All Smiles? Ardern’s political project is “a work in progress” – upon which the spotlight of public scrutiny (and the dubious boon of public acclaim) may have fallen too soon. It is simply not enough for a political leader to be in possession of high intelligence and finely-honed communication skills. A leader must also have something to say – and Ardern is still finding her voice.
EVER SINCE TAKING fourth place in the Preferred Prime Minister stakes (after John Key, Andrew Little and Winston Peters) Jacinda Ardern has been in trouble. Not serious trouble: at least, not yet; but trouble nonetheless. The NZ Herald’s DigiPol has swung the spotlight onto a work-in-progress much too soon. The political project called “Jacinda Ardern” is not yet finished, and, as we all know, it is most unwise to show fools and children unfinished things.
Which category Paul Henry and Graham Lowe fall into – child or fool? – I will leave for the reader to decide. But the upshot: Lowe’s description of Ardern as “a pretty little thing”; ignited a social media firestorm. Not far behind the Tweeters and the Facebookers came the NBR’s dynamic duo, Matthew Hooton and Rob Hosking – whose right-wing provenance only added to the shrillness of the Left’s all-too-predictable responses.
“I am sick to death of the ignorant, sexist bullshit that my friend and colleague Jacinda Ardern has had to put up with in the past few weeks”, thundered Labour’s Grant Robertson on Facebook.
Well, yes, there’s been plenty of ignorance and sexism, and loads of bullshit, spouted about Ardern – and not just in the past few weeks. When Ardern and National’s Nicki Kaye first contested the Auckland Central seat in 2011 a young Herald reporter by the name of Patrick Gower framed the political encounter as “The Battle of the Babes”. Sadly, Gower’s characterisation (as insulting to Kaye as it was to Ardern) stuck, and both politicians have been living with it ever since.
It is a measure of Ardern’s maturity as a politician that she has been able to make the “Babe” label work for her – rather than define her. In no other profession does Oscar Wilde’s bon mot: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”, carry as much weight as in politics. To be called a “Babe” may transform a woman into an object of the male gaze, but if she is committed to constructing a successful political career, then Mae West’s wry quip: “it is better to be looked over than overlooked”; makes more than a little sense.
Because, of course, Ardern brings a great deal more than a set of regular facial features to the political table. Were this not the case, it is highly doubtful that the nation’s leading businessmen (shrewd judges of character – almost by definition) would have ranked her so highly in their assessment of the Labour Opposition. Hearing Ardern speak, it is immediately obvious that one is not only listening to a person of considerable intelligence, but also to a very experienced communicator. Combined with her open and affable disposition, these are formidable political assets.
Why, then, describe Ardern’s political project as “a work in progress” – upon which the spotlight of public scrutiny (and the dubious boon of public acclaim) may have fallen too soon? Because it is simply not enough for a political leader to be in possession of high intelligence and finely-honed communication skills. A leader must also have something to say – and Ardern is still finding her voice.
She cannot be another Helen Clark. The voice Clark perfected, to such extraordinary political effect, was the product of an era in which the values and purposes of social democracy required little, if any, definition or explanation – so ingrained were they in the New Zealand character. Ardern is the product of a very different historical period. Not one of Savage’s children, like Clark, but a child of Rogernomics and Ruthanasia. Losing the insidious accents of neoliberalism is no easy matter.
This is especially so when Labour’s psephological advisers continue to insist that the rhetoric and policies of undiluted social democracy (let alone democratic socialism!) will not be well-received by an electorate fed almost exclusively on neoliberal ideas. That the electorates in Greece, Spain and Italy have violently regurgitated these ideas does not impress these political “scientists”. Nor have they been moved by the huge crowds that are turning out for Bernie Sanders in America and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.
That Ardern’s political career, to date, has been guided by such “Third Way” theorists has rendered her eloquence curiously ineffectual. One can listen to her speeches, and be impressed by the strength of their delivery, and yet, when they’re over, find it difficult to say with any certainty what they were about. Many people walk away impressed by Ardern, but nowhere near as many are inspired. Indeed, it is difficult not to agree with the NBR’s Rob Hosking when he argues that it’s not Arden’s sex appeal that matters “but the vapid, substance-free politics she has offered so far”.
That’s why the glare of the “Is She Up To Being Leader?” spotlight represents trouble for the Ardern Project. It has swung in her direction too soon. She is being assessed as a potential party leader well in advance of her settling on something more substantive to offer the news media’s relentless interrogation than a fetching physiognomy.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Monday, 31 August 2015.