Graham Adams: National’s strategy to neutralise Jacinda Ardern

Graham Adams: National’s strategy to neutralise Jacinda Ardern

At a time when a wave of iconoclasm has meant no statue or monument appears safe from destruction — whether it is Gandhi, Churchill or Captain Cook — Judith Collins has taken the opportunity to attack a living icon who has been feted in some quarters, both here and abroad, as the world’s greatest leader: Jacinda Ardern.

Such is Ardern’s popularity and mana that most opponents consider it too risky to attack her directly by impugning her essential goodness — not least because there is a widespread belief that, unlike many elected representatives, she is always well-intentioned, humble and honest.

In fact, Ardern made that last claim herself when she told the nation during the second leaders’ debate in 2017 that not only was it possible to not lie in politics but that she had never told a lie as a politician. If she did lie, she said, she would own up to it.

Nevertheless, Collins echoed the thoughts of many New Zealanders when she said repeatedly on The AM Show on Friday that the Prime Minister had lied. ”We have been lied to actually. We have been lied to about the quarantine, about the standard of care.”

She also said Ardern had lied by implying she was calling in the military to shore up our border defences against Covid-19 when its staff had, in fact, been working there for months. She summarised the Prime Minister’s response after the damaging flood of media stories about the lax border controls as: “Don’t worry! We’re bringing in the army!” — and described it as a “plain lie”.

Her fellow guest, Minister of Employment Wille Jackson, was clearly unnerved by these very direct challenges to his leader’s self-proclaimed virtue. He declared it to be “a bit over the line if you’re going to start accusing the Prime Minister of lying…. [as] a senior and respected member of the Opposition. Seriously, I don’t see there’s any lies that are coming from our Prime Minister.”

Jackson insisted that the Prime Minister is “a person of huge integrity and very honest” — presumably hoping that this assertion would immediately settle the matter even though they were the exact attributes being questioned.

On the chess board of politics, Ardern is Labour’s Queen and must be protected at all costs. The party knows that if the mana of their pre-eminent star is successfully undermined, it will sink. And critical to that mana is maintaining her reputation as an honest politician without guile who has only concern for the good of others — and particularly children — as her motivation.

This last point explains in part the attack last week by National’s Nick Smith on the eye-watering cost of a playground on Parliament’s front lawn seven months after it was opened. He asked why a slide and a few balance boards and benches had cost the taxpayer $572,000. It seemed an odd tactic given that Ardern had opened the playground on International Children’s Day last November and media coverage at the time had included criticism of its extravagant cost.

However, while the purpose of Smith’s renewed attack was ostensibly to highlight a “culture of extravagance and waste”, it also gave him a chance to take swipes at Ardern — without actually using her name — over just how dedicated she is to ridding the country of child poverty.

“Parliament’s playground was all about politics and a photo opportunity to show a child-friendly government,” he said. “It exposes the shallowness of expensive photo opportunities over the real work required to lift children’s wellbeing in New Zealand.”

But if Collins and Smith have been on a mission to undermine Ardern by claiming she is a liar and a shallow self-promoter, Todd Muller has been taking the high road by trying to impress upon the electorate that Ardern doesn’t have a monopoly on kindness and goodness.

Hence, his major speech at his hometown of Te Puna a week ago was littered with references to love — in fact, there were a staggering 17 mentions in all. Alongside this love-fest came assurances that he regretted the brutality of the economic reforms of the 80s and 90s and wouldn’t repeat them in the wake of Covid-19.

As part of his “love-is-all-you-need” theme — including a reference to having been born in Te Aroha, which he characterised as “a town called love” — Muller even co-opted the memory of Labour icon Michael Joseph Savage to his cause. As a practising Catholic, Muller can plausibly cast himself as having just as legitimate a claim on Savage’s philosophy of “applied Christianity” as the agnostic Ardern has through her Labour lineage.

The chances of Muller being able to “out-Jesus” Ardern by projecting an image of kindness and goodness are low but he is certainly intent on neutralising the topic by presenting himself as equally committed in principle to these virtues.

It is possible to see the strands of an emerging campaign strategy here. National doesn’t have to convince the electorate it is kinder than Ardern but by matching her rhetoric it will hope to devalue its political impact (as indeed has already happened after “Be kind” slogans were plastered on billboards and motorway signs that many who have recently lost their livelihoods will have found patronising if not downright insulting).

And if National can also persuade voters that the Prime Minister is as flawed, calculating and prone to lying as any other politician, it will destroy the moral high ground that her singular reputation rests on.

As it happens, Ardern herself has helped National out enormously by her reaction to the wave of anger and incredulity that followed Michael Woodhouse’s bombshell revelations in Parliament last week about the two Covid-infected sisters travelling from Auckland to Wellington. Asked by a journalist on Thursday if she would apologise for the catalogue of errors at the border, Ardern avoided answering the question directly. Instead, she described her feelings: ”Of course I feel huge remorse that this has happened, but I am making sure that we are fixing the system.”

Asked the question again, she repeated her position of “remorse” but basically asserted it was nothing to do with her. “If I had any personal responsibility for what happened here of course I’d take that, but my job is to lead, I wear that, and I keep going.”

Even if a prime minister is not technically responsible for the blunders of her ministries, the idea that someone can be in charge but not responsible will seem plainly wrong to most people. In fact, most people’s ideas about leadership can be summed up by the sign that US President Harry Truman’s kept on his desk in the Oval Office: “The buck stops here.”

So far, National has not made much of Ardern’s evasion of responsibility — possibly because it considers it safer to let the media do that job on its behalf. RNZ headlined its story on Thursday evening: “Covid-19 — PM denies personal responsibility over border bungle” while TVNZ ran a similar line.

Even Ardern’s usual allies were unimpressed. In response to Ardern’s earlier claim that neither she nor David Clark were responsible for the border breaches, Martyn Bradbury wrote on his left-leaning Daily Blog: “Oh no you don’t, Jacinda. This border breach is on your watch; it’s on you whether you like it or not.”

Ardern’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for poor outcomes after revelling so obviously in the praise for the earlier good outcomes has made it clear that while success has many mothers, failure on her watch will always be an orphan.

And having been pushed onto the ropes by National’s revelations in Parliament, she has shown that when she is put in a very tight spot her instincts for self-preservation mean she will behave exactly how any run-of-the-mill political operator might.

On Monday morning she was still avoiding apologising for the border bungles when asked directly by Duncan Garner on The AM Show. And when Mike Hosking in his interview on NewstalkZB asked her if she could justify the spending of “in excess of half a million dollars on a slide and some wood” in Parliament’s grounds, she insisted it was nothing to do with her because the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, has responsibility for such projects.

“He’s your Speaker,” Hosking said.

For a politician who has expressed very strong opinions in public on topics such as The Warehouse cutting staff and Bauer Media closing its doors, Ardern is obviously very selective about what topics she will make judgments on.

Chances are high that right now National Party strategists are reading up on Pontius Pilate and his famously slippery approach to taking responsibility.

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.  

Image: Steve Johnson