A Two-Faced Year: The “Jacindamania” phenomenon was a very different proposition from the quasi-revolutionary call-to-arms enunciated by Metiria Turei. At no point during the suddenly enlivened 2017 election campaign did Jacinda Ardern articulate an idea so saturated with both radical conviction and righteous indignation as Turei’s magnificent repudiation of poverty as a political weapon.
IT’S METIRIA’S SPEECH wot done it. Although delivered in mid-July, Metiria Turei’s keynote address to the Green Party’s AGM neatly divides 2017 into its “No Hope” and “New Hope” halves.
This was the speech containing Turei’s dangerous confession that, 26 years earlier, she had knowingly defrauded the social welfare system for the sake of her infant child. That admission, alone, made certain New Zealanders would be listening. It also meant that the most powerful declaration of the entire election campaign: “We will not be a government that uses poverty as a weapon against its own people”, was heard.
It is rare for a single political speech to make such a difference. David Lange’s March 1985 address to the Oxford Union springs to mind – along with Don Brash’s in/famous Orewa Speech of January 2004. In Turei’s case, the speech’s impact can be explained using just one word: defiance.
By defying the rules of political survival, the speech more or less guaranteed Turei wall-to-wall media coverage. By defying the unacknowledged political consensus on welfare policy, it also signalled that the Greens were no longer playing “politics as usual”. What else could Turei’s promise to make a bonfire of the MSD’s hated “sanctions” mean? The woman who’d defied the social-welfare system in 1991, was now asking her party to defy the entire neoliberal establishment in 2017.
That Turei’s speech (and many subsequent interviews) was able to instantly and dramatically divide the country bore eloquent testimony to its potency.
Most New Zealanders were outraged by the Green co-leader’s admission of fraud, declaring her unfit to hold political office. Many called for her to be prosecuted. Overwhelmingly, this was the position adopted by the news media, which began clamouring for her resignation.
For a significant minority, however, Turei’s speech was an inspiration. Up until its delivery, New Zealand’s political system had seemed both deaf and blind to the growing evidence of widespread social distress. Many voters were feeling both estranged and alienated from those institutions tasked with registering and reacting to such manifestations of public unease. Most particularly, the political parties seemed quite unable to translate voter dissatisfaction into policy. Turei’s speech made a huge impression upon these people precisely because, for the first time in a long time, a politician had not only heard their concerns, but had also attempted to address them through bold and uncompromising reforms.
The contrast between Turei’s almost evangelical fervour and the Labour Party’s general state of torpidity could hardly have been stronger. Almost immediately, the nation’s pollsters began registering a powerful double movement in voter intention. The number of people intending to vote for the Greens rose sharply, while the number indicating their intention to vote for Labour declined ominously. Speculation mounted that the Greens were about to achieve “escape velocity”, shrugging-off their larger partner’s gravitational pull altogether. If that happened, the consequences for Labour could prove catastrophic.
Turei’s speech was the single dislodged stone which sets off a landslide. It brought home, as nothing else could have done, to Labour’s Leader, Andrew Little, the true measure of his own political ineffectiveness. Not only that, but it also made clear the likely consequences for the Labour Party should that failure not be addressed.
From that moment, matters unfolded with unprecedented speed and drama. In an act of rare political selflessness and decency, Little stood aside for the politically untested, but, equally, the politically untarnished, Jacinda Ardern. It was a decision which did several important things at once.
First, it permitted Ardern to demonstrate her exceptional political talent. Second, as Turei succumbed (as she surely must have known she would) to the media’s unrelenting inquisition, it made possible a decisive transfer of the affection and, more importantly, the sudden surge of hope, which Turei’s words had inspired, from the Greens to Labour. Third, it broke up the ideological ice-floes in which New Zealand society had been imprisoned for more than 30 years. Politics had started moving again. Overnight, the situation had become excitingly fluid.
Inevitably, the “Jacindamania” phenomenon was a very different proposition from the quasi-revolutionary call-to-arms enunciated by Metiria Turei. At no point during the suddenly enlivened election campaign did Ardern articulate an idea so saturated with both radical conviction and righteous indignation as Turei’s magnificent repudiation of poverty as a political weapon.
The impression, instead, is of Labour’s new leader surfing with extraordinary skill on a political wave she played no part in making. Mesmerised by the performance of their new Prime Minister, the people whose faith in the redemptive and transformative power of politics was rekindled by Turei’s speech, are currently giving little thought to what happens when the wave she is riding finally dissolves in froth and foam.
Politically, 2018 will be about whether “Jacinda” has what it takes to make waves of her own.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 December 2017.