Jacinda Ardern - PM against the odds

A few minutes into Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s half-hour keynote speech at Victoria University of Wellington’s 2017 Post-Election Conference, a school party on a tour of Parliament stumbled upon the conference room and could not believe its luck when Ardern whispered, “Come in, if you like.”

“No one minds if the next generation joins us, do they?” Ardern asked the audience.

“I’m giving a very dull speech, guys, but you’re welcome to stay for as long as you’d like, you’re most welcome.”

And stay they did, generally enraptured, although there was a bit of fidgeting and wandering attention as they came to realise how long the speech was.

Nonetheless, at its end, the students were back in full star-struck mode, queuing for selfies with Ardern.

Jacindamania and the passing of the torch from the baby-boomer generation to one younger New Zealanders might more readily identify with — these were themes that recurred throughout the day.

It was Victoria’s 11th consecutive Post-Election Conference since 1987, each providing a unique debrief of the just-gone general election from the perspectives of party leaders, academics, journalists, and commentators.

In the morning, it was the politicians’ turn: Labour Party leader Ardern; National Party leader Bill English and campaign manager Steven Joyce; New Zealand First leader Winston Peters; Green Party leader James Shaw; former Māori Party leader Te Uroroa Flavell; and former United Future leader Peter Dunne.

ACT Party leader David Seymour had an afternoon slot, along with the analyses of the academics, journalists, and commentators.

In her speech, Ardern was quick to downplay her role, focusing instead on the “layers and foundations that extended well beyond me personally”.

She remembered being out on the campaign trail, where: “In every corner of the country, whether it was Mangere town centre or Invercargill, I really felt the sense of enthusiasm and momentum. Some people call it ‘candidate-itis’. Some commentators gave that feeling a title. Now I really never bought into any form of ‘mania’. I don’t believe movements are ever about one person. They are about a mood. A sentiment. And an opportunity. It was as much about New Zealanders seeing a real possibility for a fair and more optimistic future for New Zealand and my goal was simply to channel that and to respond to that.”

Others, however, were in no doubt about Ardern’s significance in reversing Labour’s electoral fortunes.

Commentator Colin James, a senior associate in Victoria’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, outlined many personal and political attributes of Ardern that made her successful — including her generational advantage.

“The underlying change that was running through this election is that the baby-boomers’ time is up. And Bill English and Steven Joyce were the last of the baby-boomers,” he said.

“Bill English is on the wrong side of history […] and Jacinda Ardern is on the right side.”

Ardern represents “a clear break with the past”, said James, and at 37 is “just young enough to connect with younger people”.

Giving a valedictory speech earlier in the day, Peter Dunne, who retired as an MP ahead of the election, made a similar generational point.

“When I came to Parliament in 1984, the door was closing on the World War II generation of politicians,” he said. “Those mainly men who had served overseas and come back keen to settle down and then later get involved in politics. At the time, their values and their views seemed increasingly out of step with the majority of New Zealanders and their time had past.

“Nineteen eighty-four saw the baby-boomers take control and the sweeping away of many pillars of the last great generational change, the advent of the welfare state under Labour in the 1930s, not only because aspects of it had become too cumbersome and costly to maintain in a different world, but also because that new generation of politicians had a different set of aspirations, born of a more modern worldview.

“The 2017 election was similar in many respects. The baby-boomers have now yielded to the millennials. Hardly surprising when the median age of our population is 37. But that passing on of the torch is not fully complete, for the median age of this new Parliament is still 49.”

Dr Claire Timperley, a lecturer in Victoria’s political science programme, predicted far-reaching ripple effects from Ardern’s premiership.

That she is PM or even party leader is against the odds, said Timperley.

“There is much evidence that before even becoming elected officials a major hurdle faced by female candidates is gender perception about their suitability for office. These perceptions stem from the candidates themselves, who are more likely than equally qualified male candidates to see themselves as unsuitable for office. As a result fewer women run for office and this contributes to unequal representation in the legislature.

“One aspect of Ardern’s political candidacy that strikes me as particularly intriguing is how much the story she tells of becoming a politician mirrors these findings. Though in her speech she spoke about three people who were hugely important to her assent into power [Labour Party General Secretary Andrew Kirton, President Nigel Harworth and former leader Andrew Little], here I want to mention one more. When she was volunteering for the Labour Party from overseas, she was actively recruited by Grant Robertson to run as an MP. She also emphasises that when she reluctantly agreed she didn’t think she’d be placed high enough in the party list to actually get in.”

Research shows recruitment is a clear pathway to candidacy, but men are more likely to be recruited than women, and even when encouraged to run women are less likely than men to do so, said Timperley.

“Much of this has been attributed to the gender confidence gap that is seen not only in politics but across a wide range of sectors, where qualified women tend to underestimate their own abilities while less qualified men have fewer qualms about their readiness for the job at hand.”

Once they are candidates, however, women have a similar chance of success as men, said Timperley.

“In other words, part of the reason we don’t have adequate politics of presence for women is that they aren’t running for office. Not that voters prefer to elect men.”

Timperley thought Ardern’s example could encourage more women to run for office.

“Ardern’s candidacy has been important signalling that Parliament is a place for young women and that women should be interested in politics. And I think that in this campaign it hasn’t just been Ardern who has played an important role, we have seen a number of other young women rising through the ranks.

“We know that in countries where there are more female members of parliament adolescent girls are more likely to discuss politics with their friends and adult women are more likely to discuss and participate in politics. Even just having female candidates run for office produces similar effects.”

Timperley recalled a lecture Ardern gave to one of her classes earlier this year, when she had been recently elected to the Mt Albert seat and appointed deputy leader.

“After the lecture, she was inundated with requests for selfies, students wanted to speak with her, and for me most notably there were a number of young women who hung back to talk more with her after the crowd had dispersed. They wanted to have substantive conversations with her about some of the answers she had given. But they also wanted to express to her directly how much it had meant to them to hear her speak about her experiences as a politician and a feminist. And to voice their own interest in pursuing a political career.

“I must admit that from my perspective it was a really unexpected but also powerful experience seeing the next generation of candidate speaking with the current MP.”

For Timperley, “the most interesting story that emerges out of Ardern’s campaign is not necessarily the campaign or even her government”.

It is, said Timperley, that in 10 or 15 years’ time we would be seeing the new candidates she has influenced by making politics “more accessible to a wider range of citizens”.

Stardust and Substance: New Zealand’s 2017 Election, a book based on the conference, will be published by Victoria University Press next year.

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