Madeleine Chapman, who wrote the just-published biography Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader, says watching our prime minister handle the Covid-19 response is like watching an NBA star burst out from the pack. (Yesterday we published an extract).
Rajon Rondo was the fourth-best player on the Boston Celtics roster in 2012. By nature of his position as a point guard he led the team on the court but to the average viewer, the Celtics were fronted by the three veterans, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
After spending the season as a support player, Rondo came alive in the finals against the powerhouse Miami Heat. While the three veterans failed to perform, Rondo stepped up. In game two, he played every minute of the game, averaging a triple-double and showing a maturity and calm far beyond expectations. Had the Celtics not made the finals that year, Rondo may well have continued to be the fourth-best player on the Celtics, forever a supporter to the superstars on his team, even as they aged out of ring contention. The Celtics didn’t win a championship that year – LeBron James and the Heat were never going to be beaten – but if they had, Rondo would have won finals MVP, after barely scraping into the All-Star reserves during the regular season.
The pressure of a playoff series draws the potential out of young players, and it drew a lot from Rondo.
In politics, as in sports, it often takes a Moment (capital M) to reveal the star players. In scrutinising her life and career in politics, one thing has become clear: Jacinda Ardern is Rajon Rondo.
Had Metiria Turei not admitted to benefit fraud, prompting a surge in the polls for the Greens, largely at the expense of Labour, resulting in then-party leader Andrew Little feeling he had no choice but to step down seven weeks out from an election, Ardern would not currently be making global headlines for how her government is handling a pandemic. It took a Moment in 2017 to reveal Ardern’s natural ease in front of the media for her first press conference as Labour leader. It took a tragic Moment in 2019 for New Zealanders to realise the importance of empathy and compassion in a leader. And in the middle of this Moment, we are reminded again.
The regular season of business confidence, capital gains tax, and climate change legislation shows Ardern as a reliable support player, but not a star. Were her whole term defined by her performance during ordinary time, a vastly different picture would be painted of Ardern as a leader. But terrorism, natural disasters and global pandemics? These crises, so frequent in her first term as prime minister, have proven to be Ardern’s NBA finals.
If you know anything about the NBA or Rajon Rondo you’ll know that Rondo went on to be traded again and again as each team struggled with his inconsistencies, bad temper, and general unpleasantness. But ignore all of that, because I chose this basketball analogy for a reason. Having spent years never fully understanding all the niche references in political writing, it brings me joy in this time of isolation to confuse veteran politics nerds by writing about “hoops” at the same time as writing about Jacinda Ardern.
I was commissioned to write a biography of Ardern in April 2019, one month after the Christchurch terror attacks. International readers were enamoured by Ardern and her humanity in the aftermath of terrorism and the publishers wanted the story of the world’s favourite progressive leader. I signed the contract and went on sabbatical to write a book in four months.
I wanted it to be digestible and educational for people who weren’t familiar with the press gallery. I wanted it to be the story of one woman’s life and career as well as a crash course in New Zealand politics. And I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to appease overseas fans of Ardern because she was undeniably good and had mostly been on a roll since August 2017.
Two weeks later, Ardern ruled out a capital gains tax for as long as she was in office. Two months after that, Kiwibuild was ruled a failure. During this, little progress was made on resolving the land dispute at Ihumātao. In September, as my deadline drew near, the leading stories on the news were about the Labour Party and whether or not it was a safe place for young women. Ardern’s regular season was bad.
Ask anyone now to talk about Ardern’s time in office and little mention will be made of the day-to-day politics. Because in two years, she’s operated in a world outside of everyday politics. Leading a nation that’s just experienced its first terror attack is not everyday politics. Coordinating a united front in the wake of a fatal natural disaster is not everyday politics. And honestly, who knows what the world we currently live in is, but it’s certainly not everyday politics.
There was never any question of postponing the book, at least not to my knowledge. Everything moves so fast and so often that postponing for one news event would turn into a never-ending cycle of additional chapters until it turned into a tome that nobody would want to read, not even Henry Cooke.
In 2017, when Ardern was revitalising a flailing Labour Party and looking set to pull off an election upset, no one campaigned on a “she would be a comforting and stable presence during a global pandemic” platform or a “she will make the right decision in introducing a police state for our own safety” platform. This crisis we are currently experiencing is inherently political. Its aftermath will bring about widespread scrutiny as the government of the day tries to steer the country and its economy back on track. But that’s all to come and will be everyday politics when it does. Right now, New Zealanders need coherent messaging and messengers we can trust. In Ardern and director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, we have that.
We have a leader who steps up in the playoffs. That’s what international readers are interested in and why Ardern is such a global icon, more so than in her own country. In her own country, we see the whole season. We see New Zealand First being a terrible teammate, we see MPs within Labour who can’t even catch the ball.
But right now New Zealand is in the finals and Jacinda Ardern is a finals MVP.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.