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Jacinda Ardern and the halo effect

Opinion

Will Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's popularity eventually wane, à la John Key? Photo/Getty.

The Prime Minister’s actions are mostly interpreted favourably while Simon Bridges suffers from the “devil effect”.

One of the more useful things I learned studying psychology at university was how the “halo effect” worked. It put the seal of psychological research onto the adage: “First impressions count.”

The idea was originally mooted by a psychologist, Edward Thorndike, in the 1920s. He found the initial impression military officers formed of their soldiers’ physique and presentation influenced nearly every other judgement they made about their intelligence and performance.

The most practical advantage of understanding the halo effect for me was recognising how important it is to make a good impression in a new job. Once an employer thinks you are capable, they are likely to forgive your mistakes later on.

If you happen to be naturally lazy and perhaps cynical as well, it can also mean making a dedicated effort to impress initially with the prospect of being able to coast once your reputation is established. It usually requires sustained underperformance to shift an initial impression from favourable to unfavourable.

Jacinda Ardern is a major beneficiary of the halo effect. She got off to an extraordinarily good start by lifting her party’s polling dramatically soon after she became Leader of the Opposition — just by being Jacinda and then by promising the earth on the campaign trail.

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She was feted as the Labour Party’s saviour who had rescued it from crucifixion under Andrew Little — and that alone guaranteed her deep gratitude from the Left.

Then, to compound the miracle of the resurrection she had wrought upon her colleagues’ fortunes, Winston Peters gave her his blessing. Ardern ended up, a few months after a bloodless succession, leading a coalition government with the support of NZ First and the Greens.

The National Party fell into disarray when they realised their “moral right” to govern had been snatched away — which further consolidated Ardern’s status as blessed among the majority of the nation’s voters who had put Labour, NZ First and the Greens into power.

Perversely, National MPs thought their leader, the workman-like Bill English, wouldn’t be able to match her star power even though he had led his party to an outstanding result in the 2017 election with 44.4 per cent of the general vote, and considerably more than Ardern managed for Labour (36.9 per cent).

He stepped down and Simon Bridges replaced him as leader in February 2018. Bridges, who entered his role with very little discernible aura, has already lost even the little he had. In fact, he could be said to be suffering from the opposite dynamic — the “devil effect” (or the “horns effect”) — in which early negative impressions colour every other aspect of someone’s reputation.

Bridges has been identified by the media as a dead man walking — an overconfident, tin-eared bungler, and with poor diction to boot. Nearly everything he does is mocked as evidence of his unsuitability for the role of Leader of the Opposition, let alone becoming PM.

Even when the National Party accessed — entirely legally — the government’s Budget document ahead of its release and exposed Treasury’s slack cyber habits, he was widely scorned for his lack of scruples in setting a trap for the government and watching them rush headlong into it.

While even his victories are interpreted unfavourably, Ardern shines on. Most of what she does is judged favourably — or at least not overly negatively — by a big chunk of the nation’s media.

This despite the fact the government she leads has clearly not delivered in critical areas — including KiwiBuild, a capital gains tax, reforming social welfare and reducing immigration — to name just a few of the more obvious failures.

And all these failures should be even more damaging given Ardern promised her government would be “transformational” and that 2019 would be the “year of delivery”.

The best that has been said of her government’s “Wellbeing” Budget — presented last week in a swirl of negative publicity over Treasury’s blunder — have been anodyne phrases of weak praise, including dubbing it the “well-meaning budget”. It has been lauded half-heartedly as “a promising start” and “a good first step” towards helping some of the more unfortunate in society, particularly the mentally unwell.

Pesky questions are already being asked, however — such as exactly how 1600 mental health workers are going to be trained within a few years to meet the requirements of having them in doctors’ practices, iwi health providers and other health services. And there are worries that the programme will suck professionals from existing organisations that are already achieving good results, leaving them struggling for staff.

One clinical psychologist said the government couldn’t deliver the required numbers without stumping up money for training, which it appears to have overlooked. 

In that way, the mental health proposal looks much like KiwiBuild — a well-meaning scheme promoted with very little understanding of how it might be effectively delivered (particularly in finding the skilled workforce needed to implement it).

The grand, splashy gesture is looking like Ardern’s stock-in-trade, whether it is the ban on oil and gas exploration as a way of combating climate change or the fees-free policy for first-year tertiary study that has turned out to have not significantly increased participation rates for the poor and underprivileged.

That’s not to say her government hasn’t had successes that have pleased her supporters — including a ban on foreign house buyers, indexing benefits to wages rather than inflation, stopping the sale of state houses and raising the minimum wage. In fact, the Ardern government’s biggest problem may have been to over-promise and then under-deliver on a raft of key policies.

Unfortunately, as Prime Minister she also sometimes shows an embarrassing lack of competence in areas in which most would expect the nation’s leader to be well versed — including a shaky grasp of economics (GDP anyone?), our existing hate speech laws or the likely effect of a capital gains tax on house prices. 

However, we know from John Key’s prime ministership that if most of the public like a leader, it requires an awful lot of adverse publicity to shift an initial benevolent assessment. Even a raft of failures won’t necessarily turn the tide.

Ardent Ardernistas can take heart from the fact it took more than two terms for Key to lose his halo, even though his administration fulfilled few of the promises that carried him into power in 2008.

He pledged to tackle a swathe of outstanding problems — including closing the wage gap with Australia, increasing exports’ share of GDP, solving the housing affordability crisis Helen Clark had bequeathed him, lifting productivity and delivering “the stronger economic future our country deserves” (which included the possibility of transforming New Zealand into an international financial hub).

In 2007, he also cast himself as a champion of the poor by taking 12-year-old Aroha Ireland, who lived on one of Auckland’s poorest streets, to Waitangi in a Crown limousine.

Over the succeeding years, Key failed to reach his targets, and ended up demonising the poor as lazy and feckless as well.

Nevertheless, it took until 2016 for the media and voters to tire of him.

Research done by polling company UMR in April 2011 showed the words most associated with Key were “charismatic, honest, personable, intelligent, leader”.

By September 2016, they were “arrogant, smarmy, liar, untrustworthy, and smug”.

There is no sign yet of the general public similarly tiring of Ardern, despite her government’s patchy record.

It’s true that she looked vulnerable to serious reputational damage over her clumsy response to the capital gains tax report in February, but her magisterial handling of the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque attacks in March burnished her halo more brightly than before.

International praise for her leadership by luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton and fashionista Anna Wintour vaulted her reputation higher again, as did the glittering publicity around the “Christchurch call” discussions in Paris in May.

There is less than 18 months until the next election, and there are issues lurking that have the potential to destabilise her reign — not least the debate over curtailing freedom of speech. But, as the capital gains tax debate showed, Ardern will abruptly back off from championing even cherished policies if she decides they are electorally dicey.

There is also the very strong possibility of a serious downturn in the economy occurring during the next year or so. That will test her halo more than anything else that has happened so far in her term.

We’ll find out then just how much weight professions of kindness carry under adverse conditions and whether considerations of economic competence suddenly outweigh them.

But, for now, her saintly aura remains.

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