Graham Adams: The Perils of Premature Congratulation

Graham Adams: The Perils of Premature Congratulation

In ancient Rome, a victorious general would parade through the city to the temple of Jupiter in a gilded chariot amidst a frenzy of adoration. But to keep the triumphant commander tethered to reality, the trusted slave holding a laurel wreath above his head would whisper repeatedly in his ear: “Memento mori” — “Remember you are mortal!”

It is advice Jacinda Ardern may need as she continues to ride a wave of acclaim. News media, both here and overseas, have lavished praise on her management of the coronavirus pandemic in a small, sparsely populated island nation at the bottom of the world.

Overwhelming popularity can easily warp someone’s judgment and a leaked memo sent to ministers before last Friday’s dump of Covid-19 papers shows she is not immune. The note advised that the government has no need to defend its response to the pandemic because public approval of its actions is so strong.

“There’s no real need to defend. Because the public have confidence in what has been achieved and what the government is doing. Instead we can dismiss [criticism].”

Such hubris is hardly surprising. It must be extremely difficult for the Prime Minister to keep her head when so many are losing theirs in an effort to outdo each other in producing extravagant paeans to her.

The adulation has clearly gone well beyond the point of reason — not least the gushy article which appeared in mid-April in the usually sober Financial Times titled (without a hint of irony): “Arise St Jacinda: A leader for our troubled times”.

Now publisher Simon & Schuster has gone a step further with its announcement that a hardback edition of Madeleine Chapman’s unauthorised biography will be published on September 15 with the title: “The Most Powerful Woman in the World: How Jacinda Ardern Exemplifies Progressive Leadership”.

It certainly represents a meteoric promotion from December 2018 when Ardern was said by Forbes magazine to be the 29th most powerful woman in the world. The book publishers must have been convinced that within a few months she will be more powerful than any other woman on earth — including Germany’s Angela Merkel, IMF chief Christine Lagarde and media superstar Oprah Winfrey.

September 15, of course, will be just four days before New Zealand’s general election. It will horrify fervent Ardernistas to hear it said, but St Jacinda may not even be the most powerful woman in New Zealand after that date if the Labour Party fails to form a government.

Many supporters find that possibility simply unbelievable. After all, a leaked UMR poll on May 1 gave her a preferred prime minister rating of 65 to Simon Bridges’ 7 per cent. It also reckoned Labour had 55 per cent support to National’s 29 — with the resulting widespread conviction that National has no chance and will be wiped out at September’s general election.

Unfortunately, this seems awfully like a bad case of that embarrassing disorder known as “premature congratulation syndrome”.

We’ve seen it often enough in sport. The leader in a race begins to coast as she nears the finish line while taking the time to acknowledge the crowd’s roar of approval. Then a rival hurtles past and narrowly takes the crown.

We’ve seen it in American politics, too — most notably with US President George W. Bush landing on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 to announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Bush was careful to warn that more effort was still needed but the huge sign above him said: “Mission Accomplished”. And that was the celebratory message voters took from the theatrical stunt.

As the war in Iraq dragged on, however, Bush’s popularity slumped from spectacular highs to dismal lows.

A fortnight ago, Ardern reported that the “battle” over Covid-19 community transmission had been won and that New Zealand had “effectively eliminated” the virus.

It was quickly evident that such self-congratulation — repeated widely overseas — relied on a technical meaning of elimination rather than a common-sense one (leading a former dean of Auckland Medical School, Professor Des Gorman, to describe it as “absolute gibberish”).

The Prime Minister’s claim was clarified but the damage was done. If we have indeed been as stunningly successful as she alleged, why were we being detained in our homes even a moment longer?

Premature congratulation syndrome has other unfortunate effects, including a tendency to dismiss less-favoured politicians as irrelevant. That was on show in a remarkably hostile interview in late April by RNZ’s Susie Ferguson, in which she treated Simon Bridges with the sort of disdain interviewers usually reserve for the likes of Don Brash or Brian Tamaki.

The unspoken assumption in these cases is that the vast majority of listeners have already decided that the interviewee is a certifiable loser, fuddy-duddy or fruitcake who is not worth paying attention to. It is therefore considered acceptable — perhaps even obligatory — for the interviewer to treat their guest with barely disguised contempt to ensure no one mistakenly thinks they take them seriously.

It’s hard not to conclude that Ferguson was willing to treat the Leader of the Opposition as a dead man walking because she had probably decided — along with many others — that a Labour-led government after September’s election is a certainty as long as Bridges leads National.

In normal times, such dismal polling results for National a few months from an election might seem a worthwhile predictor of how things will pan out. But these aren’t normal times and four or five months is suddenly looking like a very long lag in which anything could happen.

In fact, we are living in such unusual times that the adage “a week is a long time in politics” seems overly cautious, and Lenin’s observation “There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen” is more appropriate.

While Simon Bridges is very unlikely to ever come close to matching Ardern’s popularity, he still has time to revive National’s prospects — which, it should be remembered, were rosy enough on February 13 for a Colmar Brunton poll to predict National could form a government with Act.

And while the government’s response to Covid-19 has catapulted Ardern into the political stratosphere, it has also brutally exposed the lack of depth in Labour’s line-up. It’s extraordinary that in a pandemic that has paralysed the economy, and the tourist industry in particular, the government appears not to have a capable Minister of Health or Minister of Tourism.

In fact, David Clark had disappeared from public view even before he broke lockdown rules to visit a beach 20kms away, while Kelvin Davis — who is also the party’s deputy leader — has been mostly AWOL in the heat of battle. And you’d have to say his rare media appearance on Paul Henry’s show Rebuilding Paradise last week did little to inspire confidence that the future of what was our biggest export earner is in safe hands.

National may not have an international star as a leader but it does have a clutch of experienced former ministers within its ranks who know how to get things done. The government has earned itself a well-deserved reputation for failing on logistics — from KiwiBuild to Auckland’s light rail proposal. The fact it may also have failed to ensure that the severe lockdown it imposed was lawful will come as little surprise to many.

Whether the virus is quelled or not, in four months’ time the wreckage of New Zealand’s economy will be visible from space. Last week, leaked documents showed the Ministry of Social Development is preparing for an extra 300,000 benefit applications in response to mass unemployment generated by the pandemic.

You don’t have to be a seer to guess that material concerns and a desire for economic and logistical competence will likely trump all other considerations — including abstract notions of “wellbeing” and admonitions to “be kind” — in choosing the next government.

People will want jobs rather than handouts — and quickly. Like Scott Morrison in last year’s Australian election (which he won against nearly all predictions), Bridges will be able to fuel his election campaign with a cry of “Jobs and growth!”

In fact, National may have already found its election mantra with its slogan currently circulating on social media: “We’ll get New Zealand working again.”

Labour will propose something similar, of course, but the battle will come down to who has the most credibility in managing and revitalising the economy — and, unfortunately for Ardern, that is usually the political right.

That well-known philosopher Sir Mick Jagger aptly summed up the dilemma that will confront many voters: “My heart is Labour but my wallet is Conservative.”


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.