How TV pundits reacted to the rise of Jacinda Ardern

by Diana Wichtel / 15 August, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Jacinda Ardern

On the box: Labour leader Jacinda Ardern.

Labour’s new “relentlessly positive” leader comes up against dinosaurs.

The Jacinda Effect: it sounds like a television show, the kind where a contestant comes on stage to sceptical looks, opens her mouth and wows Simon Cowell. “I don’t really know what the X factor is,” new Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern told Hilary Barry on Breakfast. “I’ve also been called a new lick of paint.” At least this is better than the emetic “battle of the babes!” headlines when Ardern ran against National’s Nikki Kaye in 2011. That had male commentators appraising skirt lengths and – dear lord – dusting off jelly-wrestling metaphors.

Ardern is determined to smile through it all. She has to. She has promised, relentlessly, to be “relentlessly positive”. Jacindamania, the Jassiah … Not everyone sees the funny side. “I would definitely take her as seriously as I have any of the previous five [Labour leaders] I’ve seen before her,” purred Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett on The Nation.

But clearly the Jacinda-rama-lama-ding-dong is getting to Bennett. “I feel like she’s stolen my relentless positivity,” she wailed to an unsympathetic-looking Lisa Owen. “So I was going to go for eternal optimism.” Sorry, Paula, also taken. Ardern has promised “optimism for New Zealand”. She came up through John Key’s “I’m ambitious for New Zealand” years, watching and learning.

On Q+A, Ardern and deputy leader Kelvin Davis went for a good-cop, bad-cop vibe. Davis launched an ill-advised litany of gags about National: Bill English has “the personality of a rock”, the Government is as “dry as dandruff!”, he chortled. “That’s a bit harsh,” muttered Jessica Mutch, while Ardern tried to look optimistic for New Zealand that this awkward moment would soon pass.

There was another possible misstep on The Nation. Under heavy fire from Owen, Ardern refused to commit to staying on as leader if her party lost. On the panel, former Labour Party president Mike Williams noted that if she committed, some voters might decide to vote for National and give Ardern a go next time. She may claim to be doing politics differently, but it’s still politics.

As she demonstrated to Mark Richardson on The AM Show, she has also picked up a trick or two from other leaders. She is honing an accusatory index finger that could soon rival Aunty Helen’s death stare. She will need it with all the mansplaining going on at the sight of a self-described “youth-adjacent” woman getting some power.

After Ardern had to deal with those pregnancy questions on The AM Show and The Project, NZ Herald columnist John Roughan cleared up the situation for us: “… it was in the context of her age, not her gender alone, that she was asked about starting a family. It’s a pity, I think, that she chose to spin that question into a gender issue.” Of course. It was all her fault. If she decided against having children now, that would be fine too, he continued. “I have never heard a woman criticised for that decision.”

He may want to speak to Helen Clark. He may also want to speak to Julia Gillard, who in 2011, when Prime Minister, was accused by an opponent of having chosen to “deliberately remain barren”. And he may want to speak to Ardern. In 2012, during a debate about paid parental leave, she copped the sort of jibe – “How many kids do you have?” – that women without children, and the odd man, encounter in political life.

The dinosaurs won’t change, but this disruption in politics-as-usual is a useful demonstration of what women are still up against. With the Greens having some disruption of their own, all bets are off. On Sunday, Ardern told John Hudson about her cat, growing up in the 90s and the Ginger Spice hair she had at 17. He suggested that this election was about “intergenerational warfare”. She was too relentlessly positive to agree with a metaphor that, although better than jelly-wrestling, sounds a little threatening. But shots have been fired from both sides of the generational divide. Let the battle begin.

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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