Election 2017: Ardern Derangement Syndrome

by Graham Adams / 20 September, 2017
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What is Jacinda Ardern in for if she wins the election? Photo / Getty Images

Early signs of an outbreak of irrational dislike for Labour’s leader will worsen if she wins.

The election is a few days away and while the outcome is still anyone’s guess there is one certainty — if Jacinda Ardern gets a mandate to form a government there will be a serious outbreak of Ardern Derangement Syndrome.

We have already seen early symptoms during the election campaign with politicians resorting to extravagant metaphors to dismiss her popularity.

TOP leader Gareth Morgan, for instance, described her as “lipstick on a pig” — and even put up billboards to demonstrate his point. Morgan’s annoyance with “personality politics” possibly stems in part from the fact his own abrasive (and sometimes abusive) personality is what most stands between him and his party entering Parliament.

Bill English called Ardern’s appeal “stardust” that he believed would quickly and inevitably settle — preferably before the election. English has many strengths, but being charismatic is not one of them and it’s probably why he sometimes appears to resent another politician who is. He certainly seemed to have difficulty looking directly at her during the leaders’ debates.

Right-wing commentator Matthew Hooton has gone the furthest out on a limb by describing Ardern as New Zealand’s Sarah Palin — and that’s when he’s not sarcastically calling her “the people’s princess”. Oddly, he was miffed when Steve Braunias used the epithet too, tweeting: “I was first to compare the @jacindaardern nonsense to Princess Di!"

The term “derangement syndrome” to explain an irrational dislike of a popular politician was coined in 2003 by Charles Krauthammer, a psychiatrist and syndicated columnist, in relation to George Bush the Younger.

Krauthammer defined the syndrome as, “The acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush”.

He noted that it was “of course, epidemic in New York's Upper West Side and the tonier parts of Los Angeles, where the very sight of the President — say, smiling while holding a tray of Thanksgiving turkey in a Baghdad mess hall — caused dozens of cases of apoplexy in otherwise healthy adults”.

He worried that the disease was spreading beyond the usual suspects. “Until now, Bush Derangement Syndrome (BDS) had generally struck people with previously compromised intellectual immune systems. Hence its prevalence in Hollywood…”

So far, Ardern Derangement Syndrome (ADS) appears to have been confined to the professional commentariat and politicians but it is guaranteed to spread rapidly among the right-leaning portion of the electorate if she becomes Prime Minister.

If you’re not a fan of Labour or its glamorous new leader, there’s a lot to be deranged about. Not least, after being hammered relentlessly by National and its media supporters over the possibility (but not the certainty) of a capital gains tax, Ardern had the gall to change tack and promise that any such change would be put to voters before the next election.

John Armstrong in the NZ Herald seemed to want her to stay her original course even if it was suicidal — as indeed it may have been given the media onslaught and National’s scaremongering ad campaign.

Others said the switch was a fraud on those who had voted early.

John Key, of course, often changed tack following advice from focus groups and polling, which regularly gave the left-leaning portion of the electorate apoplexy — to the point that Key Derangement Syndrome (KDS) was regularly cited in political commentary as a common affliction among the Left.

The outrage over the Labour leader’s switch in tax tactics says a lot about ADS. It could just as easily be seen as skilful — and essential — tactical manoeuvring. Her strategy to change the taxation mix so that it doesn’t so heavily favour assets over income is still intact but she has bowed to electoral necessity in delaying such a move until she has a popular mandate.

What many critics are slow and unwilling to accept is that voters really like Ardern and are grateful for the fact she exists in much the same way as voters adored John Key and were grateful he was part of our political landscape. Just before the 2014 election, Kim Dotcom mused that Key could “probably be photographed shooting little kittens in his garden with a shotgun, and still be popular”. Dotcom recognised that even the revelations of Dirty Politics hadn’t damaged Key’s popularity; if anything, they had probably boosted it.

Key, himself, recognises Ardern’s appeal. He told The AM Show in August: “The camera likes Jacinda. Paul Holmes once said to me, 'On TV they see your heart’. She responds well to that so that works really well for her.

“She's been on TV a lot, she communicates pretty well and in the end people want to vote for people they like.”

That was Andrew Little’s problem. He was widely accepted to be a decent and honest man with good intentions but the public didn’t warm to him. And that’s another thing that enrages the right — Labour’s essentially running with the same policies under Ardern but in six weeks their polling has soared from 24 per cent to around 40.

Ardern’s success is a lot to do with timing. Little seems to have unwittingly played the role of an antipodean John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Messiah — or Jassiah, as she has been dubbed. Not only did he help unify the Labour Party, he also inadvertently built up a head of steam of frustration among voters who wanted change — but not if it meant having Little on their TV screens and news feeds for the next three years.

The results of a Massey survey published mid-June showed that many respondents wanted change even as the Opposition parties continued to be outgunned in polls by National.

The Stuff.co.nz/Massey University Election Survey aimed to find out how much political discontent was bubbling under the surface. It wasn’t a scientific poll but 39,644 people – over one per of the voting population — responded.

Associate Professor Grant Duncan wrote: “About half the sample (and more than half of women and those under 40) opted for ‘a complete change of government’, even though Labour supporters were under-represented. Over two-thirds thought that the system of government itself is either ‘completely broken’ or ‘working but needs to change’.”

And so Little’s pain became Ardern’s gain. If he had stepped aside six months earlier, the switch might not have had the same electrifying effect it is having now. And National would have had more time to manoeuvre and box her in.

It’s easy to forget with the continued focus on Ardern’s galvanising effect on the election that she is mainly a lightning rod for change.

Many voters are tired of being patronised and misled, whether it’s pretending that increases in GDP are making us all wealthier when most of the rise is due to mass immigration; or that hospital waiting lists aren’t rigged; or that traffic congestion and high house prices are signs of success. Even homelessness has been spun by Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett as a downside of a “positive” immigration story.

Fairfax’s Andrew Gunn gave a biting satirical summary of National’s election pitch: “A story of hospitals so successful that they have to turn away patients. A story of food-banks brimming with donations from caring New Zealanders. A story of mostly swimmable rivers, and innovative Kiwis who convert cars into bedrooms. We can’t risk all that!”

There is a strong mood for change, and if Ardern is successful she will be given a long honeymoon by voters who desperately want progressive policies — and have waited nine years for someone who may provide it.

If Labour wins the election, the right may want to stock up on sedatives. Ardern has recently said that she wants to lead the Labour Party for the next three elections.

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