On Her Way To The Top: No one who witnessed Jacinda Ardern’s extraordinarily accomplished performance before the assembled news media on Tuesday morning could reasonably describe her as an “accidental” leader. Hardened journalists – many of them disposed to be cynical about the day’s dramatic turn of events – were astonished at her easy command of the situation. Here was wit, verve and – in her own words – “unrelenting positivity”. Photo by Cameron Burnell.
IT’S ONE OF THOSE PICTURES. The sort that captures not just a moment, but the essence of a moment. Justin Trudeau had one. It was taken nearly a year before he became Canada’s prime minister but, looking at it, you kinda knew that’s where he was headed.
On Tuesday morning, Fairfax photographer, Cameron Burnell, took “one of those pictures” of Jacinda Ardern. In a brilliant example of artistic opportunism he spotted Labour’s new leader striding alone through the corridors of power and pressed the shutter.
The image he selected for the Stuff website tells Tuesday’s story with minimalist precision.
First and foremost, it is about the stark isolation of political power. Jacinda strides, unaccompanied, down one of Parliament’s carpeted corridors, head turned slightly to the right, as if seeking confirmation that she is not being observed. Whether she should accept, or decline, the Labour leadership, was not a decision to be shared, or put to a vote, or turned into a media spectacle: it was hers alone.
The importance of the job she is being asked to do; the weight of the responsibility her colleagues are asking her to take upon her shoulders; is etched upon Jacinda’s features. The face in this photograph is not the happy, smiling countenance so familiar to the readers of women’s magazines. Unaware that she is being photographed, Jacinda’s expression is one of quite startling seriousness.
Her mouth is set in a straight line, her nostrils slightly flared – like a beast of prey testing the flavour of the air. Most striking of all are her eyes. Shrouded in shadow they absorb the detail of her surroundings without a trace of furtiveness or fear. This is the face of someone in control of both herself and her circumstances.
The other quality conveyed in Burnell’s photograph is purposeful movement. Jacinda strides towards the camera like a person with no time to lose. The cell-phone gripped tightly in her right hand suggests that the irksome but necessary back-and-forth of collegial communication has come to an end. She is moving now, irresistibly, towards her rendezvous with destiny.
Looking at this photograph, it is extremely difficult to accept the idea that Jacinda Ardern is Labour’s “accidental leader”. The woman captured by Burnell’s camera does not look like someone overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control. Hers is not the face of the agonised prophet who beseeches God to “take this cup away from me”. Quite the reverse. The woman in the photo wears a look of “cold command” that Shelley’s Ozymandias would recognize instantly as the mark of a fellow sovereign.
Which is not to say that each step of Jacinda’s ascension to the Labour leadership was planned with icy precision. As Oliver Cromwell observed of the vicissitudes of personal fortune: “no one rises so high as he who knows not whither he is going.”
What we can say, however, is that ever since her time in Helen Clark’s office, Jacinda has understood the supreme importance of keeping oneself in the proximity of power. She has also noted how ready most leaders are to bestow power upon those who appear to have no serious interest in wielding it.
Labour is not the sort of party in which naked ambition goes unnoticed. The moment an MP is suspected of having designs upon the top job, every other aspirant for the position becomes their enemy. Better by far to evince a non-threatening naivety; a willingness to smile winningly for women’s magazines; and, most especially, an oft-expressed reluctance to climb the greasy pole. That way, one’s inexorable approach towards the throne goes largely unnoticed, until the day suddenly arrives when one’s astonished rivals find themselves agreeing that there’s no one else with a better claim to sit on it.
No one who witnessed Jacinda Ardern’s extraordinarily accomplished performance before the assembled news media on Tuesday morning could reasonably describe her as an “accidental” leader. Hardened journalists – many of them disposed to be cynical about the day’s dramatic turn of events – were astonished at her easy command of the situation. Here was wit, verve and – in her own words – “unrelenting positivity”.
Jacinda clearly means to emulate Justin Trudeau’s highly successful “sunny ways”. New Zealand voters tempted to see Jacinda as some sort of political Pollyanna, however, should study Cameron Burnell’s photograph.
Tuesday was no accident.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 August 2017.