ReadingRoom

Book of the Week: Jacinda Ardern by Madeleine Chapman

Steve Braunias reviews Madeleine Chapman's new biography of Jacinda Ardern on Kindle (available in all good bookstores when all good bookstores reopen after the lockdown.)

And then there was the time I popped in to see Jacinda Ardern for a cup of tea during those strange, dreamy weeks when New Zealand waited for Winston Peters to choose a government. I was in Wellington to report on a Court of Appeal hearing in the matter of Mark Edward Lundy. The court is opposite parliament. I thought to text Ardern when court was adjourned; all she had on her plate was time, plenty of it, a prisoner of limbo land for how much longer no one could say, and distractions were welcome. She suggested we walk to Lambton Quay and go to Astoria Cafe in Midland Park. I demurred. It seemed a crazy idea: Jacindamania was still a thing, her stardust remained fresh in the hearts and imaginations of tens of thousands of New Zealanders, and even blasé Wellington would inevitably mob her in public. “Selfie!”, etc. I expect undivided attention in all my dealings, and we met at her office.

She made the tea and got out the biscuits in the kitchenette of the New Zealand Labour Party. We sat down to reminisce about old times ie the previous month. I’d tagged along behind Ardern on the campaign trail in Penrose, Manukau, Pukekohoe, Hamilton, Tokoroa, and Rotorua, and wrote something about it for the Herald; it was quite an experience, Jacindamania up close and in the provinces, the whole sensation that here was someone exciting, someone sincere, someone who wasn’t the same old, same old of New Zealand politics. I also tagged along behind Bill English on the campaign trail in Penrose, Rosedale, Palmerston North, Levin, and Christchurch, and wrote something about it for the Herald; it hadn’t been very interesting, the same old, same old, so I described the food that was laid on at each stop.

One of Ardern’s stops was at the Pink Batts factory in Penrose. It was explained to her, and to the attendant murder of journalists, how the weird candyfloss of Pink Batts is made. There were precisely two people paying any attention. I said to Ardern two or three weeks later, while sipping tea and nibbling on New Zealand Labour Party biscuits in her office, “Do you remember what a Pink Batt is made out of?”

I had formed a theory – most of my thinking has little or no basis in reality, but it doesn’t stop me having a range of terrible ideas – about Ardern’s memory. It was based on nothing more than asking her once if she remembered that we first met at a party, and she promptly described the house, the guests, and the, you know, vibe. My theory was that she didn’t have anything as bland as a photographic memory but possessed the kind of mind which retained details and observations simply because she was so alert.

“Fibre and recycled glass,” she said.

“What kind of glass?”

She thought for a second, and said, “Isn’t it off-cuts of window glass?”

“Yes. What temperature is the molten glass when heated?”

“Um - 1400 degrees?”

Close: the correct answer was 1300.

Well, and there you have it: precious moments spent over the teacups in a  tete a tete with someone who was about to become not just the next Prime Minister of New Zealand but who has also since become one of the most famous and admired women in the world, someone who is widely respected as a rare sign of intelligent life and actual principles in politics, someone who is not quite as widely but certainly with real feeling loathed as a socialist flake and, worse, as a woman, and even worse, as a confident and attractive woman, someone who many other countries wish they had as their leader in these times of dread and woe - and all I was really able to establish in my time with her is that she might know how to make a Pink Batt. I had the access, but what did I divine, what were my learnings, what had I come away with that was worth a damn?

True, I wasn’t there in any kind of official questioning capacity. It was just a friendly visit. But I’ve formally interviewed Ardern on a number of occasions and the last time I actually couldn’t even be bothered transcribing the interview because, as ever, as with all journalists, she didn’t say anything particularly interesting or revealing. Ardern gives terrible interview. For the papers, in the studios, onstage – it’s all the same, it’s sensible and it’s charming and it’s within the narrow remit of what she wishes to share, which just isn’t that much. That’s true of most politicians of course. They’re not there to express what’s on their mind. Anyway, roughly the same equation is reached in interviews as in my off-the-record chat: no one comes away from Ardern with candid or surprising information.

But everyone comes away with a sense or perception of who she is, her character and personality, and the way her mind works.

Access is a good thing. Access counts for something. Madeleine Chapman was denied access to the subject of her new book Jacinda Ardern: A new kind of leader. The closest she got to her was through interviews with “dozens of politicians, reporters, staffers and friends of Jacinda who spoke to me.” How many dozens? Two? Six, seven? Did it add up to less or more than 100 people? Her other source was news cuttings. The acknowledgements section diligently lists the deathless prose of hacks such as Tracy Watkins, Michele Hewitson, Jo Moir, Steve Braunias, etc.

And so it’s a book written at some remove. It’s not an intimate portrait, and neither is it the assessment of a press gallery veteran who has long experience covering Ardern and Parliament. Also, it’s pitched at an Australian or international audience – the book was commissioned and published by Carlton, Victoria, outfit Black Inc – so even New Zealand itself is considered at a kind of remove. Winston Peters is briefly explained. Clarke Gayford’s CV is dusted off. Ardern’s home town of Morrinsville is described as though seen for the first time by a wide-eyed tourist: ”Beyond the [golfing] green, Mount Te Aroha sat in the distance, snow on its peak.” Well, yes, on the one or two days a year when a light snow falls that low. Mt Te Aroha isn’t exactly Mt Ruapehu.

It’s written as an assignment. It reads like an assignment. Non-fiction publishing often operates as magazine journalism – an editor wants something written at length, and finds someone to do it. All good, sort of, except that the very fabric of stories written as assignments routinely lack the conviction and sense of purpose behind all stories that the writer has dreamed up and wants to see published. Again, that feeling of distance; Jacinda Ardern: A new kind of leader dutifully presents childhood (one chapter), church (one chapter), university (one paragraph: “her time at Waikato seems to have been unremarkable”, writes Chapman, without any real basis; I guess none of the “dozens” of people she interviewed knew Ardern in those years),  political baptisms (Ardern vs Nikki Kaye), the elevation to Labour leader, the 2017 campaign, baby Neve, sausages at Waitangi, the mosque killings, quite a lot about the failure to implement capital gains tax, and blandly concludes, “Jacinda Ardern will forever be known as the second world leader to give birth while in office, the first leader to take maternity leave from office, and the first mother to speak at the UN General Assembly with her child present. And she will be remembered for her humanity and empathy after the horrific Christchurch terror attack. But Ardern wants her legacy to be more than being a working mother in office, or a ‘kind’ leader, and plans to make it so. Whatever she does, she’ll have the whole world watching.”

Well maybe not the whole world -  I don’t know that she’s a household name in Peru or Botswana - but Chapman’s final sentence qualifies as prescient. Second-most popular story on the Washington Post website at one point yesterday: “New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve. It’s crushing it.” The photo was of Ardern, whose handling of the Covid-19 crisis continues to be a model of serious leadership for other countries to take note, and envy.

People around the world want to know more about Ardern. Chapman’s book might prove to be an international best-seller or something resembling an international best-seller. It’s not going to be what international readers will expect if they’re anticipating a traditional biography. It’s a lot funnier than that. It’s going to give them quite a shock; for all its distance, and lack of access or co-operation, Jacinda Ardern: A new kind of leader is fresh and original, not boring, not dryballs, written with a feminist and millennial sensibility, quite sure of itself, light, fuzzy, rambling, witty, alert – the book is a really good match for the subject. When it's out in the bookstores, it'll give the #TurnArdern guerillas something to do. But it's a balanced and questioning book, no puff-piece, and Chapman makes politics sound very exciting. Someone somewhere will read this and think:who can I get to play her in the Netflix series based on this book.

*

Madeleine Chapman recently left The Spinoff. She arrived as a complete nobody and departed a few years later as a phenomenon, the most revered journalist – very well, the only revered journalist – of her generation, someone who delighted with her wit, inspired awe for her range of stories, gags, stunts, and essays,  and was looked up to as a young Pasifika writer who took no shit from anyone.

We worked together. I was among her fans. I remember Spinoff publisher Duncan Greive excitedly sending me her first submission to the website, a comic set-piece about stalking Eleanor Catton; it was, he said, insanely good. He spotted her potential – no one working in conventional news media would have seen it, or had the vision – and got her to join as an intern. It was an inspired move which proved crucial to The Spinoff’s success. Her writing went a long way towards defining its special character.

Crazy to think of her Ardern book as any kind of comedy showcase – it’s about politics – but one-liners and various assorted LOLS brighten the easy-to-read prose. National’s Amy Adams is described as “someone who will never be able to effectively set a Google alert for her own name”. Winston Peters’ role as the 2017 election kingmaker is seen thus: “He was the political Bachelor, idly twirling his final rose.” On the media’s fascination with Ardern’s physical appearance: “A veteran magazine editor…mused that Ardern’s features were ‘more pronounced, even the ears, which tonight she has proudly on show’. Ardern was never asked to confirm whether she had indeed proudly shown off her ears that night, or whether they were simply there, on either side of her head.”

There are fine details, such as Ardern’s mum teaching her how to prepare for her new afterschool job wrapping up fish and chips: “Laurell bought half a head of cabbage and instructed Jacinda to practise wrapping it at home.”

But there are times, too, when fine details are flogged  for all they’re worth: “At that time [at college], Ardern had ‘half and half’ hair. The top layer was dyed the blondest of blondes, and underneath was dark. Was it her natural brown, or had it been dyed to almost black? No one is sure. But when tied in a ponytail, as it often was, there was a perfect line: light on top and dark underneath. Sure, it’s not good form to discuss the physical attributes of female public figures, and really it’s not important. Except it’s hugely important because it means a current world leader rocked a half and half hairstyle frankly not that long ago.”

Chapman has a terrific flair for dramatic set-pieces. She recreates the tension and excitement on the build-up to the day Ardern reluctantly accepted the role as Labour leader, and does much the same in her build-up to the day Peters decided to side with Labour and Ardern was made Prime Minister. It takes considerable skill to turn those events into drama. Chapman is a writer of considerable skill. They are masterful fly-on-the-wall reports. Of course she wasn’t actually at either of those events; she’s used interviews and other source material to effectively imagine what they were like, to give them shape and impetus.

She doesn’t name her sources. Some were obviously people on the inside, and they’ve provided fresh insights into things that went on behind the scenes. There’s this gem, for instance, during the wait for Peters to decide who to give his rose to: “Near what turned out to be the end of negotiations, communication between Labour and New Zealand First dropped off alarmingly. Ardern’s team waited anxiously for a call or message to continue talks but received nothing. By mid-morning, they were convinced that Peters had decided to go with National and began drafting up a press release announcing their withdrawal from negotiations. You can’t be dumped if you dump them first.”

Her sources include political journalists, but I thought her book treated the press gallery a little shabbily. They’re cast as ninnies thirsting for a scalp, shouting dumb questions, desperate for copy. This may very well be accurate but her apparent disdain for the gallery doesn’t credit the hard news and detailed analysis that they routinely deliver.

Chapman’s own analysis as a parliamentary naïf includes her belief that Metiria Turei’s disastrous welfare-fraud speech paved the way for Ardern to become Prime Minister. “Turei’s admission set in motion a series of events that would ultimately end with her own political downfall and Ardern’s accelerated ascension,” she writes.

She continues, “Turei’s honesty and frankness touched many New Zealanders, who empathised rather than saw her as a criminal. Labour were dropping in the polls, yes. And they were heading for an election loss to National anyway, yes. But Turei’s move meant the Greens were also taking Labour votes. Looking back, Metiria Turei’s speech could be seen as the catalyst for Jacinda Ardern becoming Prime Minister. Had Turei not taken the risk, Labour would have probably continued polling in the high 20s and Little would have had no reason to consider stepping down at the eleventh hour. But Turei did take that risk, Labour’s support plummeted, and Little had no choice but to go, leaving Ardern to step up…"

Gee, really? Search me; I don’t follow politics, but I hadn’t joined those dots before, hadn’t seen that connection. Chapman is adamant about it, and adds emphatically, "If it weren’t for Turei’s speech and its flow-on effects, [Andrew] Little would have remained leader and the Labour–Greens unit would have stayed in opposition.”

I don’t know if I go along with that. I don’t know if I really agree, either, with Chapman’s claim that Ardern has form as “a smiling assassin”. (And is it really credible to so swiftly and pithily classify the New Zealand Wars as an "attempted genocide"?) I don’t know if Chapman  is right when she scorns Ardern’s sporting abilities as a teenager, saying she lacked the ability to “deftly coordinate her own limbs…The basketball team was a social one, and some doubles work with [he sister] Louise on the badminton court wasn’t exactly reminiscent of Venus and Serena.” When I played Ardern in my celebrated series of table-tennis games against political leaders, she mentioned that she was captain of the basketball team, and had won trophies for badminton; certainly she played table tennis with a wonderful grace, swatting at the ball with an eye for the angles, and managing to deftly coordinate her own limbs. I won, though.

But I outright reject Chapman’s version of events when she recreates one of her beautifully crafted set-pieces at an event that I staged: when Ardern was guest speaker at an admittedly chaotic lunch held at the May 2017 Wintec Press Club, in Hamilton.

*

Chapman writes, “In theory, Press Club was a triannual gathering of journalists, politicians, and the best students from Wintec Journalism School to eat lunch, listen to a guest speaker and share knowledge. In practice, it was an excuse for journalists to get day-drunk and argue with whichever divisive politician was invited for laughs.”

Actually that’s kind of insulting and graceless, although not without some semblance of truth. I've staged these Press Club lunches since 2010. The gatherings at the Wintec Press Club – and its modern incarnation, the Hamilton Press Club – include journalists and politicians, but also business leaders, entertainers, broadcasters, local people from Hamilton, guests from around New Zealand, academics, lawyers, authors, complete nobodies, and the best and worst students from Wintec – the Press Club was staged on the students' behalf as an entertaining and talkative spectacle, and all were welcome, including the ones who were plainly never going to enter the profession. Chapman, who has come to Press Club several times and won the 2018 Hamilton Press Club award for best writer in New Zealand journalism, writes the whole thing off with her drunk-lunch gag. As Press Club president (a lifetime position!), I view the lunch with all due pomposity, and have always operated with a serious and deliberate purpose: to invite a topical speaker, and for the audience to challenge their ideas in a Q + A. Few speakers have been “divisive politicians”. Criminal lawyer Greg King was invited to speak three months after his successful defence of Ewen Macdonald for the murder of Scott Guy (and three months before King took his own life). Alison Mau was invited to speak about her MeToo work. Vincent O’Malley was invited to speak about his campaign to have the New Zealand Wars taught in schools (since added to the curriculum).

My recollection of the Ardern lunch is that she gave a very boring speech but was animated and charismatic during a turbulent Q + A session. (At the next lunch, guest speaker Paula Bennett was the opposite: she gave a really wonderful and engaging speech, but was belligerent and evasive as soon as she was challenged.) Chapman writes it up as a disaster from beginning to end, and that Ardern experienced it as a kind of trauma. Gee, really? I spoke with Ardern afterwards and she was all good. She was mainly concerned for my sake – did I consider it had been a good lunch, did I think the audience found it interesting?

“No one left the lunch particularly pleased with the outcome,” frowns Chapman. “Ardern would go on to hold countless press conferences and take thousands of questions from gathered journalists, but none would get under her skin quite like that first experience at the boozy Hamilton lunch known as Press Club. Perhaps it served as a lesson that once you’re a leader – even a deputy one – there’s no such thing as an easy crowd.”

Yeah, perhaps not; perhaps that’s a fairly lame conclusion to make; perhaps the lunch threw Ardern, really knocked her around, perhaps it didn’t; hard to say, hard to know, when the one person who could say refused to speak to the author. Strange that the subject of Chapman's book should be the missing link. But it's such a lively read, sometimes critical of Ardern (Capital Gains, the so-called "sex scandal" involving the Labour staffer, Ihumātao), all of it written in the author's distinctive voice. I reckon they should get Kristen Stewart to play Ardern.

Jacinda Ardern: A new kind of leader by Madeleine Chapman (Black Inc Books, $A16.99 on Kindle)

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