Annette King is the leader Labour was never canny enough to have.
This episode, which neither woman caused or deserved, has damaged both of them, and sends an appalling signal to older women in the workforce about how poorly they’re valued.
Still, that message was already implicit in King’s having been a wasted resource in the Labour caucus over a long period. She would likely never have been the leader, as in lasting through Opposition and becoming prime minister. But she would have been a much more appealing and successful interim leader in rebuilding Labour’s flagging public support than any of the four leaders the party has had since losing the 2008 election. If only Labour had had the wit to ask her – or, perhaps more to the point, if only King herself had felt moved to put herself forward against more ambitious and younger men.
King has the forthright, combative, compassionate but steely quality Maoridom harnesses in the form of aunty-power. She would have been the Labour leader who could bear down on John Key at his most glib, administer a verbal clip about the ear and a warning not to be a smart alec and, in the manner of all mothers who really do know best, send him to the naughty stool.
She was an effective minister and a lively communicator, but also a warm personality who would likely have had a readier reach into New Zealanders’ consciousness than the robotic Phil Goff, the hesitant and stumbling David Shearer, the smug and distrusted David Cunliffe and the permanently grumpy-seeming Little.
This was never on the cards. If King did have leadership ambitions, she kept them to herself. That she didn’t put herself forward despite being so obviously qualified may be another sign of our chronic workforce imbalance and the distance women still have to travel before being promoted and paid equally to men.
King has at least gone under her own steam, announcing both her resignation as deputy and her retirement from Parliament at the next election without collegial or party duress. The duress came entirely from the media; from commentaries which assumed putting a younger, prettier face on the deputyship of Labour would somehow wow disengaged voters into thinking the party groovy again.
Voters are not that gullible. This is also terribly unfair on Ardern. The media also supposed that she was personally ready to step up and would happily see King cast aside. Neither is likely to be true, but her hand has now been forced, ready or not. She must smile, and magically be ready to mark the supremely cocky Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett.
The new Mt Albert MP is experienced and intelligent and has a politically saleable image. But she hasn’t put runs on the board in the way colleagues like Stuart Nash and Kelvin Davis have. She hasn’t made a name for herself by getting showy stories in the media. She’s more of a team player than a hungry self-promoter
That’s a form of modesty that’s both a strength and a weakness. Opposition success depends heavily on putting oneself out there and fronting dag-rattling allegations against the Government. In Ardern’s mainly social policy shadow portfolio areas, getting into the media this way would very often have entailed parading an unfortunate family or individual for the cameras, an exercise which can often see troubled people exposed and objectified, and re-victimised on social media. Sometimes the only benefit from these excursions is to the Opposition politician’s profile, since such stories seldom change policies or help people with their problems. Ardern’s style is to talk about policy inequities without always seeking to personalise them.
Now she has begun to register in the nether reaches of the polls’ preferred prime minister rankings, she will be expected to hustle her wares more aggressively.
Ardern’s accession to deputy was always on the cards. But, thanks to this media-generated brushfire, she gets no interlude to prepare. She is now pitched into the job, only to face an inevitable question, “But what has she ever done?” That comes with the unspoken, unfair but equally inevitable addendum: “…besides being young and attractive?”
King has been spooked out of the job, and the inevitable question about that is, “But what did she ever do wrong, except be over 60?”
The Rongotai MP has been considering retirement in recent years and was rather a reluctant bride when she accepted the deputyship in 2014. Her experience, political nous and extensive party network were judged indispensable ballast to maintain loyalty and unity in the troubled party, and so it has proved. To that extent, at least, Labour has belatedly made good use of her abilities.
She has been pivotal to shoring up party unity while Andrew Little settled into the top job. Under the pair, the divisive party ructions have largely subsided. Though King has been characterised by some disaffected party members as right-wing and part of the ABC (Anyone But Cunliffe) faction (otherwise known as most of the Labour caucus), one would struggle to find anything even homeopathically neoliberal in her public statements of the last couple of decades.
King has decided that despite the insultingly ageist nature of the faux-clamour for rejuvenation of the deputyship, she will capitulate to it sooner rather than later, to prevent the theme becoming a distraction in election year. Thus it’s an honourable and far from the worst way in which a distinguished politician career might end. But King deserved better and so did Ardern.
So, for that matter, do the over-60s who, it’s best not forgotten, make up 20% of the electoral roll and have a much higher voting rate than younger voters.