Jacinda Ardern: The Leader We Need But Not The One We Deserve

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Image Credit: David Illif (CC-BY-4.0)

Since at least the 2008 Financial Crash, the world’s major left-wing parties have been in crisis. Often bereft of ideas and lacking charismatic leadership, these parties have been haemorrhaging votes both right and left, seriously curtailing their ability to act as effective oppositions, let alone maintain hopes of being restored to government. There are, however, three apparent exceptions to this trend. The first is, of course, the British Labour Party, which saw its vote share jump from 30% in 2015 to 40% in 2017, Labour’s largest increase in the vote since 1945. The second exception is the Portuguese Socialist Party which, following the 2015 election, was able to oust the centre-right government. The final exception is much further afield; the New Zealand Labour Party saw its declining support suddenly begin to reverse when, in 2017, Jacinda Ardern was elected unanimously as Labour leader, just nine years after becoming an MP.

At just 37, Ardern became the youngest person to lead the Party. Fresh-faced, charismatic and bold, Ardern managed to lift the Party’s support in the mere seven weeks between her election and the general election. While Labour still did not gain as many votes as their rivals the National Party, they certainly ate into their majority, so much so that they were able to form a surprise government with the support of New Zealand First.

Immediately after her election as leader, Ardern sent shockwaves around the world. Just seven hours after her election, Ardern appeared on The Project where she was asked whether she thought she could be both a mother and a prime minister, answering coolly that she was not unlike any other mother in work. However, in a discussion on The AM Show the following morning she slammed co-host Mark Richardson for suggesting that employers—in Ardern’s case the public—are entitled to know whether a female employee intends to take maternity leave. “But you,” she said turning and pointing at the presenter, “it is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace, it is unacceptable, it is unacceptable.”

“But Ardern has proved to be not just a model for feminists, but a model for the Left”

One year on, such scepticism continues to follow her. She is, after all, only the second leader to give birth while in office. Now, it certainly is true that our Western societies still operate on the assumption that mothers will take most of the responsibility for raising children, and given that this is itself an overwhelming task, it is not so surprising that such questions arise. But this is no defence. It is the assumption itself—that it is the primary role of women to raise children and support the husband—which is flawed, and the very fact that this question  is so quickly posed reveals our society’s underlying misogynistic attitudes. Many male leaders have had young children while in office but never would they be asked such a question, let alone a mere seven hours after their election. People want to know about men’s policies. Not so for women. Indeed, the question is intended to convey a kind of scepticism. It insinuates that maybe she’s just not really up for the job. And while male statesmen are lauded for being good family men, it is clear that women are just not considered capable of raising a family and governing. This is misogyny.

But Ardern need not say all this—her record is quite able to speak for itself. Since entering office, her government has introduced paid leave for victims of domestic violence, banned the foreign purchase of housing in an effort to combat rising house prices, committed to increasing their proportionally low refugee intake (including offering to resettle those locked up by the Australian government on Nauru), frozen MPs pay, and increased funding for climate change relief in the Pacific while reaffirming their commitment for New Zealand to play its part in tackling climate change. At her speech to the UN, Ardern lived up to her nickname as the ‘Anti-Trump’, railing against “isolationism, protectionism, racism” and declaring that “collective international action not only works, but…is in all of our best interests”. And all this within the space of a year. But maybe she’s just not up for the job.

“To non-ideological voters, vision and conviction can be just as persuasive as policy.”

More recently, Ardern has made headlines by being the first head of state in history to bring her baby to a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. Reports tell of the surprise of the Japanese Delegation when they entered a meeting room during a nappy change. Similar occurrences have been cropping up at the domestic level, with such pioneering women as Jo Swinson in the UK and Larissa Waters in Australia, but never has such a bold display been made on the international stage. The message is clear: the women are here and they’re running it for themselves.

Ardern has shown that not only can she be a mother, and a prime minister, and overcome constant sexism and underestimation, but can do so with poise and confidence. She represents the power of the female stateswoman, and honestly, I would like to see any man do half as much without complaint.

But Ardern has proved to be not just a model for feminists, but a model for the Left, and if the world’s left-wing parties want to return from the political wilderness, they would do well to stop and pay attention. Now is the time for radical, progressive policies. Ardern has proved that the old method of aligning as close as possible to the centre and offering only meagre reform in an attempt to catch as many votes as possible is no longer an effective electoral tactic. To non-ideological voters, vision and conviction can be just as persuasive as policy.

Now, as an Australian, it is a matter of honour that I can neither accept nor admit that New Zealand has done, or can do, anything better than us. But following a toxic same-sex marriage debate, the parliamentary-citizenship crisis, and yet another leadership spill, one cannot help but look across the water and wonder when, if ever, we will find our own Jacinda.