From the worst of starting points, New Zealander Jacinda Ardern could be about to cause a shock and become the world’s youngest democratically-elected world leader, writes Dan Crawford
Picture the scenario. An opposition Labour party sits 24 points adrift of the rightwing government less than two months before the general election, with a recently promoted prime minister expected to guide their party to victory in the polls. Dogged by dire personal polling, the opposition Labour leader makes way for his young, female deputy in a bid to save the party from oblivion. If this tale seems too far-fetched to be fiction, that is because it is: this weekend in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern could be on the cusp of the becoming the world’s youngest democratically-elected leader.
Ardern had an hour’s notice of Andrew Little’s shock move to sacrifice his personal ambitions to save his party. Not ideal for New Zealand’s youngest ever member of parliament, who has been remarkably open about her own battles with anxiety. But she immediately electrified the election campaign when she deftly deflected a question about her future family plans and put Mark Richardson firmly in his place live on air after the former cricketer – turned cringeworthily chauvinistic political pundit – sought to question whether it was fair for employers to have to offer maternity leave. The fact that Richardson repeatedly referred to his hypothetical employer as ‘he’ – ignoring New Zealand’s female entrepreneurs – made me embarrassed to have applauded his application at the top of the Black Caps’ batting order.
The conventional wisdom was that this daughter of a policeman, with no governmental experience, would crumble when faced with the pressure of the television debates. But Ardern, a politics and public relations graduate from the University of Waikato, revelled in her new role as the underdog. It was Bill English, who inherited the National party leadership in December following the unexpected departure of John Key after eight years in power, who looked uneasy, refusing to look at his opponent and dismissing Ardern as ‘stardust’.
Labour seized on the prime minister’s gaffe and pointed to prospect of change after Key and English’s administrations had put tax cuts ahead of tackling child poverty. Ardern’s blend of personality and politics is unusual in New Zealand, but it has undoubtedly struck a chord with the public, especially after her tears at the opening of a memorial to suicide victims sparked a national discussion about mental health and suicide rates. Labour is banking on a high turnout in this weekend’s election to loosen National’s grip on the treasury benches – and nearly a million New Zealanders have cast early ballots, a total which represents more than 50 per cent of 2014’s turnout.
The big question is whether this really is ‘Jacintime’ and, because of the vagaries of New Zealand’s mixed member proportional voting system, we could be waiting for a while. National have opened up the narrowest of leads in the latest opinion polls, capitalising on confusion over Labour’s tax plans, but even if the latest polls are accurate, this would still leave English eleven seats short of power. Winston Peters’ New Zealand First party, which currently holds 12 seats, would appear to be more closely aligned to Ardern but the last time the 72 year-old Maori lawyer held the balance of power, he kept everyone guessing by going for a week’s fishing.
Perhaps the most inspiring thing is that this enthralling election will, in the words of the Massey University professor Richard Shaw, ‘always belong to Ardern’. The leader who ditched her Mormon faith because it sat uneasily with her support for same-sex marriage has always been gutsy. Her unashamedly optimistic pitch includes pledges to bring in a $60 weekly payment for new parents, plans for 100,000 new homes and free tertiary education with increased student grants. It has not been derailed by the tragic death of her grandmother. Even broader than the policy, the girl who was struck by the fact that some of her classmates came to school barefoot and hungry has shown the next generation of female leaders that their gender cannot hold them back.
The symbolism of Ardern being introduced by Helen Clark, New Zealand’s last Labour prime minister, at the start of her campaign couldn’t be missed either. Clark, whose work in international development since losing to Key in 2009 has slashed infant mortality in some of the world’s poorest countries, gave Ardern one of her first jobs after university. She was asking Kiwis to trust her judgement once again.
My dad once told me that because New Zealand was so far away, the country struggled to make an impression on his adopted homeland. You had to do something truly special to get noticed, citing Edmund Hilary, Richard Hadlee and Jonah Lomu. The fiercely patriotic group of Kiwis I watch the All Blacks with in London usually discuss Steve Hansen’s latest selections with fanatical fervour, but this week they’ve been debating whether Jacinda can get over the line. Let’s hope she does.
Dan Crawford is a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Ealing. He tweets at @dancrawford85
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