Graham Adams: Ardern enters the tragi-comic phase of her tenure
As Labour’s fortunes plummet, the Prime Minister’s behaviour is becoming erratic.
When Jacinda Ardern was asked by Newshub’s Jenna Lynch for her reaction to the disastrous results of the Newshub-Reid Research poll released on Sunday evening, the Prime Minister claimed: “Our starting point is not what we can do to change the polls. Our starting point is what can we do to support New Zealanders with the cost of living.”
She looked strained delivering this desperately pious response, but she certainly handled the question better than when a journalist asked last month how she felt about the “hiding Labour got at the local body elections”.
Ardern’s weird burst of laughter visibly unnerved her senior minister Megan Woods, who was standing at her shoulder. A look of alarm crossed her face as if the Prime Minister might have suddenly become unhinged.
In fact, the question was perfectly reasonable given the widespread swing against the left — and made personal by the fact the two candidates the Prime Minister had endorsed, Efeso Collins in Auckland and Paul Eagle in Wellington, had been trounced.
A couple of days earlier, footage of Ardern’s rapid and erratic face-wiping gestures at a press conference had ricocheted around the world on social media.
You get the impression Ardern is not going to handle plummeting polls — both for her party and her own popularity — very well after years of riding high. As Lynch so cruelly put it: “Her star dust has turned to dust.”
In the House, Ardern’s occasional bursts of strained and shouty behaviour are starting to make observers wonder how well she is coping with the pressure of disasters on every front, from health and crime to education and homelessness (among many others).
National’s leader, Christopher Luxon — no doubt sensing blood in the water over her electoral prospects next year — is much more relaxed when quizzing her in Parliament than he has been previously, and openly laughs at her on occasion.
And well he might since Newshub’s poll gave National, at 40.7 per cent, more than an eight-point lead over Labour on 32.3.
It also can’t help that Ardern is widely tipped to stand down as Prime Minister before the election, a possibility discussed even by unexcitable commentators like Bryce Edwards from Victoria University.
In the weekend’s current affair shows on TVNZ and Newshub, hosts John Campbell and Simon Shepherd both asked about her dedication to continuing to lead the party.
Unfortunately, no matter how strenuously Ardern denies she will be standing down, she has been widely identified as a quitter who doesn’t have the stomach for a brutal campaign with the odds stacked against her.
The perception that she is already checking out as Prime Minister was reinforced by her trip to the Antarctic late last month. It was to mark the 65th anniversary of New Zealand’s outpost at Scott Base, which is undergoing a nearly $350 million redevelopment, but there was no obvious reason why the Prime Minister needed to go in late October — especially given that it was a sitting week in Parliament.
The most charitable explanation is that she wanted to give Grant Robertson — her likely successor if she does resign — more time to establish his authority as Acting Prime Minister, both in the public eye and in Parliament.
The less-charitable view is that she would do anything to escape another hammering in Question Time — and even the bitter cold of Antarctica seemed preferable.
For those perplexed why a Prime Minister allegedly dedicated to combating climate change would fly to Antarctica to talk about climate change, it quickly became clear she had other motivations.
A personal pilgrimage to pay homage to Ernest Shackleton — her “childhood hero” — turned out to be an opportunity to associate herself closely with him, however implausible that might seem.
Never a slouch when it comes to self-promotion, the Prime Minister treated us to a publicity shot from on board the plane flying south that showed her deeply immersed in Ranulph Fiennes’ biography of the explorer. However, the true PR value of the fan-girling was not made clear until she was interviewed in Shackleton’s hut.
In the short video, her pitch to viewers was that, while Shackleton may not have succeeded in getting to the South Pole, he is nevertheless remembered for his leadership. He was also praiseworthy for saving the lives of his team.
The Prime Minister seemed determined to nudge viewers into grasping just how much she had in common with the famous Antarctic explorer — and perhaps steer commentators towards how she would like her prime ministership to be viewed in retrospect.
That is to say, a Prime Minister who heroically led New Zealand through a succession of crises and who decided to do everything to save lives during a pandemic.
Certainly, her assertions seemed contrived:
“[Shackleton] became known for his leadership rather than his success necessarily.”
He may have been ”a failure but his name became synonymous with leadership, because he saved his men”.
“I think he knew success would come down to his ability to keep the team together in really hard times. So there’s a lot to take away on that.”
For any viewers who didn’t instantly “take away” the intended comparison between the heroic Shackleton and herself, Ardern made it more or less explicit: “I don’t think I can quite compare government with the hardship and endurance of Antarctic exploration, but some days…!”
Ardern’s admiration for noble, well-intentioned failure has been a recurring refrain in her tenure as Prime Minister. In mid-2018 she said: “We could stick with the status quo – or we could [try for change] … I would rather be a prime minister that tried and missed, than a prime minister that never tried at all.”
It was a view she repeated to Jack Tame on TVNZ’s Q&A in late July, in which she responded to his criticisms of her failures by casting aspiration as its own reward.
After Tame had listed her government’s many shortcomings — KiwiBuild, the polytech merger, mental health, child poverty — he asked: “When you compare your policy aspirations with the results your government has achieved, what have you learned?”
Ardern replied: “You know what, I would not ever change the fact that we have always throughout been highly aspirational. We have always focused on how we can make New Zealand better.”
When Tame chipped in with his own assessment: “An A for aspiration and an E for execution,” Ardern went on: “What you’re asking me essentially is to shy away from aspiration… set targets lower… set out ambition that is lesser because then perhaps at the end your scorecard might say you achieved it because you set out to do nothing.”
“I’ll never apologise for being aspirational.”
Good intentions are everything to Ardern; results are a bonus.
Ardern returned from four days on the ice to a nation whose attention is focused on cost-of-living pressures; ram raids and other crime; a health system buckling under pressure with demoralised staff struggling to cope; education statistics that show vast numbers of functionally illiterate and innumerate schoolchildren — as well as bubbling discontent at an extensive separatist Maori co-governance programme that has erupted in the Urewera and across the country in response to Three Waters.
Who would have guessed that in the midst of such upheaval Ardern would fix her attention squarely on her hobby horse of mis/disinformation?
During her speech last week to the He Whenua Taurikura hui on countering terrorism and violent extremism, Ardern told us that a draft National Security Long Term Insights briefing by the country’s security agencies indicated that misinformation was right up there with fear of a natural disaster and another major health epidemic.
However, asking people to rate what they perceive to be the greatest threats to the country isn’t, of course, the same as asking them how much they worry about them.
And it’s very hard to believe that people struggling with the rising cost of food, soaring interest rates, falling house prices and uncertainty about obtaining even urgent health care spend a lot of time worrying about misinformation.
Nor, for that matter, hate-speech legislation.
Nevertheless, Ardern had her newish Minister of Justice, Kiri Allan, announce on TVNZ’s Q&A the prospect of new hate-speech laws. Proposals for a law change had been shelved in 2021 — after then Minister of Justice Kris Faafoi and the Prime Minister herself had been publicly humiliated over their lamentable attempts to defend them.
Allan, in her characteristically jaunty manner, said she would introduce and pass such laws before the election. (In an echo of Ardern’s political style, Allan announced she would be making an announcement on the topic before Christmas.)
Given that the Prime Minister already has the albatross of Three Waters strung around her neck, why on Earth would she add contentious hate-speech laws to that deadweight in the run-up to an election? Especially when the polls are going against her?
It’s not as if she has the intellectual subtlety or heft to defend them coherently — as she showed so clearly last year when she claimed it wasn’t necessary for politicians to give examples of what might trigger a prosecution under such laws. That, she averred, could be left to the courts, which raised eyebrows among lawyers everywhere.
As part of recounting the dangers of mis- and disinformation, the Prime Minister had the gall to warn voters of how they can undermine liberal democracies — even as she has been busy undermining democracy herself.
She has already made it obvious in various forums, including Parliament, that in her view democracy no longer means “one person, one vote of equal value”. And thanks to her government’s legislation such as the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Act — which guarantees unelected iwi representatives two seats on the council with full decision-making rights — she has made that corruption of democracy a reality.
Yet, here she was, posing as its champion once again.
In fact, Ardern’s dislocation from reality seems almost complete at times.
On Newshub Nation this weekend, Ardern said she was confident about Labour’s chance of success at next year’s election because, “We’re not asking New Zealanders to vote based just on what we say we will do but on what they’ve seen.
“And the most important issues that I think New Zealand will be looking to next election… ‘Who is going to make sure I can still access decent health care, decent education? Who is going to ensure we have low unemployment, and dignity of work for all? Who will ensure we’re focused on low- and middle-income earners and the cost of living?’”
For the leader of a government unsuccessfully grappling with a cost-of-living crisis, and which has reorganised the health system in the middle of a pandemic with no improvements expected for years, and a well-publicised education-sector disaster after amalgamating the nation’s polytechnics, her intention to campaign on her record takes some chutzpah.
Ardern must also be counting on voters not being aware of a looming recession as central banks worldwide continue tightening relentlessly, or of the Reserve Bank governor’s declaration that current low levels of unemployment are unlikely to persist if inflation is to be tamed. The fact Ardern thinks she will be able to successfully paint Labour as the best choice on these fronts makes Pollyanna look like a cold-eyed realist.
Ardern has now firmly entered the tragi-comic phase of her prime ministership as she lurches about trying to restore some sense of purpose and to frame her leadership in the way she hopes she will be remembered.
While John Key denied New Zealand had serious problems so he wouldn’t have to solve them, Ardern tries to invent problems — such as a crisis of misinformation and hate speech — so she can rush about pretending to solve them. It’s certainly a lot easier than dealing with the actual problems the country faces.
All in all, Ardern appears to be firmly on track to achieve her wish to be seen by political historians as a leader who tried but failed. But unlike Shackleton, it’s very unlikely she will be seen as a noble failure.
More likely, she will be seen as someone who abused the nation’s overwhelming gratitude for her initial response to Covid — expressed by the granting of a clear majority at 2020’s election. Instead, in two years she has attacked some of the nation’s proudest and most cherished features — including equal suffrage, the rule of law, and freedom of speech.
In fact, she has become such a polarising figure that Grant Robertson has warned that public walkabouts may not be possible for her and her senior ministers during next year’s election campaign.
That’s a stunning fall from grace for the darling of the left — and a big chunk of middle New Zealand — since the heady days of late 2020.
Ardern will be remembered as a Prime Minister who collected windfall votes in that year’s election and — like a feckless and foolish Lotto winner — recklessly squandered the vast amount of political capital they gave her on divisive projects like co-governance and decolonisation she had never campaigned on and had no mandate for.
She will mostly be seen as a leader who disgracefully betrayed the trust that voters placed in her.
Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This column was first published at The Platform.