Looking likely: does Jacinda Ardern have what it takes?

by Bevan Rapson / 23 October, 2015
This article was first published in the October 2015 issue of North & South magazine. Photo: Getty.

Jacinda Ardern’s rise in the polls renews debate about whether she really has what it takes.


“To be fair”, as a sports pundit might say, Graham Lowe wasn’t a bad judge of talent in his day.

Let’s not forget that back in the mists of the 20th century, the former Kiwi coach once recruited a skinny young union player called Matthew Ridge, who became one of rugby league’s biggest stars, not to mention a prototype larrikin of reality TV (though Lowe shouldn’t have to carry the can for that).

Read Jacinda Ardern's guest column, as featured in the November 2015 issue of Metro. 

His credentials as a political tipster aren’t so established, however, and the veteran coach ran straight into a proverbial Carlaw Park coat hanger recently when, as a panellist on TV3’s Paul Henry Show, he was asked for his opinion of Labour’s Jacinda Ardern, who had just soared to fourth in a preferred Prime Minister poll.

“I’ll tell you what, she’s a pretty little thing,” he remarked, seemingly unaware of hackles rising across the land – or at least across the desk, where co-host Hilary Barry was riled enough to spread news of this foul utterance beyond the show’s modest audience. “Rest assured he won’t leave without bruised shins,” she advised her Twitter followers.

It’s unknown whether she carried through with the attack – and it’s doubtful a mere shin-kicking from a newsreader would have much registered on a man who once went to battle for the Otahuhu Leopards – but Barry’s outrage was soon matched elsewhere, particularly on social media.

On Facebook, Ardern’s one-time Labour leadership ticket-mate Grant Robertson declared himself “sick to death of the ignorant, sexist bullshit” his colleague had to put up with. His anger was widely and passionately shared among commentators and commenters on left-leaning social platforms.

That Lowe is actually a fan of Ardern, thinks she “speaks pretty smart” and said he wouldn’t be surprised if she was Prime Minister one day was generally disregarded, as were his subsequent comments, reiterating that he found her compelling to watch and listen to.

The online pile-on was instructive, not least in that some on the left seem surprised a 68-year-old Kiwi male from rugby league’s blue-collar heartland might use a patronising turn of phrase long banished from their own more enlightened circles.

By all means, if an old duffer resorts to such an anachronism on national TV, roll your eyes and challenge it, but perhaps bear in mind that the offending phrase and others like it are still regularly used by plenty of otherwise perfectly well-intentioned and fair-minded New Zealanders of the same vintage and background – and scale the indignation accordingly.

The poll that sparked the row also reignited discussion over the elemental issue of whether Ardern really has what it takes to be – as she was dubbed on a glamorous Next magazine cover – “Our Prime Minister in waiting”. That she has risen to Labour’s front bench at a relatively young age and built a profile other MPs can only dream of tells us the idea is to be taken seriously, as does the prospect of her being elected Labour’s deputy leader if Annette King steps aside at the end of this year, as planned.

There are doubters, however, even on the left, who ask what she has done to warrant so much attention; what damage she has ever inflicted on the Government. And, predictably, some suggest her success in the polls owes more to her good looks than to her performance.

Sadly, for her and others who haven’t been tapped with the ugly stick, this is the burden they must carry, whether in politics or other walks of life. No sooner do the poor souls win our attention with their 1000-watt smiles and faultless bone-structure than certain sceptics – no oil paintings themselves, you’d wager – will start asking whether they’ve got anything else to offer. Exceeding a certain level of conventional attractiveness means being suspected of trading on it.

This tendency isn’t gender specific. On the other side of the House, for example, supposed National leadership prospect Simon Bridges is another unlucky enough to be considered easy on the eye. “Simon Bridges is touted as a future leader of the National Party. But what are his credentials?” asked Whale Oil’s Cameron Slater a few months ago. “At the moment, it appears that his sole qualification is that he looks charming.”

Bridges presumably has the politician’s standard-issue armadillo hide to protect him from jabs about being just a pretty face. Ardern better have one, too, if her career is to thrive as her supporters expect, although an unintended consequence of Robertson’s stridency on her behalf might have been to sow some doubt about that.

Listed along with Lowe’s remark on Robertson’s over-egged “sexist bullshit” rant were examples such as a newspaper calling Ardern a “show pony” and a claim that National Party MPs had “sneered and leered” when she rose to ask a question in Parliament. Gosh, and you thought Parliament was all shrinking violets and mutual back rubs?

A real leadership contender had better be able to handle the jeering and sneering. Leering? Is Robertson sure he wasn’t just seeing the over-excited, glassy-eyed, pure slack-jawed delight of a pack whose quarry is on the run? It’s an unattractive sight, undeniably, but observable on both sides of the House from time to time.

Having a colleague seem over-protective does Ardern no favours. Robertson’s post (sample sentence: “Her policy for the 2011 election was well thought out, developed in close consultation with young people, business, schools and training providers”) only emphasised what’s missing from her record – and demonstrated that Robertson himself has a tin-ear problem.

She must fight her own battles and learn how to get the better of exchanges such as the 2012 parliamentary dust-up with another National leadership prospect, Paula Bennett, who told an interjecting Ardern to “Zip it, sweetie”. Though faded bovver boy Trevor Mallard leapt to his feet to claim the remark had been “exceptionally offensive”, it merely emphasised the street-smart cabinet minister’s effortless domination of her opponent.

When former Labour president Mike Williams waded in on Ardern’s behalf in the recent debate, his curious contribution was to proudly recall on National Radio that when he first helped to appoint her to a winnable place on the party list, he had never even laid eyes on her. With this, Williams might have inadvertently explained why Labour has in recent years suffered a talent shortage. If their candidates don’t even have to turn up to win over a selection panel, is it any wonder too many show little of the personality and energy needed to win over the voting public?

National’s highly competitive candidate selections have always seemed more likely to deliver candidates with the brio so helpful in politics. They also tend to have a firmer grip on the importance of presentation and grooming – which is why so many of their caucus look like real estate agents.

But any politician worth their salt makes the most of all their god-given gifts – and works hard to rectify any weaknesses. At least Ardern will never have to submit to the kind of makeover that put David Lange under the surgeon’s knife to get his stomach stapled or Ruth Richardson into shoulder pads, boofie hair and Minnie Mouse shoes.
If Helen Clark had to soften her image to get elected, maybe Ardern’s challenge is to put some steel into hers.

Instead, she might just need to develop her attacking skills and sniff out an issue, as Kelvin Davis has with Serco’s running of Mt Eden Prison, to get a minister on the back foot and keep them there. She can’t magically transform herself into an inspirational orator or queen of the quick-witted put-down. Nor can or should she wish away her natural earnestness and compassionate inclinations.

But if Helen Clark had to soften her image to get elected, maybe Ardern’s challenge is to put some steel into hers.

Perhaps she needs a mentor or coach to fire her up and get her on the attack, though she’s unlikely to get the kind of help she needs from any of the luvvies on Auckland Central’s fashion and cultural circuits.

Hang on. Could the answer have presented itself right there on breakfast TV? A certain rugby league legend is well known for his motivational skills. And we know he’s a fan, after all.

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