Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has so far drawn a line between her public and private lives. Will a visit to America with baby Neve upset this balance?
So much for the predictions that the Prime Minister’s odyssey from here to maternity would see the public force-fed every last crumb of news about how Mother and Child are coping – regardless of whether that news was real, fake or not news at all.
The saturation coverage – what little there has been – dried up before anyone could complain about tabloid overkill.
Suddenly, everything went quiet – and not merely because there is a limit to the number of times that Jacinda Ardern can be asked to rate Clarke Gayford’s nappy-changing skills.
And no one wants to go there – except to note that baby Neve is just one of 60,000 or so New Zealand babies who will list 2018 as their birth year, and who will spend most if not all of it locked in the limbo of a never-ending cycle of feeding, sleeping, bathing and so forth.
Ardern has made mention of the mundanity of motherhood to portray herself as just another very ordinary parent. The last impression she wants to give is that her status gives her special privileges – especially the flexibility to hand her child to someone else to hold if her day job as the country’s leader so demands.
The doings and cooings of baby Neve are not really the story the media should focus on, however. Neither is the story about who carries the nappy bag – as riveting as many people might find such titbits of information.
No, the real story is how Ardern copes with the stress her bundle of joy adds to the already monumental and inescapable pressures that come with the title of prime minister.
In Ardern’s case, those pressures stretch way beyond those that test every holder of that highest of offices. It falls on her to make sure the wheels do not fall off what is the most complex of governing conglomerates since the switch to MMP two decades ago killed the simplicity of single-party majority government.
On top of that, Ardern has chosen to run a “transformative” administration, which is turning almost every aspect of government upside down and inside out.
Add a child to that mix and you have a workload that is punishing in the extreme.
Toy story it’s not
The real story is also about how Ardern draws the line between her public and private lives. So far she has given every indication that line will be firmly drawn.
Her fear is clearly that if the media machine is allowed to get too close too often, it will suck out what little normality is going to remain in her daughter’s life for as long as Ardern continues to enjoy such exalted status.
Ardern’s fear is that the media will endeavour to turn her child into an infant celebrity, thereby creating a source it can exploit to manufacture news. To avert that, she has set new rules of engagement. Those were evident in her conducting one-on-one interviews with senior journalists to mark her return to the Beehive after her stint at home on maternity leave.
The unspoken pact with the media has Ardern guaranteeing she will at times be available to talk about family life. In exchange for such access, the media will have been given stern warnings that any paparazzi-like snooping on the Prime Minister and her daughter will have serious repercussions for offenders – namely, no more interviews.
It appears, however, that Ardern’s generosity in terms of access is probably designed to compensate for the so-far-meagre number of public appearances by baby Neve. The latter has not been seen in public since Ardern resumed her prime ministerial duties. She was barely seen in public while Ardern was on leave. If Ardern wants to maintain her child’s privacy, however, that is the way it must be.
Exactly where the Prime Minister draws the line between her public and private self will become even clearer when she is in New York in late September for this year’s session of the United Nations General Assembly.
It would have been perfectly understandable had Ardern delegated the delivery of New Zealand’s contribution to this powwow to Winston Peters in his capacity as Foreign Minister. But she is clearly keen to assure voters that motherhood will not see her shedding or shirking any of the responsibilities that are part and parcel of the role of prime minister.
Her going to New York seems designed to make that point – and make it early and emphatically. Ardern is going to New York, full stop. That means her daughter will be going with her. End of story.
Big cheese in the big apple
Well, not entirely. Ardern and daughter will be hot property in the Big Apple – and not only because she will have baby in tow.
When it comes to the United Nations, Ardern will be regarded as a welcome breath of fresh air, blowing away the fetid atmosphere of an institution some of whose member states will be represented at the annual get-together by the usual assortment of dictators, despots, death merchants and other reprobates.
It is no place for a child of just three months. With climate change and women’s and children’s rights at the top of the meeting’s agenda, however, what could be more powerful in terms of symbolism than a prime minister carrying her child in her arms as she mounts the rostrum to make her speech to the General Assembly. Confronting the assembled heads of government with a face of the future would bring the house down. It would catapult Ardern into stateswoman stardom. It would be surprising if such a scenario has not crossed the minds of Ardern and her advisers, if only fleetingly.
It can’t happen. It won’t happen. Ardern would be rightly accused of using her daughter as a political tool.
Will the latter be kept out of public view for the duration of the Prime Minister’s stay in New York? Most likely, yes. And that is because baby Neve does not have to be present in body to be present in mind – particularly the minds of New York’s movers and shakers, the hosts of breakfast and late-night TV shows and so forth.
Without knowing it, the liberal elites of New York and beyond have been waiting for someone like Ardern to show up. And for one reason. She is a walking antidote to Trumpism. She is everything America’s President is most definitely not – and vice versa.
Everyone is going to want a piece of the Ardern action. Then we’ll see a feeding frenzy.
Jane Clifton is on holiday.
This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.