has the well-being budget helped you tackle environmental problems, such as those related to your economy’s reliance on mining? Thank you.
ARDERN: Thank you, Robin. I don’t need to tell you, because actually it’s a leader and past leader within the political landscape of the United States who said: GDP is—measures everything except that which matters most in life. So the well-being approach for us was about demonstrating those traditional measures of success don’t tell a full story. New Zealand, in the aftermath of the GFC, was promoted and acknowledged for having a very successful economic recovery. And that was absolutely true. The recovery relative to others was swift. However, our concern was that, at the same time, we were seeing increasingly a housing crisis, growth in inequality, and issues around mental health and environmental concerns, for a whole range of reasons.
So our approach in coming into office was how do we make policy interventions where, in measuring the impacts of those, we look beyond just traditional measures of the economic benefit and look to the longer-term benefit of interventions that improve the well-being of our nation? That led us in the first instance, in our first budget in 2019, to address mental health issues, with the largest investment we’ve ever seen in mental health in our country’s history. And then, as you pointed out, in 2021 a focus on child well-being. So we lifted government support for those who are unemployed or are sole parents. And we also made a commitment to hypothecate the revenue from our emissions trading schemed to cycle it back through climate initiatives, as well as making a number of climate-related investments.
And again, all based on our calculus that an early investment in some of these long-term issues both benefits our economy and also benefits our wider well-being as a nation. Underpinning all of that are things like our living standards framework. We’ve drawn on the OECD’s work for measuring impacts, and we’ve embedded that within the architecture within our treasury. So underpinning what I’m sharing with you is a policy program as well.
HAASS: Thank you. Krista, we have time for at least one or two more.
STAFF: Great. Our next question comes from Thomas Novotny with San Diego State University. Please accept the—
HAASS: We got it.
Q: Hello. Thank you very much, Prime Minister, for your presentation today. It was really inspiring. I’m questioning the strategy that is being proposed right now to achieve a Smokefree Aotearoa by 2025. I just wondered if you could comment on how New Zealand is probably going to take the lead in this sort of enterprise globally during that time. Thanks very much.
ARDERN: Thomas, may I applaud your intricate knowledge of New Zealand’s policy platform. (Laughs.) Yes, we have goals around making New Zealand essentially a smoke-free nation. And if I were to just take a step back for a moment and talk a little bit about why that’s important to us, this is—this is an equity issue for us. You know, disproportionately in New Zealand smoking affects our indigenous population, and particularly some of our indigenous young people. And that, you know, again, just highlights for us the importance of addressing this issue.
We’ve put out recently a strategy. Previously some of the initiatives we’ve taken on have been more in the traditional space, smoking cessation programs, the use of excise tax as a way to put cigarettes at a price point that discourages uptake. But you always reach a certain point where that starts having less effect and can create some wider knock-on effects for people trying to access cigarette smoking, like smuggling and the likes. So our next stage, and we’ve been out consulting on this at the moment, is to ask whether or not we reduce the number of outlets that are able to retail cigarettes in New Zealand.
At the moment you can buy them at your—I guess the equivalent of your local 7-11. We are at the moment canvassing whether or not that can be scaled right back, so you’re having to engage with specialty stores. And at the same time, we’re consulting on the idea of a smoke-free generation, so that from—if you’re born on a certain date, you’re just simply not able to purchase them, so that we try and phase out or create a generation where smoking is just not a part of their lives.
Now, we want to bring people with us. So what we’ve said is: If we want to hit this goal, this is what it’s going to take. Are you with us? And that’s the way we approach some quite gnarly issues in New Zealand. We’re very keen to hear whether or not the public supports some of the big issues we take on. Thank you for the question.
HAASS: A certain former mayor of this city, New York, would be very sympathetic to what it was you just described. Krista.
STAFF: Our next question comes from Lee Cullum, from Public Media for North Texas.
Q: Thank you very much. And I have to say, I doubt that I’m the only one who’s simply dazzled by all you’ve given us this afternoon, and all you’re giving your nation. I was very interested in what you were saying about smoking and would love to ask you about a related issue, which is guns. I’m from Texas. It’s quite an issue here, as you possibly know. And I would like to know how you’ve handled it. Evidently, very well.
ARDERN: Thank you. Lee, I think the starting point for me would just be to acknowledge the different—look, just a different approach that we have, the different history in our relationship with firearms in New Zealand, and a starting point that certainly in our legislation now it’s—gun ownership is treated very differently than it is in other nations. Within our legislation we embed it as a responsibility. So it’s not framed around a rights-based framework. So that means that we can take a different approach, and we have done.
Also, just in a similar way to Australia, I mean, we weren’t the first to have an experience where a horrific event really caused us to look much harder at the legislative framework that we had. And in the same way that in Australia they had a mass shooting that caused them to then run a scheme where they basically removed military-style semiautomatic weapons, that was exactly the same thing that we did in the aftermath of March 15. So we looked at their experience, we crafted for fairness reasons—because people had legitimately and purchased these particular weapons.
Our view was that in order to bring the New Zealand public with us and to make sure that we changed our law in a way that was fair, we instituted a buy-back regime. So basically, there was a catalogue, literally a catalogue of these guns that we were removing. We priced them depending on wear and tear at a particular percentage of market value. And we paid people to return them. And they did.
But the second stage has been—has been a very intricate one. That’s where we’ve gone back and looked at our licensing provisions. In New Zealand, in order to hold a gun license, you have to be deemed to be a fit and proper person. So we went through a process of looking at whether or not those ceilings were right, how we regulated that process, what checks we undertake to ensure the appropriate storage of your firearms. And we also put in a registration system. Previously you could own multiple guns and we wouldn’t know. We licensed you, not the weapons. We’re changing that now so both—we are registering weapons, we have a plan to, in New Zealand.
So this has all been, obviously, with hindsight as we look to our experiences with March 15, with someone who managed to obtain a gun license here and then managed to legally obtain weapons—albeit modified thereafter. So that really motivated significant change.
HAASS: Interesting. Alas, in this country, traumatic events have not necessarily led to political change. So it’s interesting to hear that story. Krista—
ARDERN: Yeah. One thing I would say is I did—you know, in the aftermath of that, people when they heard how these weapons were obtained really did support that change. So it really was a sense that—and we had—you know, we had essentially the support of the parliament. So that was significant as well. And so I don’t want to diminish, you know, the sense of the permission that existed within New Zealand at that time. Some of the other changes have been a bit more controversial, but nonetheless had the majority with the parliament to make them.
HAASS: Great. We have time for one last short question, and then the prime minister’s answer can be as long as she’d like it to be.
ARDERN: (Laughs.) I was going to say, I’ll take that as a guide for my answer.
HAASS: (Laughs.) I would never do such a thing.
STAFF: Our final question comes from Charles MacCormack with Save the Children.
Q: Prime Minister, thank you.
And we’re in New Zealand and 126 other countries. And as CEO of Save the Children, if you were my country director in New Zealand, I would move you to the United States. You’re in a country of seven million or eight million people. You’re a brilliant person. The world needs you for more. And so I’m going to move you. If you were working for me, I would move you to America. (Laughter.) (Inaudible)
HAASS: Mr. MacCormack, is there a question in there?
Q: Yes. The question is: Are you going to stay in New Zealand or are you going to move on up?
ARDERN: (Laughs.) That’s very kind of you, Charles. Yes, I am going to stay in New Zealand. And, you know, whist I’m very encouraged by your assessment, we are not a perfect country. I am certainly a leader that will constantly reassess whether or not we’ve got things right, whether I’ve got things right. We never want to sit back and think that we’ve done enough. We will always strive for better, and I will always strive for better. And so I’m staying here to keep up the work that we need to do.
HAASS: You know, listening to you I’m reminded of a comment made by a former Supreme Court justice, I think it was Justice Brandeis, who once described the states of the United States as laboratories of democracy. And New Zealand, it strikes me, might be something of a laboratory as well. It’s a small country, but with a lot of the reforms you’re undertaking—socially, domestically—it can become a very interesting proving grounds. And as a result, you will, I think, find yourself—you already are in a position—where you will collectively punch beyond your weight simply because of the power of example.
ARDERN: Oh, what I—and yet—and this is one of the things that I appreciate so much about the New Zealand approach, be it our business leaders or our community organizations or, indeed, in our politics. We’re often very, very focused domestically on the job that we are doing and the work that we’re trying to do. In part, that means that we don’t necessarily limit ourselves by looking abroad and saying it’s never been done and therefore it can’t be done. But that does mean that we can—we keep that singular focus, without necessarily worrying too much as well about whether it’s being noticed or whether or not it’s having effect beyond our own shores. So whilst we look to the world, we’re also very focused on doing what needs to be done here as well. So just an observation on our culture.
HAASS: Madam Prime Minister, I want to thank you for being with us tonight here. Thank you for starting your day with us. I want to thank, again, Mimi Haas, as well as the Leffingwell family. And the only favor I have to ask in return is if and when you find yourself physically in the United States, we’d love to welcome you to the Council either in New York or Washington. It would be a treat, as well as an honor, to have you back. But again, thank you—that you very much.
ARDERN: It would be my—it would be my pleasure. And of course, Dr. Haass, as we discussed before this conversation started, you would be most welcome to visit me in Morrinsville. And I would introduce you with great pleasure to the Morrinsville golf course.
HAASS: (Laughs.) You’ve just busted me in front of my membership. (Laughter.) Thank you so much.
ARDERN: Thank you.
HAASS: Stay safe and stay well.
ARDERN: (Speaks in a foreign language.)