Politics

Stardust and Substance – how international observers view the 2017 election

Never before has a New Zealand election campaign received so much international attention as in 2017. Especially with the arrival of “Jacindamania”, media coverage picked up considerably, and with the change of government, overseas observers were grappling with understanding what had happened here and whether there were implications for other parts of the world. The newly-published post-election book, Stardust and Substance, includes a whole section of chapters from international observers. Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Bryce Edwards summarises these chapters in his second essay on the book.

It’s always fascinating to see how international observers and media outlets cover New Zealand politics. Understandably, these accounts look at politics here through their own particular lens, normally biased by developments in their own countries.

It’s apt therefore that Victoria University’s post-election book devotes so many chapters to the analysis of outside observers, with them telling us what they found interesting about New Zealand’s 2017 general election from their vantage points. The book contains accounts from America, Australia, Britain, Japan, and the Netherlands.

Below are some of the highlights from those chapters.

A view from America

Are New Zealand politicians more authentic than in other countries? Certainly, Jacinda Ardern’s perceived authenticity was a major part of her interest to many foreign observers.

Writing from Georgetown University in Washington, Professor Alan Tidwell, saw some similarities between Ardern and the early success of Barrack Obama, “except that unlike Obama, Ardern did not have a long-running campaign devoted to crafting a public image. Ardern’s rise is simpler and more authentic.”

As an example of Ardern’s authenticity, Tidwell draws attention to one of her novel answers in a radio interview: “In her first Radio New Zealand interview she showed a different stripe when Jesse Mulligan, in his opening question to the new Labour leader, asked her to describe her ‘overwhelming emotion’ on being elected to the leadership. She unassumingly answered that she ‘needed a bathroom break’. In a world of scripted, focus-group approved political messages it was either a faux pas or a brilliant moment of disarming authenticity.”

There’s also an interest in the policy-focus of the election campaign, noting the three most striking themes were health, trade and housing. New Zealand’s health debates appeared fairly generic according to Tidwell, who says it “could have just as easily been had in almost any other western democracy with universal health care.”

The housing debate, in contrast, was very different: “Housing brought together issues of homelessness, affordability, foreign investment and immigration. It would be difficult to bring these issues together in one national campaign in the US, as a federal system, whereas in New Zealand, as a unitary state, these issues more naturally align.”

A Japanese view

Ardern’s new government was very negatively reported in Japan. According to Kuniaki Nemoto of Musashi University in Tokyo, one headline stated “kibishii kekka ni natta”, or “This is a severe result”.

Apparently, this was because “the Japanese government’s initial reaction was one of shock” and the Japanese generally worried that New Zealand’s new government would go backwards on trade. But Nemoto notes that the “pessimism inside the Japanese government faded away by early November, however, and newspaper articles with a negative tone gradually disappeared.”

This all brings to the fore the issue that overseas coverage is often based on a country’s own interests: “A country’s long-term national interest shapes its media framing. At first, the Japanese media coverage of the New Zealand 2017 election was not warm. As Ardern clearly showed New Zealand’s continued support for the TPP, newspapers changed their tone, becoming highly optimistic, writing about cheap wine and cheese from New Zealand.”

A British view

One of the best chapters is by former Victoria University of Wellington political scientist Tim Bale, who is now a Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. He focuses on the British media’s coverage of the New Zealand election, noting that they were “rather fascinated by the phenomenon” of “Jacindamania”.

This was partly because she was viewed as refreshingly different: “a candidate as unconventional as the UK’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – her Mormon childhood, the co-habiting with her TV-presenter partner, the DJ-ing – but, at least in the view of picture editors, highly photogenic (and considerably younger: her age was almost always noted).”

Bale notes that Ardern’s UK-connection also increased her relevance, although this wasn’t explored as much as it could have been: “And then, of course, there was the time she’d spent working in Whitehall, ostensibly at the heart of UK government. No one really quite knew the details – and, perhaps rather strangely in hindsight, it appears that no British newspaper bothered to look for them. But it was rare for Ardern to merit a mention without passing reference being made, yet again, to the fact that (take your pick) she had worked as a senior policy advisor/aide to Tony Blair or else served in a junior capacity in the Cabinet Office/Home Office when he was PM.”

Another connection was noted by one newspaper – Ardern had met with Kezia Dugdale, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, who Bale says “seemed pretty impressed”. This is what Dugdale was reported as saying she had learnt about New Zealand from Ardern: “There is also a fair share of identity politics. Who owns the land? It’s generally accepted that land in New Zealand is the property of the indigenous Maori population and the ‘European settlers’ just borrow it.”

Comparing Ardern's rise to other young leaders

The most important account from international observers, and one of the better chapters in the book, is by two political scientists in the Netherlands, Paul ’t Hart and Willem van Toor. Their chapter, “Jacinda Ardern’s rise and the generational politics of party leadership” contextualises Ardern’s youth with an examination of four other young leaders in western governments.

They also ask if this is a trend, and whether the average age of politicians is going down by examining the age of leaders in 19 western democracies over time.

The authors detect that Ardern is part of a trend: “she epitomises a scenario that appears increasingly commonplace in contemporary politics: relatively young politicians rising up the ranks of their parties at remarkable speed on the strength of their being seen to be different from jaded and electorally spent incumbent elites.”

"... the emergence and success of these young leaders is part of another trend: the increasing dominance of highly educated career politicians within contemporary political parties ..."

However, their research leads them to conclude that the age of leaders isn’t actually going down: “it appears the young are not (yet) taking over the political reins of mainstream parties.”

The authors ask what the appeal of young leaders like Ardern is. For example: “Is it their embodiment of the hope, ambition and ‘change’ that sceptical electorates look for but so seldom get from the established party leaders running, like Bill English did, on records of technical competence, steady- as-she-goes mainstream politics, or simply machine-political factional power? Is it their relative moral impunity, as their reputations are less soiled than those of their competitors who have been in the ‘grubby game’ of politics for much longer?”

Some have suggested that the new young leaders are perceived as “outsiders”. But this is rejected by this study, with the authors saying “youth should not be confused with newness and outsiderness. These people are merely fast climbers within their party organisations.”

And here’s how they conclude the chapter, which is worth quoting at length: “In summary, in Ardern’s success and that of her peers we are seeing not so much the rise of the young per se, but the deft exploitation of a window of opportunity for advocates of renewal that presents itself when incumbent party elites have momentarily ‘lost the plot’ in the face of voter volatility. If anything, the emergence and success of these young leaders is part of another trend: the increasing dominance of highly educated career politicians within contemporary political parties, joining parties in their late teens or student years, honing their leadership skills in youth parties, learning the ropes (and gaining mentors and potential sponsors) as staffers, and then bypassing more senior cohorts on the road to party leadership.”

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