One big happy family (Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)
One big happy family (Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

PoliticsJuly 21, 2020

What about me?! Seeking the middle children in New Zealand politics

One big happy family (Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)
One big happy family (Photo: Getty Images/Tina Tiller)

Judith is the youngest of six. Gerry is the oldest of five. Jacinda and Grant? Youngest of two and three, respectively. But where are the misunderstood middle children in our parliament? Linda Burgess investigates.

If my younger sister – the cute-as-a-button baby of the family – smoked, which she doesn’t, she’d have inhaled, nostrils tightening, thoughtfully blown the smoke towards the ceiling, nostrils expanding, then slowly stubbed out her cigarette.

She’d just said that she and some friends had been talking recently about families, about family dynamics. “Oh God,” they’d all said, and she was quoting them, her wise bunch of only, oldest, and youngest buddies, “it’s always the middle one.”

Who are we, us middle children? We’re Dick from Famous Five, Titty from Swallows and Amazons, Jo from Little Women. We’re Elizabeth Bennett, we’re Jane Austen herself. We’re Pippa Middleton, Kim Kardashian. And at the risk of sounding too big for our boots, we’re the two famous Brontes, Princess Diana, JFK, Charles Darwin, and Martin. Luther. King. While most people can’t quite put a finger on what our problem is, a hefty percentage of people – including those who are middle children themselves – when asked about the characteristics of middle children, will hoist their eyes heavenwards and give exasperated sighs.

I said to my siblings, and I insist I was commenting not whining, that I’d had about three weeks with our mother to myself. I was about to turn three when my older sister turned five at the end of November; she had a couple of weeks at school and then it was the Christmas holidays. She was back to school at the beginning of February, and a week later someone put me on the crossbar of their bike and took me to a big building where high above me something swaddled in a white blanket was held up at a window for me to admire.

The siblings exchanged their “There she goes again” looks. As usual, their expressions said, it’s me, me, me.

“She’s the youngest. Of nine,” was my response to my husband, also a middle child, when he wondered what the hell it was that drove Ghislaine Maxwell to – allegedly, of course – do what she is charged with doing. He tried not to take this as an attack on his family. We hadn’t been going out all that long when I met his father and commented that even then, at 60, you could tell that his father was the darling baby of a large family. His father’s mother was only in her mid 40s when he was born but in the family photo, surrounded by her 10 children, he looks like little Lord Fauntleroy in his lacy collar, his father looks exhausted and she looks like a well-groomed Victorian grandmother. The three closest to him in age were girls, who no doubt spent much of their time dressing him in their old frocks and pushing him around in their dolls’ pram. He’d spent his entire life confident that he was adored.

Judith Collins is the youngest of six. This allows her to say anything she bloody well feels like, whether it be wetlands are just swamps and therefore hideous, or that she’s coloured too, white, and is this an issue? It’s don’t explain, don’t apologise; it’s haven’t you noticed I’m cute, and just annoying in a loveable way?

Simon Bridges? Youngest, also of six.

Gerry Brownlee, on the other hand, is the oldest of five. This means he can get petulant when he feels he’s being told off by Lisa Owen on Radio NZ. You would’ve thought, wouldn’t you, that she’d accept he has gravitas and a natural sense of leadership? That it’s not that he doesn’t want to answer her questions, but that he can’t quite believe she’s got the cheek to ask them? Not only is he the eldest of five but he’s been a school teacher and he knows when someone is out of order and needs fair, firm, but not entirely friendly putting in their place.

Sadly no one on Wikipedia cared enough to say where Todd Muller comes in his family, but it’s lucky Nikki Kaye is no longer an issue because she has one of those increasingly common families – “a brother and sister, two half-brothers, four half-sisters, one stepbrother and two step-parents”. My mind turned to mush after the third word.

Wouldn’t you just know it, but Helen Clark, who still sort of feels she’s head girl, is the oldest of four sisters. There would’ve been a roster to do the housework, set up by Helen. It would’ve left her time to swot. John Key of course is the youngest of three, and the other two are both girls. I remember one of them saying that her mother would’ve been rolling in her grave, not because he was prime minister, but because his party was National. But I bet he too was dressed up and pushed round in a wicker pram. “You know me!” he chortled when I watched him open the Anne Frank exhibition in Wellington. The room was full of holocaust survivors. With a perfect sense of timing he said everyone knew he loved a joke, and his one was something to do with the Wailing Wall and GST.

Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson are both youngest though when you’re just one of two, as Jacinda is, along with many these days, there are only two places. There’s just a small team, you only have each other, so you just get on with it; full-on love and support. Grant’s youngest of three boys. With his outspoken love of rugby, his whimsical dimples, he carries more than a hint of long-term cuteness.

As I did my exhaustive research on Wikipedia, something started to niggle. In New Zealand’s recent political history, where the hell are the middle children? And then, we had it: “As a boy,” wrote Henry Cooke on Stuff, “he did not seem immediately marked for greatness, arriving smack bang in the middle of 11 children…”

It’s OK, Winston. It really is. You can always come and play at our house.

Keep going!