Jacinda, the baby and the man who could squander the goodwill

by The Listener / 25 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Jacinda Ardern baby

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and PM Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

When Jacinda Ardern – who became Labour Party leader less than five months after first winning an electorate seat – was appointed Prime Minister by NZ First leader Winston Peters, there was an expectation she would grow in the job. Yet few expected it would happen quite so literally.

Nevertheless, news that Ardern is expecting her first child in June, after a struggle to become pregnant, has been greeted with genuine warmth and celebration.

Her pregnancy has made headlines around the world, because the symbolism of a relatively young woman becoming a mother without stepping off the top of the political career ladder is a timely extension of the feminist principles of the #MeToo movement. Not only are women increasingly insisting on being free from bullying, sexual harassment and automatic relegation, but also they are asserting their right to become mothers if they so choose, without putting their careers on hold.

Successive governments have striven to make parenting decisions easier and more affordable for all families. The moves include extensions of paid parental leave, extensive entitlements to taxpayer-funded childcare and same-sex marriage legislation.

Our male prime ministers, of course, have managed to have a family and a job. As Ardern has pointed out, she is not the first politician to multitask. But she will be the first political leader to have a child while in power since Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1990. Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford can look to plenty of examples in this country of couples who have shared parenting roles to make their domestic and professional lives work. National Party leader Bill English, for example, was a house husband while his wife, Mary, finished her medical training, and has remained close to his children throughout his career.

Six parents have already brought babies into the house since this Parliament convened. The institution is finding ways to make its precincts more family-friendly – an improvement on the 1980s, when National’s Ruth Richardson wanted to breastfeed at Parliament and endured the implied rebuke that having a baby at work was unprofessional.

None of that is to underplay the scale of Ardern’s undertaking. Many other women have hard jobs and jobs in the public eye, but arguably none has a job bigger, harder or more visible than that of Prime Minister. Ardern and Gayford will be parents with more options than most: a comfortable home, a large income and supportive family and friends. All parents in paid work know that finding a satisfactory balance is the key to success in the juggling act required of them. But determining how to simultaneously meet the public’s demanding expectations of a Prime Minister and her own expectations of motherhood will involve decisions that are not simple. Ardern has previously confided that politics is a “tough, stressful job”.

Complicating matters is that when she takes leave, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters – whose party gained just 7% of the votes in last year’s election and failed to win a seat – will become Acting Prime Minister. Despite the fact that 93% of Kiwis did not vote for him, Ardern appears to have confidence in Peters. Yet the scepticism remains.

He is an unpopular and anachronistic drag-anchor on the attitudinal change that the current Parliament represents. This is a man who for years touted the divisive policy of a referendum on Māori seats and who voted against the anti-smacking laws that help protect children from abuse. Despite the recent talk of “generation change”, Peters’ attitudes mark him as a generation beyond not just Ardern, but also English.

It is regrettable that he ended up with so much bargaining power in the coalition arrangements. It was inevitable, given that the National Party lacked coalition options, that the balance of power would deliver Peters trophies. But many will resent him having even a short stint in the top spot.

And Ardern, whose popularity was the singular factor behind Labour’s bump in the polls, will not want Peters, with his combative attitude to the media, squandering the goodwill she’s earned and may yet need. In the end, the main concern for New Zealand and for New Zealanders is not who is minding the baby, but who is minding the Government.

This editorial was first published in the February 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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