Floating in a liberal bubble about Jacinda

Steve Braunias reviews Michelle Duff’s portrait of Jacinda Ardern, published today.

Bugger the polls. The simple matrix of MMP is an insurance against any drop in favour suffered by Jacinda Ardern and her government, because even a  resurgent National can still only call on Act and its useful idiocy of one. There's no chance the Greens will go with National and its climate-change rhetoric, there’s no apparent support for the Māori Party or the Opportunities Party, and there's no point in bringing Jami Lee Ross into this; as usual, as ever, the fate of our general election will likely rest with Winston, always Winston. The left are confident that this time next year Ardern shall smote the cold dark evil of Simon Bridges and his awful gang of free-market yahoos.

And yet, and yet. Recent weeks and recent events have seen the kingdom of Ardern looking flimsy, unstable, warped. Twyford didn’t know what he was doing, and got canned. Jones doesn’t give AF that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Robertson won’t say what he’s doing with the surplus of tax loot. Newsroom ran a story the other day with the headline, “Ardern shaken by poor polls” – when it appeared on my screen, though, it read, “Ardern shaken by poo”. I assumed it was a description of her government.

As for Ardern herself, or the cult of Ardern....She’s the PR PM. Elton John wishes he were her. Stephen Colbert came all this way to drink coffee with her in Morningside. Yeah, whatever, great for the celebs, but what do we get? What’s in it for the commoners? What’s the meaning of Jacinda Ardern, post-Jacindamania, in late 2019?

One of the great bygone consuming pastimes of New Zealand politics was to wonder about the meaning of John Key. His hold on the country was so strong and yet so casually applied; he played it loose and goosey, a good ol’ boy lyin’, lyin’, lyin’ in the sand on his private beach in Hawaii each summer, and the rest of the year roaming the streets of Parnell at dawn, looking for his ponytail fix. The secret of the meaning of Key was revealed every bright moment of his long reign as Prime Minister: he was meaningless. He stood for nothing. He was a big friendly nothing. “At the end of the day,” he chanted, and the words acted like a tranquiliser. Good times! He made New Zealand feel like nirvana. “Heaven,” as David Byrne from Talking Heads instructed, “is a place where nothing ever happens.”

Nothing was too hard an act to follow for Bill English. English more or less stood for something but it was vague, sour, tense. He wasn’t built to last; I only ever referred to him in my Secret Diary series in the Herald as the interim Prime Minister. And then along came Ardern. English complained that all she brought was stardust and the various glittering residues of fame, but actually she brought substance, she brought purpose – she brought meaning. It was quite shocking to behold after the Key years of vacuum and void. Jacindamania was a thing. It travelled the country. It swept her to power, which is to say it swept her close to he who decides the balance of power: Winston, always Winston.

But what does she mean now? Michelle Duff, as author of the strange new book Jacinda Ardern: The story behind an extraordinary leader, sets out to find what Ardern means to her. The book kind of functions as a personal essay. The author is an excellent journalist - Duff works for Stuff - but her book doesn’t much function as a work of journalism. It doesn't actually tell the story behind an extraordinary leader; it's not a biography; it sits at home and thinks a lot, but seldom goes out and reports; and the absence of fresh information makes it really quite often ZZZZZ.

There are very few interviews. She talks with Ardern’s headmaster in Morrinsville. She hooks up with Helen Clark. She meets Nikki Kaye. She talks to some guy who used to work at the Dominion Post and got married to a lawyer and now he stays home with the kids while she works as a partner at a law firm and ZZZZZ. No one says anything especially revealing. There are no interviews with Ardern's family, staff, advisers, critics. There is absolutely no contact with Ardern.

“What gets her out of bed,” Duff asks in the opening chapter, “and what is it about her that’s so magnetic?” Duff seems to forget she asked the first part of that question – the book is a bit lacking in psychological guesswork and that - but devotes a good deal of the book to the second issue. There are numerous grand statements and ringing hallelujahs. “Ardern,” she claims, “creates more room for all of us to live our lives”. What?

The book floats in that liberal bubble we hear so much about these days. It's all so tremendously unsurprising. The right are fools, knaves, old dumb men. Duff makes one passing disparaging reference to National operative Matthew Hooton, and describes Ardern’s famous 2017 interview with Mark Richardson thus: “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a politician of any gender shoot an interviewer down quite so effectively. Richardson wasn’t wounded; he was on the floor, writhing in flames.” Shot, burned, prone on the studio floor - God, poor fellow! Did he live?

Duff cuts and pastes quite a bit of commentary from other Stuff hacks, while the Herald is restricted to just one mention: “Every year, some New Zealand Herald columnist describes Waitangi Day as ‘racist’, or ‘divisive’, appealing for a more generic ‘New Zealand day’, which I’m guessing means 24 hours of quashing colonial guilt by reflecting on how lucky we all are to live in a colour-blind meritocracy, or drinking Double Brown beer, or tending the rose garden, or whatever it is white Australians do their national day.” What? One of the best personal essays published anywhere in New Zealand these past few years was placed on the front page of the Herald after Waitangi Day 2018. Simon Wilson’s report was a brilliant, intensely felt piece on the difference he felt that Ardern had made to New Zealand life by her conduct at Waitangi, and was headlined, “Something has changed”.

Duff, too, attempts to catch and analyse the sensation that something has changed since Ardern became Prime Minister. Her emphasis is on gender. And this is where the book has purpose and meaning. She places Ardern in the context of the #Metoo movement, and looks at her significance as a role model for New Zealand women. “I hope that she knows,” she concludes, “what it has meant to so many of us”. It’s an effective and searching argument, wide-ranging, passionate, thoughtful.

The book is a distant portrait of Ardern and an intimate portrait of Duff. She tells her own stories (“I remember the first time I breastfed in a café”), compares and contrasts her own OE  (“Ardern went to work for Blair, while [around the same time] I pulled pints in a dingy student bar”), and devotes five pages to her own school days before a journalist’s segue (“Meanwhile, a few hundred kilometres away in another small town...”) leads to her writing about Ardern at Morrinsville College. Fair call. Duff is looking to make a real and personal connection with Ardern, and she shares her own stories to illuminate the conditions and struggles of other New Zealand women. Throughout, she is sincere, intent, focused, and always readable. Her book gets to a truth, and an understanding.

It's also very adoring of its subject. The Prime Minister is “staggering”, “phenomenal”, “ground-breaking”, “inspirational”. And: “The impact she’s already had in terms of gender equality in New Zealand will be felt for years to come.” Also: “Watching Ardern take it on and smash it has been, as one of my friends put it, ‘mind-blowingly awesome’.” It might be said that her book is not exactly a critical study. It might also be said that it employs the same attitude Ardern promised when she was elected Labour’s leader: a “relentless positivity”.

None of it may add up to a hill of beans this time next year. “There’s no predicting what the 2020 election might bring”, as Duff acknowledges. Front page headline, the Herald, October 17: “Thousands tipped to be homeless.” Page five, the same day: “Food poverty worsening.” New Zealand, shaken by poo. If a government doesn’t work, is a broken and inefficient shambles, who cares whether its leader has any meaning?

Jacinda Ardern: The story behind an extraordinary leader by Michelle Duff (Allen & Unwin, $39.99)

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