Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 30, 2023

Is the idea of two women leading a political party really that far-fetched?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

While they may be the best candidates, it’s apparently accepted political wisdom that a Nicola Willis-Erica Stanford pairing would be too radical a proposition for the National Party. So much for meritocracy, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell.

Audrey Young’s recent series in the Herald examining post-election hypotheticals has been a balm. It’s reminded campaign-weary travellers that there will be an after, and thrown up interesting questions about the political landscape beyond recent hypotheticals involving Winston Peters. Her speculation on who might take up roles within cabinet in both election eventualities is like fantasy football for political nerds. 

Young’s last exercise in informed crystal ball gazing asked who would lead National if it failed to win power and new leadership was deemed necessary. There’s no real surprise in her conclusion that Nicola Willis would be the logical successor to current leader Christopher Luxon. Willis is widely regarded as more than capable and mischievous rumours continue to pop up about last-minute leadership coups. Those rumours are often demonstrably quashed by Willis herself as she performs the role of faithful deputy and not ambitious usurper, admirably. 

Erica Stanford is then mentioned as a possible contender for leadership after the election but ruled out as too fresh. “Stanford would be a better deputy to Willis,” writes Young. As with Willis, Stanford is also regarded as highly capable, performing well in her roles as spokesperson in two hefty portfolios, immigration and education.

Nicola Willis on a coloured background
Nicola Willis (Image: Tina Tiller)

For a clue as to where Young heads next, take a look at almost every party election hoarding fit to stand on a berm. It’s man-woman in every prominent party bar Labour, which has a nostalgic man-man pairing. (Winston, as in so many other ways, is on his own.)

Stanford gets ruled out as a possible deputy to Willis because, as Young writes, “it would be too radical a step for National to have two women in the leadership team. Willis would need a male deputy, even if it were a token male.” As the Herald’s political editor for 18 years, Young is no political naif. Her rationale for making that guess isn’t mischievous but steeped in accepted political wisdom. You have to assume that when she says it, she is correct.

The possibility of entering an era of the token male might tickle one’s feminist funny bone. “Tokenism” is a critique typically levelled at moves to address underrepresentation. It might be amusing in this context, but it’s also a bit ridiculous, especially when you consider the National Party’s values of equal opportunities for all and its history of extolling the virtues of a meritocracy. In 2002, a fresh-faced John Key gave it a nod in his maiden speech. It’s said Key’s anointing of Bill English as party leader in 2016 “bred some resentment in a party more used to a meritocracy”. Even after a maiden speech that acknowledged personal encounters with institutional racism, health spokesperson Shane Reti still talked up the merits of a meritocracy.

Equality for all is a perfectly meritocratic virtue. Beneath it lies the subtext that all are afforded equal opportunities from the outset. If all have equal opportunity, then only the cream will rise to the top. That was the defence mounted when the party fronted four Pākehā men in navy suits for the Tauranga byelection, a single brown belt ruining an otherwise perfect photo. 

For some reason, applying the same notion to the party’s female talent is apparently too radical. If Willis and Stanford are the best candidates for leadership, why is that combination so beyond the realms of reality?

Erica Stanford (Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone)

Accepted political wisdom would suggest the answer lies in acknowledging the party’s conservatism. For all that National has baulked at equity concepts, recently railing against surgical equity targets, a degree of engineering was required to overcome that conservatism and lift those who aren’t Pākehā men through the ranks on its recently released party list. Willis plainly spoke the word Luxon apparently couldn’t during an interview with RNZ, acknowledging gender was a factor in determining the list. You could say that stands as an example of equity principles in action. 

Equity acknowledges that everyone hasn’t been afforded the same opportunities and access and that must be accounted for. National’s list won’t result in a huge uplift in the number of women in its caucus, but it’s progress nonetheless. 

Perhaps a whisper of “patience, grasshopper” is what’s required for anyone who thinks the idea of two women leading a political party isn’t actually that radical. A quick stroll through our political history and you’ll find nothing but political grooms sitting on top of most of our party wedding cakes. For our main parties, the era of the political bromance was only brought to a halt by Helen Clark and Jenny Shipley. The Green Party, founded in 1990, is an earlier exception to the rule. Without recapping the rate of progress over the history of the equal rights movement, you might argue that Young’s conclusion that two women in party leadership roles isn’t just too radical for the National Party, but too radical for this country and most other countries around the world. 

While Labour’s current leader and deputy are both men, the current deputy prime minister is a woman. In its recent shift from one-man-band to caucus of 10 in parliament, the Act Party has Brooke van Velden in the role of deputy leader. Te Pāti Māori also has gender-balanced co-leadership. The Greens are the only party to have deviated from spoken and unspoken rules about a male/female split in a hypothetical sense. It changed its constitution in 2022 to say the party requires one female leader and one leader of any gender, and that one leader must be Māori. 

All our political parties seem doggedly determined to present leadership that resembles a heteronormative marriage, with most achieving it, in the name of gender balance. It probably focus-groups well and it’s undoubtedly progress when you look to our not-so-distant past. Most, if not all, have engineered this outcome and that’s no bad thing on its own, but it does raise the question of the end game. 

Are we striving for an era where no one is classified as the “token” anything, or are we happy with being stuck in a constant loop of engineering balance? Is the goal to remove the barriers that render equality of opportunity unobtainable or is it to just keep adjusting in constant acknowledgement that they will exist for ever? Is gender balance using the principles of equity the destination or is it a step along the way?

The idea of two women leaders at the head of any party really shouldn’t be that radical in 2023. Accepted political wisdom about grassroots conservatism aside, the suggestion that National couldn’t wrap its heads around it suggests we’re a long way off arriving anywhere near the meritocracy that’s previously been prized so dearly by party faithful and party leaders alike.

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