Jacinda Ardern heading a new government has sparked an outpouring of media bile.
John Key’s media honeymoon lasted several years, much to the chagrin of his opponents. However, from the moment Winston Peters announced on October 19 that he was joining Labour in forming a new government, much of the media coverage has been relentless in predicting doom, division and disintegration, and there is no sign it will let up. Ardern’s campaign slogan of “relentless positivity” has been answered by “relentless negativity”.
Mike Hosking has become the poster boy for that stance, his devastated, bewildered expression on Seven Sharp the night of Peters’ announcement whizzing around social media as a meme.
Former Labour and Act MP Richard Prebble announced in the NZ Herald that we have had an undemocratic result, tantamount to a coup. That, of course, is patent nonsense. A majority of voters is represented by the new government. In fact, the fourth Labour government elected in 1984 — in which Prebble was a minister — was nearer to carrying out a coup inasmuch as it instituted a blitzkrieg economic policy it had not campaigned on.
Former National Party president Michelle Boag labelled the new government a “coalition of losers”, presumably because she doesn’t understand that under MMP you’re only a loser if you have no allies to buddy up with and you fail to get a clear majority (rather than a plurality), which is National’s position.
Bill English gambled on being able to push NZ First and the Greens under the five per cent threshold and knock them out of Parliament altogether. It was a serious campaign error — and ultimately much more calamitous than Ardern’s daft “captain’s call” on a capital gains tax given that he is now in opposition and she is Prime Minister.
National’s campaign ad featuring a squad of disciplined runners clad in teal powering past a clumsy group dressed in red, green and black should be compulsory viewing in political studies classes as a cautionary tale of the dangers of alienating potential partners in an MMP election.
Those still stuck in a first-past-the-post mindset — which appears to include a fair proportion of the mainstream media — could read Eva Allan’s amusing Facebook post for enlightenment on how MMP works.
“Allow me to explain MMP: There's one mince and cheese pie left in the shop and it costs $5. Bill has $4.50. Jacinda has $3.70. Winston has 70c. James has 60c and David has 5c. No one has enough money to buy the pie by themselves but Jacinda, Winston and James put their money together and buy the pie. Bill gets no pie because he needed 50c but didn't have any friends to help him pay for the pie. I hope this helps explain things.”
And former Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae’s speech to the Press Gallery three years ago might also help: “Another possible outcome of the government formation process is that the person appointed Prime Minister is not the leader of the party that secured the single-largest share of seats. So far under MMP, the leader of the party with the largest number of seats in Parliament has always been able to form a government. While some voters think that will always be the case, it may not. Again, the fundamental question is where the confidence of the House lies. If two or more other parties are able to cooperate, whether in a coalition, or on the basis of commitments of support, they may be able to muster more votes between them than the party with the most seats, and be able to form a government.”
Bill English has accepted the outcome. He conceded defeat graciously on the night and has since described the Ardern government as “unusual” but “legitimate”.
Nevertheless, the new administration is obviously in for a rough ride, even if hostility is expressed in more subtle ways than dubbing her ascension a coup. When Ardern said she was willing to retaliate for Australia changing the rules for New Zealanders in tertiary education, the Herald headline was “Ardern talks tough on fair access for Kiwis in Australia”, which seems to suggest she’s all talk.
The editors could easily have written, “Ardern warns the Australians on tertiary access” or “Ardern stands up to Australia…” but the paper seems determined to put a negative spin on nearly everything to do with the new administration.
Possibly the most egregious evidence of partisanship in the Herald was an article headed: “Did Jacinda Ardern 'curse' the All Blacks?”
The story was widely derided and the next day the Herald — perhaps fearing a reader backlash to their almost unrelieved bad-mouthing — ran a conciliatory editorial that claimed: “Apart from the most partisan amongst us, the nation seems to be wishing her well…”
Nevertheless, its lead article online a day later was Mike Hosking announcing Ardern’s administration was “delusional” about immigration. It was a rant rather than analysis but still snared the top spot.
Of course, the new government — like any government — deserves to be held to account by a vigorous and well-informed media. It has an ambitious programme to rectify some of the unfortunate results of the past nine years of government, particularly in the social and environmental spheres, and there will inevitably be pitfalls and pratfalls, not least as a result of ambition exceeding capability and resources and the fact many of the new ministers have no Cabinet experience. And it’s always harder to execute changes than continue with a “steady as she goes approach” making only minor tweaks here and there.
But much of the nation is relieved to see Bill English’s government go. And that number will undoubtedly include former National supporters who want to see their party adopt a truly conservative programme — preserving what is good about New Zealand and improving those aspects that fall short rather than the ad hoc policies we’ve had for nine years centred on unsustainable house prices, immigration and dairying, with all their unfortunate spillover effects for our rivers, our housing, our infrastructure, and our children.
Right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton signalled his own relief on October 20 by reposting on his Facebook page an opinion he had first presented in August.
“On 18 August, I wrote in the NBR that the outgoing National government ‘has proven itself over nine years to be lazy, visionless, arrogant, complacent, dishonest and house-trained by the... Wellington bureaucracy’.
“I stand by that. It has been a wasted nine years with ministers mostly acting as PR spokespeople for their departments rather than leaders. I am surprised by how pleased I am to see the back of them.”
Although you might not guess it from the media’s negative onslaught, he’s far from alone in that view.