Graham Adams: Ardern’s halo slips, rhetoric wears thin

Graham Adams: Ardern’s halo slips, rhetoric wears thin

Last week felt much like mid-2016 when a very popular Prime Minister was surprised to find a blowtorch being applied to his feet. Graham Adams tallies the damage to the current incumbent after a messy five days.


When the media tires of even a popular Prime Minister the shift can be dramatic and unnerving for them.  John Key found this out in May 2016 when a usually indulgent media suddenly began focusing on those unfortunates — including the working poor — who were forced to live in their cars.

Key, taken by surprise by hostile stories on a topic that had largely been ignored, was back-footed and made a series of blunders — not least by telling reporters that the car-dwellers should just ask Work and Income for help, as if they hadn’t already.

Key also implied that the poor were undeserving when he claimed that people from the Ministry of Social Development and the Salvation Army had knocked on the windows of eight cars and “All eight of those people refused to take support either from Sallies or from MSD.”

The Army rejected the statement as false and it quickly became apparent that the public really didn’t like seeing the Sallies — those guardian angels of the poor and dispossessed — being lassoed into covering up for the National government’s manifest failings in areas such as housing, health and poverty, among others.

After this messy episode, nothing much seemed to go right for Key. From the middle of 2016, criticism of his leadership became more intense. He found himself under pressure to do something about all the problems he had hitherto sidestepped — including homelessness, Auckland’s insane house prices and unsustainable immigration levels.

The pile-on included damning assessments from bank chiefs and prominent business leaders of the direction in which the nation was being steered.

Key’s popularity and that of his government remained high but he obviously didn’t enjoy the relentless criticism. He resigned seven months later.

Last week, Jacinda Ardern found herself in a similar position. She discovered the pitfalls in “punching down” on South Auckland residents as a way of shifting blame for her government’s failings in maintaining an impermeable border and its manifest inability to communicate a clear message about when to self-isolate at home and when it is safe to go out.

What must have surprised her was that sustained fire came from both the right and the left — and centred on her treatment of one person.

On The Hui last Monday, Mihingarangi Forbes gave Ardern a grilling over Case L, who went to work at KFC on February 22, and who was lambasted by the Prime Minister for disobeying the rules, despite the young woman’s assertions she had not been advised to stay home. Forbes pressed the issue but Ardern refused to accept she should apologise to her.

Not only that but Ardern’s answers to Forbes’ questions about how poor people could afford time off work while hoping that their employer might belatedly apply for a government subsidy on their behalf showed that she had as little understanding of their day-to-day struggles to stay afloat as Key had.

On Tuesday, Josie Pagani mounted a blistering attack on Ardern and her “finger-wagging”. A prominent voice on the left, Pagani wrote on Stuff: “The problem is not the people. It’s the system. Blaming the people is a sly way to avoid responsibility.… A well-designed system understands that people make mistakes. Understands why the rules get broken, then creates incentives to comply.”

The same day, a screen grab of advice given by the government website Unite Against Covid-19 on February 26 spread like wildfire on social media. It appeared to corroborate Case L’s assertion that she had, indeed, obeyed official advice.

That information spurred Act’s David Seymour to say: “The Prime Minister’s cynical attempts to whip up nation-wide hysteria against a small group of people who have no platform to defend themselves, without accepting her government’s failures, shows that kindness, and the ‘team of 5 million’ has been a sham all along.”

On Wednesday, under widespread pressure to apologise to Case L, Ardern did not appear at the 1pm briefing. As a Spinoff journalist remarked: “It’s interesting that Jacinda Ardern won’t be fronting the vaccine update. As noted [earlier], the PM is being called on to apologise after apparently contradicting advice given by the official Covid-19 Facebook page.”

Commenters on social media were quick to point out how eager the Prime Minister is to front for bouquets but not nearly so keen to appear for brickbats.

If Ardern thought the issue would blow over quickly, on Thursday evening Unite Union’s John Crocker told Newstalk ZB that Case L had been subject to bullying and harassment and being called out by the Prime Minister meant she “has suffered a lot as a result of this… I am surprised by the resistance to an apology.”

On Friday, Ardern still wouldn’t back down although she claimed she hadn’t intended to create a pile-on — despite having said on Monday that those South Aucklanders who had not self-isolated “are facing the judgement of the entire nation. There are consequences, undoubtedly.”

Unfortunately for Ardern, “punching down” by criticising those much less powerful is a hanging offence in the hierarchy of crimes promoted by social progressives (even if it satisfies rampant bloodlust among more conservative voters). And it is an even more serious charge for someone who has identified herself from the beginning of her prime ministership as a champion of the poor and underprivileged and whose mantra is the increasingly hollow “Be kind”.

What must also be making Labour’s strategists sweat is that in the same week as the Case L debacle, the influential chairs of Auckland Airport, Mercury Energy, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare, The Warehouse and SkyCity demanded a lot more information about the government’s long-term strategy for dealing with an increasingly vaccinated world.

Along with details and timetables of how the vaccine rollout will be managed, they wanted to know more about the nation’s testing capacity and strategy, and progress on adding additional technology such as saliva PCR tests and health passports to the government’s armoury.

Behind the request lurked the unmistakeable subtext that the government still has nothing substantial to offer them — or the public — by way of firm plans. As much as anything, the business leaders’ demands for information looked like an attempt to flush into the open that sorry fact.

On Thursday, business journalist Fran O’Sullivan made this explicit in the NZ Herald, writing that underlying the demand for information to be made public is “a suspicion — based on the revelations of bureaucratic incompetence exposed in the Simpson Roche report — that sensible strategies are not in place”.

The report written by Heather Simpson and Sir Brian Roche into the Covid testing and surveillance system — that the government commissioned then shamefully hid until mid-December even though ministers had received it in September — found multiple failures in the government’s response to managing the pandemic.

The messy messaging around self-isolating during the latest lockdown coupled with blunders such as the bewildering decision to allow police to stop traffic on roads into Auckland that delayed motorists for up to seven hours will have done little to counter the suspicion that management may not have improved much since the Simpson Roche report was delivered last year and that the vaccine rollout may be similarly haphazard and uncoordinated.

For now, it looks as though some of the gloss has come off Ardern’s premiership. And the likelihood that New Zealand will lag behind the rest of the world in vaccinations can only ramp up the pressure on Ardern to abandon her closed-shop approach to what is planned for the nation on the Beehive’s ninth floor.

Like John Key in 2016, Ardern might need to brace herself for a more combative media and a more critical and outspoken business community in the months ahead.

Messages to “be kind” and repeated references to the “team of five million” are already looking like lame substitutes for details of long-term, effective planning that are shared with everyone.

Fran O’Sullivan laid the problem bare: “Basically, the business leaders — like many — want the Prime Minister to get beyond the current flannel and sloganising and ensure in-depth detail is put in public so that business can make strategies and fall-back plans for keeping their firms moving forward during and after this pandemic.”

Ardern has been put on notice.


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.