For the first six or seven years that I knew
Jacinda Ardern, I would have been fairly certain that no-one could take a bad photo of her. She was grace under fire, even on the devastating evening in 2014 when, for the second election in a row, she was pipped in the Auckland Central electorate by a margin of a few hundred votes – a fraction of the number split off to the Greens’ candidate who was already assured of a list seat.
Since last September’s election, however, you might have thought she never makes a good one, our own mainstream media here demonstrating (as it did with David Shearer and successive Labour leaders before her) that no picture angle is too odd; no brutal lighting or mouth open in the middle of a sentence too dishonest to be published.
But while media detractors cluster like flies in a (so-far unsuccessful) bid to bring down Winston Peters at any cost in her absence, on the global stage Ardern’s achievements and formidable ability are assuming epic proportions.
Her first social democratic budget – empowered by investment in health, education, climate action, public housing and social justice – is to build “a kind and equitable nation where children thrive, and success is measured not only by the nation’s GDP but by better lives lived by its people”.
It will either inspire or infuriate you but it’s not business as usual.
So how does the world see this phenomenon in a civilisation that’s wrestling to find a model that’s not orchestrated by, and for, a white, wealthy male global establishment?
Rather well, actually.
Late last month, the Guardian hailed Ardern as “the very hero the global left needs right now”.
Triumphantly pregnant and in London for the Apec conference, Ardern inspired Australian author and Guardian columnist Van Badham with her deft – and entirely genuine – blend of the old left economic programme with the new explicitness of identity politics.
“Observe, also Ardern – who is Pakeha, not Māori – meeting the British queen [who appeared animated and openly delighted] wearing a Kahu huruhuru, a feathered cloak of the type bestowed on chiefs and dignitaries to convey prestige, respect and power,” said Badham.
“It was a demonstration of a status conferred, and not stolen, and a representation of a New Zealand unafraid to show pride in its indigenous past even as it engaged in diplomatic pleasantry with its colonial one.”
Ardern’s video announcement of newborn Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford’s arrival inspired Badham again: “New Zealand’s prime minister introduces her new baby with radiant sincerity. She thanks her midwife and the hospital staff for their generous professionalism, and New Zealanders for their kindness and gifts. With a quick cutaway, she even jokes with the baby’s father about his “dad jumper”.
“But as a political communication, the video is matchless. In an epoch overcast by growing shadows of reenergised rightwing authoritarianism, Ardern’s public hospital nativity offers a luminous symbolic affirmation of her leadership not just of New Zealand, but of the western electoral left.”
“The achievement here is her marriage of the old left economic program with the new explicitness of identity politics – and it resonates because it’s sincere,” Badham said.
When Ardern was named by Time magazine as one of the hundred top most influential people in the world of 2018, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and author of Lean In, described her as a “political prodigy” who was “changing the game” and inspiring women and girls around the globe.
“Just 11 countries out of almost 200 are led by a woman. Let that number sink in. That’s how hard it is for a woman to rise to lead a nation. Last October in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern did it.”
It’s no odd electoral accident. Ardern just passed a social democratic budget despite a delicate balance of coalition partners. Polls have held. Her personal approval rating is reported at 76 percent.
In the prestigious global affairs magazine Monocle, she countered journalist James Chambers’ concern over GDP ‘growth’ slowing. It was time to measure and use a living-standard framework “and start talking beyond GDP”, she said.
“Our indicators are looking solid and we’re also on track to run budget surpluses with decreasing government debt.
“There is an unfair perception around Labour parties, particularly when you look at our previous record [when] Helen Clark ran continuous budget surpluses, had some of the lowest unemployment in the OECD and also got our core [government] debt down to almost zero.
“Yet National still said we ruined the economy. Is it frustrating? A little bit.”
All this makes her a celebrity. It will take Neve’s “4.2 million godparents” to align if we are to actually alter the planet’s political landscape. • Liz Waters