Bryce Edwards: Time for a sober discussion about toxicity and personality in politics

Bryce Edwards: Time for a sober discussion about toxicity and personality in politics

Since her shock resignation announcement, Jacinda Ardern has been at pains to point out that she isn’t leaving because of the toxicity directed at her on social media and elsewhere, rebutting journalists who suggested misogyny and hate may have driven her from office.

Yet there have been dozens of columns and articles, both domestically and internationally, blaming toxic public criticism for Ardern choosing to step down.

Rising toxicity and polarisation

Although some of the claims about Ardern being hounded from office by “deplorables” are questionable, they reflect the reality of rising toxicity and ugliness in New Zealand politics in recent years. And in terms of the hate that has been directed at Ardern, a substantial proportion of this is clearly gendered.

We do need to take a “moment for some national self-reflection” as some have argued, and we certainly need solutions for how to deal with rising polarisation and toxicity in New Zealand.

Ardern was the target of an extraordinary amount of abuse, but the toxicity extends further than the outgoing prime minister. Over the last decade or so, any public figure or politician – regardless of their politics, gender, and ethnicity – has become increasingly targeted for abuse, especially online. It began well before Ardern’s prime ministership.

Any sober observance of John Key’s time as prime minister shows the incredible hatred and abuse directed his way in the eight years he was at the top. This included his family, and Max Key claimed in 2016 that he received “death threats twice a week”.

Some of the aggression towards Key wasn’t even widely condemned. When gallows and death threats were cartoonishly made in leftwing protests, they were generally contextualised as expressions of anger and contempt for some of his policies as Prime Minister.

But a line was crossed in Key’s time – encapsulated by leftwing rapper Tom Scott’s “Kill the PM”, which spoke of assassinating Key and raping his daughter. At the time, the song and its artist had plenty of defenders on the left.

Since then, New Zealand society has become much more polarised. A survey published by the Herald in December showed 64 per cent of New Zealanders believe the country has become more divided in the last few years.

The impact of Covid and the Government’s response obviously played a key part in this division. Growing inequality and social dislocation have caused considerable damage, leading to bitterness and anger – some of which has been politicised and directed at politicians.

The role of gender in the rise and fall of Jacinda Ardern

Was the decline in Ardern’s popularity due to her gender? There is something of a strange reading of politics to suggest that Labour and Ardern’s poor polling in the last year was due to the Prime Minister being a woman. As journalist Graham Adams wrote this week, such narratives ignore how popular Ardern was: “Against reason, we are effectively asked to believe that a nation that gave Ardern an unprecedented majority in 2020 — alongside personal popularity ratings in the 70s that outshone anything John Key achieved — has become a deeply misogynistic nation in just two years.”

Yes, there were and are huge numbers of vile, sexist putdowns directed at Ardern. But the story of her rise to great heights has shown that her gender or becoming a mother while in office haven’t held her back in the slightest. If anything, New Zealanders strongly celebrated the progressiveness of having a prime minister become a mother while in office.

And the fact that the New Zealand Parliament now has a majority of women says something very striking about how gender is not the barrier for electability that it once was in this country. It could be argued Ardern’s gender and motherhood have been an electoral asset rather than a liability.

The personalisation of politics has accentuated toxicity

Political parties now market and emphasise the personalities of their leaders more than ever before. In New Zealand the “presidentialisation of politics” has reached a whole new level under the leadership of Jacinda Ardern. Since 2017 she became Labour’s biggest electorate asset, and so the party leveraged Jacindamania to win government in 2017 and 2020 – during which time she took the party from 24 per cent in the polls to the historic win of 50 per cent.

The leveraging of Ardern’s personality and star power epitomised the trend in politics for election manifestos, policy, and ideology to be de-emphasised. In fact, politics has become “hollowed out”, and substance and depth are now missing in democracy.

Few people join political parties, and the historic ties between parties and traditional constituencies have been eroded. Without the social anchors of strong ideologies and ties to social class and other demographics, elections are more about personality and the attributes of leadership than ever before.

Ardern was perfect for these times. Labour was able to focus their whole campaigns around her personality, with winning results.

Likewise, the Ardern-led Labour government since 2017 has been all about Ardern. She has towered well above any minister in projecting what the administration is about. This was particularly evident during the Covid crisis, when she was the almost-total voice and personification of the Government’s response.

The unfortunate flipside of having one personality embody and represent a party and government so entirely is that when the popularity of that institution plummets, it’s the personality at the top who becomes the magnet for all the discontent. Unfortunately for Ardern, by having her personify the Labour Government so totally, this has meant that she has been the recipient of, first the adulation, and now the blame.

Labour’s spindoctors might well have been smart to push Ardern to do the cover shoots, and develop a big media presence around her personality and charisma, but ultimately it became a double-edged sword.

The lesson is that the hyper-personalisation of politics is deeply harmful and unhealthy for all involved. The antidote is to shift away from personality politics. New Zealand political parties must rediscover their soul and substance, and not be based so much around leaders. They need to recruit members again, encourage their participation, and focus on policy development. Politics should not be an elite activity.

The media, too, could learn to focus less on personalities. The total concentration on Ardern’s star power was such easy journalism. But it came at the expense of a policy debate. A look back at the 2020 general election campaign shows how little policy and ideas were actually debated and examined. It was a policy void that few commentators were willing to challenge. The prime example has been the momentous Three Waters fiasco, which Labour didn’t even feel the need to foreshadow and persuade the electorate about – ultimately leading to a major backlash.

Hopefully, in 2023, the election campaign is less about Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon, and more about the significant problems in New Zealand that need fixing. Although ideology and visions are now deeply unpopular, we actually need more of a big-picture focus than on the personal ethics, competencies, and personalities of leaders. And it would help if the political parties are actually able to present properly differentiated policy options for voters – something that has been in short supply in recent years, which has merely fuelled the focus on individual politicians instead.

Weaponisation of claims about political abuse

We need a debate about polarisation and toxicity in New Zealand politics. An increase in toxicity, and especially the gendered and racial nature of it, is likely to increase. We need to find a better way forward.

But this is very different to presenting Jacinda Ardern as a victim. As some commentators have pointed out, this desire to turn her into a victim of abuse is somewhat paternalistic and patronising. Former prime minister Jenny Shipley has warned, for example, that “If we overemphasize the abuse question, it implies women can’t do this job and that’s not true.”

Even worse, is if partisans and liberal-leftists attempt to use Ardern’s departure to provoke a culture war. By painting a picture of “the deplorables hounding the Prime Minister from office”, such voices are just increasing the toxic polarisation in a way that prevents a sober discussion of the problems.

An unsophisticated condemnation of political opponents just drives up tensions and looks like petty opportunism rather than a genuine concern to help find a solution for a real problem. Instead of reducing the hate and rancour, such “call out culture” methods tend to be counterproductive and are a dead-end.

Instead, what is urgently needed is a better understanding of what is driving social divisions, and an acknowledgement that the increased abuse of politicians comes largely from our unhealthy personalisation of politics.

This focus on individual politicians and New Zealand’s shift away from collective ways of doing politics is fuelling a hyper-individualisation by which political careers live and die, leaving us all the poorer.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

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


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