Josephine Varghese: What the media did not pick up in the Ardern-Marin press conference

Josephine Varghese: What the media did not pick up in the Ardern-Marin press conference

The biggest news story around the Finnish PM’s visit to New Zealand is the now-viral exchange between a member of the press and the two Prime Ministers regarding the reason for their meeting. The question “did you meet just because you are of similar age?” seemed to trivialise the meeting between two female Prime Ministers. The main criticism around it, was the gendered nature of the comment, particularly since such questions do not get fielded to male politicians.

With this incident in focus, many other critical issues escaped scrutiny. The controversial question, therefore, has been described by some as a ‘gift’ to the two Prime Ministers, both of whom preside over nations facing multiple ongoing crises, including increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Once again, the ensuing debate focused on sexism faced by women in the highest echelons of power. While sexism within politics obviously continues to exist, it can be argued that by-and-large, both New Zealand and Finland have succeeded in expanding the participation of women (particularly for those who are advantaged in terms of educational and/or economic backgrounds) in politics.

The focus on issues facing the most powerful and privileged women often takes the debate further away from the social and material issues impacting the most marginalised women in these countries. I raised this point with journalist Bridie Witton who asked for a response to the sexist question during the press conference.

The debate around which women’s voices get centre-stage is emblematic of the tension that exists within feminist thought. On the one hand, we have the dominant neoliberal feminist narrative that disproportionately centres around visible, powerful and privileged women (for example, politicians, pop artists, and movie stars). On the other hand, we have feminists who point out the dangers of focusing disproportionately on women at the top, as it often fails to address the fundamental needs of women who are less visible, and whose struggles are vastly different from those of Jacinda Ardern, Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, or Beyonce. In contrast, poor and working-class women (who form the vast majority of women across the world) are fighting for basics such as housing, childcare, healthcare, food, and financial security. These material issues are overlooked within the neoliberal feminist discourse.

PM Ardern’s statement does not stand up to scrutiny

In her opening statement to the joint press conference, Ardern talked about the common values between New Zealand and Finland. Among the values she mentioned were “equal societies” and a “rules-based international order”. However, both women preside over countries with a great deal of inequality. In New Zealand, the top 10% own nearly 60% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom 50% own only 2%! In Finland, the top 10% own 50% of the wealth and the bottom 50% own only 5.4% of the wealth. Recent reports suggest that 62,000 more households slipped into poverty in Finland, and in New Zealand, use of food banks have significantly increased. Economist Bernard Hickey calculated a near 1 trillion NZ Dollars-worth enrichment of the wealthiest in New Zealand over 2020 and 2021, while simultaneously, poor people got further burdened with 400million Dollars’-worth of debt to the government itself. When there is so much difference in wealth, influence (eg: through corporate lobbying), and power between the top 10% and the bottom 50% it is questionable whether such systems can meaningfully be called democracies

In this circumstance, it is difficult to understand how these countries can claim to stand for equality. The question should have been asked about what measures they have taken to substantively address wealth inequality and material insecurity faced by those at the bottom of the wealth distribution.

The second part of the statement that should have invited scrutiny is the oft-repeated line on a “rules based international order”. Ardern claimed that she supports one, yet New Zealand sided with NATO in the Afghanistan war as well as the US-UK led Iraq war. These wars led to death and displacement for millions in the region. Currently, New Zealand as well as Finland are moving closer to NATO, a military alliance that has historically violated international law, and whose members continue to do so in multiple parts of the world. The United States has been meddling in the sovereign affairs of multiple nations, including blockades and sanctions that impact poor and working-class people in Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and other countries throughout the world. The United States and its allies were involved in the recent coup in Bolivia, and coup attempts in Venezuela. NATO militarily intervened in Libya leading to the complete destruction of the most prosperous African nation, which has now been reduced to instability with loss of critical infrastructure. NATO members are yet to be held accountable for their war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and other regions where they violently intervened. We must also remember the circumstances that led to the Iranian revolution of 1979, and how the US and its allies have repeatedly meddled into the sovereign affairs of Iran and other nations in the region.

The media must question the basis upon which NATO members and their allies claim to support a rules-based global order. But that has not happened in the mainstream media here in New Zealand or in other western nations. Few people want to question why this glaring hypocrisy exists.

Regarding women’s issues, both Prime Ministers spoke about Iran, but nobody from the press asked about the insecurity experienced by marginalised women in both leaders’ countries, and violence from the criminal justice system here, especially towards vulnerable Māori and Pasifika communities, including women. The issue of over-representation of wāhine Māori in New Zealand prisons continues under Ardern’s watch. In fact, wāhine Māori are among the most incarcerated indigenous women in the world today.

New Zealand- Finland areas of co-operation

While the main focus of the Finnish Prime Minister’s visit was trade, there are other areas where both countries should be more pro-actively engaging on.

Both countries have a similar population size. New Zealand has 5.1 million people and Finland has 5.4 million. Therefore, there could be greater cooperation and exchange of ideas in the field of social policy. For example, one area in which Finland is doing much better than New Zealand is homelessness. Despite housing being enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, successive New Zealand governments over recent decades have either worsened the situation or not done enough to make a significant impact. Housing affordability has become worse under Ardern, and the rate of homelessness has not significantly improved.

Finland’s approach has been effective in tackling homelessness. Their rate of homelessness substantially declined since the peak in the 1980s. Perhaps New Zealand can learn some lessons from Finland’s success in tackling homelessness through their ‘zero homelessness’ strategy. OECD economists Laurence Boone and Boris Cournède note:

The experience of Finland over the past several decades – during which the country has nearly eradicated homelessness – provides a glimpse of what can be possible with a sustained national strategy and enduring political will. The number of homeless people in Finland has continuously decreased over the past three decades from over 16000 in 1989 to around 4000, or 0.08% of the population. This is a very low number, especially considering that Finland uses a relatively broad definition of homelessness, whereby in particular it includes people temporarily living with friends and relatives in its official homelessness count. In 2020, practically no-one was sleeping rough on a given night in Finland.

Other issues Ardern could have discussed and learned from the Finnish model include fees-free tertiary education (which was one of Ardern’s 2017 campaign promises), and delivering universal school lunches, rather than New Zealand’s targeted approach which leaves out thousands of kids in need.

Instead of asking questions about these key issues that affect most New Zealanders, some members of the press at the joint press conference caused embarrassment with their superficial line of questioning, and the rest of the media (with a few notable exceptions) cashed in on the sensational value of the now-viral exchange.

Meanwhile, poor and working-class people are concerned about increased living costs and the possibility of an incoming recession accompanied by job losses. The press conference offered a unique opportunity to hold Ardern and Marin to account in the interests of common people in both countries as well as in the interests of people who are the victims of western neocolonialism, which both leaders seem to unreservedly support.


Dr Josephine Varghese is a Political Analyst and Researcher at the Democracy Project, Victoria University of Wellington


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