Josh Van Veen: Why politics? Review of Madeleine Chapman’s Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader

Josh Van Veen: Why politics? Review of Madeleine Chapman’s Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader

It is rare for a first-term New Zealand prime minister to be the subject of a biography. Let alone two. But then Jacinda Ardern is no ordinary prime minister. At least, that is what two recent books claim. Michelle Duff’s Jacinda Ardern: The Story Behind an Extraordinary Leader (2019)  is the first attempt at a biographical study of the country’s 40th prime minister. Although the subtitle promises an inside account of Ardern’s rise to power, the book turns out to be a social commentary on life in 21st century New Zealand. While this provides a fascinating insight into the anxieties and conflict that gave rise to ‘Jacindamania’, it tells us almost nothing about the subject herself. That is why Madeleine Chapman’s more recent Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader (2020) is a welcome contribution. While it is only a slim volume, and descriptive rather than analytical, the book goes some way to helping readers understand Ardern. However, it leaves us with a crucial question.

Australian historian Judith Brett says the core challenge of political biography is to ask  “Why politics?” Her award-winning books on Robert Menzies and Alfred Deakin explored this question in detail. Brett was inspired by literary scholar Richard Holmes’ description of biography as a search for “patterns of impulse and imagery, repetitions and recollections, constellations of self-myth and self-understanding, links between childhood and adulthood.” By looking at the whole life, spread out ‘like a landscape’, one may see the patterns and disruptions that give an individual character. Following Holmes’ approach Brett has delved into the rich meaning of her subjects’ inner-lives to find what it was that motivated their political ambitions and, importantly, how these ambitions shaped Australia. Menzies and Deakin were both long dead by the time Brett wrote about them but each had left a deep imprint on the nation.

Of course, it is much too early to judge Ardern’s place in history. We tend to forget our prime ministers within a generation. Those who once strode the world like Colossus are barely mentioned today.  It is impossible to know how she will be remembered decades from now. But the question of what motivates her is one we may reasonably ask now. After all, leadership cannot exist in a vacuum, and although it has become fashionable to eschew politics during a national crisis, every public policy decision entails some value judgement or another. The idea that government can be ‘apolitical’ goes back to Plato but is nothing more than a utopian dream. Any biography of the Prime Minister must seek to answer Brett’s core challenge. Why is Jacinda Ardern in politics? 

“Jacinda Ardern never wanted to be prime minister,” Chapman tells us at the outset. But the author is not entirely convinced. We see glimpses of Ardern’s ambition throughout the book. Inspired by her activist history teacher at Morrinsville College, the future prime minister became involved with a Human Rights Action Group and led the local Students Against Driving Drunk campaign. But her first major success in public life was convincing the College Board of Trustees to grant female students the right to wear shorts. The following year Ardern would volunteer on the re-election campaign of Labour MP Harry Duynhoven in New Plymouth. It set her on a lifelong trajectory. 

Sadly, this defining moment is glossed over in the book. It was Ardern’s aunt Marie, a long-standing party member, who “put her in touch” with the socially conservative Duynhoven. But we learn nothing about Ardern’s family association with the Labour Party and the influence aunt Marie had on her niece. It is remarkable that, despite attending university in Hamilton, the young liberal Ardern chose to campaign for a conservative candidate some 240 kilometres away. There is no mention of Ardern forging any other relationships in Labour as a student.  Upon graduating from the University of Waikato in 2001, Ardern secured a job in Duynhoven’s Wellington office.

Curiously, her involvement with Young Labour appears to have begun in the Parliamentary precinct rather than on the university campus. According to Chapman, the youth wing recruited the 23 year old staffer in a drive to improve gender representation. Through this role, Ardern caught the attention of leader Helen Clark and went on to play a significant role during the 2005 election campaign, which Labour won by the narrowest of margins. At that point her future in Wellington was almost certainly secure. After a brief O.E., Ardern returned in time for the 2008 election and claimed a seat in Parliament. That she was ambitious and talented cannot be disputed. But where did her ambition come from and why did it lead to a career in party politics?

Chapman reaches the startling conclusion that “Ardern’s personal experiences have never driven her political actions”. Rather, she is motivated by a desire to serve others. The origin of this altruism is located in Murupara, an impoverished town where Ardern spent her formative years while father Ross worked as a police officer. In an interview shortly after becoming Labour leader, Ardern recalled seeing other kids go barefoot in the cold, a neighbour who committed suicide and her babysitter turning yellow from hepatitis. These poignant childhood memories have shaped Ardern’s outlook. In the Prime Minister’s own words, she tries to view the world through a “lens of children, people and the most basic concept of fairness”.

But even if we accept that Ardern is motivated by concern for others, it does not follow that her politics are devoid of “personal experience”. Such a claim makes the Prime Minister appear less human and, if anything, diminishes the importance of her character. While Chapman devotes a chapter to Ardern’s painful decision to renounce Mormonism, for example, there is no discussion of the parallels between organised religion and party politics. Ardern herself has conceded that she may have replaced one kind of faith with another.  If we are to understand our leaders then we must see them as real people, not just idealised concepts. That means looking beneath the surface. Here the task of political biography is crucial. 

One day a writer may take up Brett’s core challenge and answer the question, “Why is Jacinda Ardern in politics?” Until then Chapman has given us some partial clues.

Josh Van Veen is former member of NZ First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winton Peters from 2011 to 2013. He has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. His thesis examined class voting in Britain and New Zealand

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