It’s not easy being Jacinda: the challenges ahead

This year we had the most extraordinary election. Simon Wilson looks at where to now for the new government and the new opposition.

Earlier this year Spinoff writer Simon Wilson scored an unusual double in the Canon Media Awards: he won the politics and business category awards for both long-form feature writing and opinion writing. Wilson has spent the year covering politics for The Spinoff, both in Auckland and nationally, as well as writing about the arts, food, society and civic issues. We’re sad to say he leaves today. This is his last piece for us – a throwdown to the new government (and the opposition) in the wake of an election that, he suggests, will bring profound change to this country.

Who won big at the New Zealand rugby awards last week? Easy, right? It was the Black Ferns, the New Zealand women’s rugby team. You barely need to have been following sport or the news to know that. Fresh from winning their fifth (!) world cup title, they took out team of the year, coach of the year and try of the year, while individual players won other awards too.

Who presented that supreme award to the Black Ferns?

I haven’t met anyone yet who knows the answer to that. It was the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.

The symbolism of the moment should not have been lost on anyone present at that glittering gala dinner: in rugby as in politics, the time for women to shine had arrived. A few weeks earlier Ardern had presented a music award to Lorde – they hugged and fangirled each other and that was a pretty special moment in our history too. Those music awards were telecast live and so we know about it. But the rugby award, that was even bigger, wasn’t it? It takes nothing away from the astonishing achievements of Lorde to say that Ardern and the Black Ferns, winners on stage together, marked a wider and deeper reach through the cultures of this country.

And yet it seems the symbolism of the moment was almost entirely lost on some of the people at that dinner. There were no front-page photos of the PM with the team, or even with the captain, Fiao’o Fa’amausili, or the women’s player  of the year, Sarah Goss. TV coverage barely mentioned that Ardern had even been there. Nobody, to my knowledge, reported what she had to say.

What lessons there are to learn from that – for the Labour Party, for the Office of the Prime Minister, for the New Zealand Rugby Union, for the media? Remember all those me-too moments of John Key with Richie McCaw and the All Blacks? We saw those pictures everywhere and it wasn’t an accident. Key’s minders made sure those photos happened, the NZRU was happy to oblige and the media knew the public wanted to see them.

Why didn’t it happen this time? Because the PM’s office didn’t make sure the right photo opportunities arose? Yes. And because the NZRU didn’t facilitate it? Yes. And because the photographers present didn’t insist on it? Yes. And because the editors and producers in charge of what went to air and what got published didn’t make the best use of whatever they did have? Yes, yes, yes.

It’s called sexism. Unconscious or not, that’s what it is.

Sometimes, the media knew when to take a photo. Jacinda Ardern and colleagues at her home in Auckland, the day after the election.

In the politics and culture of this country, two things happened that night. One was that great symbolic marker of change: at the pinnacle of New Zealand rugby acclaim, a young female prime minister was there to honour the fact that it was the women’s team which had the greatest achievements.

The other was that the institutions and individuals responsible for recording the occasion did not know, or did not care, or did not have the skills to deal with, what they were witnessing.

It’s odd, in a way, because in New Zealand – unlike, say, Australia or America – there are surely few people left who have trouble with the idea of a woman as prime minister. But, it turns out, it doesn’t follow women will routinely get the same respect as men.

Still, 2017 has been the year of gender politics, no doubt about that. The world has changed and so have we. As a country, we are not what we were.

Jacinda Ardern represents the change in both gender and generation, while at the other extreme there’s Don Brash, who represents the failure of those who would stop those changes. For Brash, it’s the whole caboodle: he’s got problems with the politics of gender and generation, and most obviously race.

Don Brash – truly, I say this in sorrow far more than anger – gives a bad name to old white guys everywhere.

Not Winston Peters, though, he gets it. His support of a Labour-led government signals a desire to stand on the right side of history. He knew the tide was running out on the age of the baby boomer. He could see, rightly, there would be no dignity standing with National against that tide.

Quite possibly, even Don Brash himself gets it. What else could account for the despair he projects whenever he complains about te reo? It cannot be, surely, that he objects to hearing a bit of spoken Māori from time to time.

It’s because he knows he’s been left behind. And he wasn’t ready for that.

Don Brash: National Party leader, Act Party leader, and now what?

Todd Muller gets it. The Bay of Plenty MP is National’s new spokesperson on climate change and has already declared his interest in a consensus approach to the issue. A carbon-zero target by 2050 was policy for both the Greens and Labour during the election campaign, and Greens leader James Shaw, who is the climate change minister, has said he will introduce legislation by the end of October next year. His plan is to create a nationwide, consensus-based strategy, with a Climate Change Commission to oversee progress.

Perhaps Muller knows his party would condemn itself to irrelevance if it stood aside from that approach. Perhaps he knows it would be worse than that: trying Trump-like to frustrate the fight against climate change would damage this country in so many ways. Or perhaps he simply agrees we need to do it and can’t see the point in letting petty politicking get in the way.

Not that it will be easy. Agreeing to do it is the easy part, compared with agreeing how. But the debate has shifted. Climate change is a mainstream issue, and those who would subvert the fight against it have been pushed to the fringe. National won’t want to stay with them.

It is odd, though, watching National right now. They’ve scored some easy wins in the debating chamber: clogging up the system with tens of thousands of written questions to ministers, making the most of procedural missteps by the new government, sinking defiantly into their new role as a carping, complaining opposition. Trying not to sulk. Trying not to look ridiculous.

But catching inexperienced ministers off guard in Parliament means nothing. National are undoubtedly buoyed by the way their support in the post-election opinion polls has not yet collapsed, but they must know there is no future in it. As the new government gets fully into gear next year, pettiness in Parliament will not remain a smart strategy for an effective opposition.

James Shaw clowning around at the 2017 Green Party conference. (Photo Simon Wilson)

That’s because the new government isn’t just warming the benches. It has a grand goal, which is nothing less than to rebuild New Zealand society. They’re going to lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty; fast-track the desperately needed construction of homes, transport and other urban infrastructure; upgrade outcomes in education; overhaul the disgracefully neglected health system; build a higher-wage economy; kickstart the country’s retirement savings programme; reform the relationship between beneficiaries and the state.

And keep the economy on an even keel. And! Establish that countrywide strategic campaign to synthesise economic and environmental planning – we’re going to become both carbon zero, in time, and more economically robust.

Maybe they won’t get it all done. But is there anyone who thinks they shouldn’t try? Is there anyone who thinks these goals are not precisely what a government in a developed country with a strong economy should be doing? What it should be ashamed of itself for spending, say, nine years in power and not doing?

National’s path back to government is not to keep saying yeah, nah that’s stupid. It’s to convince us they could do the job – the same far-reaching, visionary job – better. Because as became clear in the election campaign, Labour, not National, has set the agenda.

The hallmarks of the new government’s approach, as articulated to date, are instructive.

  • They have long-term goals.
  • The reforms may be gradual but they will be cumulative and become radical.
  • The approach is inclusive.
  • They are determined to do this.

Shaw’s approach to climate change is a model for all that, but it is far from the only one.

This is all pretty new, because these were absolutely not the hallmarks of the Key/Joyce/English approach to politics. Under them National aimed for short-term electoral appeal, its reforming zeal was minimal and it did not worry that close to half the population might be alienated by any given policy or any set of behaviours. Pulling pony tails, say. They were really not determined to do anything.

OK, all very well. Will Jacinda Ardern succeed? Will her government gain traction, hold the opposition at bay, make the changes, become admired and, in some quarters at least, loved? Will the scales tip from potential into achievement?

Jacinda Ardern in selfie mode at the Otara market, during the election campaign. (Photo Simon Wilson)

The three big challenges for Jacinda Ardern

Number 1: Getting stuck in the beltway

Jacinda Ardern is like John Key in one very important way: she’s got the selfie charm. People loved him, and then her, in the malls, on the streets, in the workplaces, in the schools. And she knows how to work it, she understands implicitly, as he did, that a selfie taken well, which means when you as the politician make it a special moment for the citizen, that selfie will become an endlessly reinforcing advertisement for you, on Facebook and on everything.

She also understands, like both Barack and Michelle Obama, the power of a good speech. Key was never into that – blokes round the barbie don’t do rhetoric – but Ardern is. Her best speeches are aspirational, heartfelt and smart – and they reinforce her wide appeal.

It’s not widely acknowledged that Labour did very well in the provinces this election. They didn’t win the countryside, but the swing to Labour there was bigger than in the cities, and bigger in the South Island than in the North. Jacinda Ardern, a woman who grew up in a small town in Waikato dairy country, has greater appeal to voters in provincial cities and towns than most Labour leaders ever had.

Why would that be true – she is, after all, a sophisticated urban liberal who lives in Auckland, used to do DJ sets and wears, not power suits and flat-coloured blazers but Ponsonby Rd couture? It’s because women voted for her, isn’t it?

But here’s the problem for her now. She’s shown us the charm and the provincial reach, but as yet there’s been little evidence she can command the greatest John Key skill of all: the shuck off.

The ability to persuade voters that whatever the problem, it didn’t matter because it was not a thing that real, ordinary people cared about. Yeah nah, nothing to see here. I’ve got this. How’s the beer?

Key was so good at it he was able to neutralise every political failing, ministerial outrage, conflict of interest, stumble, cock up and insidious policy and practice of his government. Dirty politics? Yeah nah that’s what Nicky Hager does, isn’t it? Can I get you another beer?

Can Ardern do that? I don’t mean can she cover up the deceits of her own government. We want to know about them. I mean, can she persuade voters that the things that really are just beltway obsessions are not important? As her ministers and new-style coalition government – and she herself – learn how to do their new jobs well, can she quarantine the little mistakes they will all inevitably make and not let them turn into a narrative about incompetence?

She hasn’t done that yet, but she has to learn the trick of it or the opposition will push her government up against the wall and beat them all to death with sticks. Incompetence is not a cardinal sin – former health minister Jonathan Coleman is still with us, just for starters – but if you let it define you, it becomes so.

Jacinda Ardern with colleagues Aupito William Sio and, behind them, Nanaia Mahuta (left) and Louisa Wall, in the Mangere town centre, during the election campaign. (Photo Simon Wilson)

Number 2: Creating a higher-wage economy

The hardest single policy task for the new government is to create a higher-wage economy. Raising the minimum wage will help, pushing hard to close the gender pay gap will too. But New Zealanders are so deeply wedded to the idea that cheaper is better, whole sectors of the retail economy have adjusted to it.

Shifting the settings on wages and prices will be fiendishly difficult, especially in an age of fast-growing automation and even more especially because of the government’s fiscal responsibility rules. Borrowing has to be reduced to 20% of GDP, which severely limits the government’s access to funds, therefore its ability to spend money to raise incomes. Inflation can’t become a thing, because that hurts everyone too.

But higher wages remains a core goal. They’ll be judged on it, and they should be.

Jacinda Ardern points the finger at Mark Richardson on The AM Show.

Number 3: Sexism

See above. There are people who say it’s not because she’s a woman, all they’re worried about is her youth and her inexperience. But would they say that about a 37-year-old man if he’d been in parliament, like Jacinda Ardern has, for nine years?

There are people who thought Helen Clark was “too mannish”, and Jenny Shipley before her “too snobby”, and think Ardern now is “too girlish”. There are people who will always think every woman of power is too inappropriate, one way or another.

There are people who think that if she fails it will be because she’s a woman; if she succeeds it will be because it didn’t matter.

Ardern will be used to all of that. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t stop.

And besides, here’s the thing about Jacinda Ardern. She wasn’t sure, she said, right up to the moment she was sure, that she wanted to be leader. But when she got the job she showed, all in a rush, a lot of things.

She was decisive, the essential skill of a boss. She knew how to surround herself with highly competent people: her senior cabinet members have on the whole been impressive to date. She knew how to make alliances: the working relationships she’s established with Winston Peters and James Shaw are remarkably functional, especially  considering Labour and the Greens had a bumpy election campaign and Ardern and Peters barely knew each other.

She said, we’re going to make a difference. She is a leader, not a manager. She said, none of your shit, and waggled her finger at Mark Richardson. And by extension she waggled her finger at all the Mark Richardsons of this world, to make sure that everyone understood, not just that he was being stupid, but that she had the skills to tell him off, and that one of those skills was that she would laugh at him.

And she said, I’m going to do it my way. Which, to date, she has done. And, of course, she’s barely got started yet.

Twitter.com/@simonbwilson


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