Thursday 7 March 2019

Jacinda's Magic Politics.

It's A Kind of Magic: Jacinda Ardern's memorable declaration, made at the launch of the Labour Party’s 2017 election campaign, that climate change would be her generation’s nuclear-free moment, epitomises her political style. So richly evocative of selfless activism and against-all-odds success was her declaration that Ardern’s audience’s critical faculties were suspended. Almost as if the promise and the deed were one and the same. Some people might call what she did “casting a spell”. Others, even more provocatively, might call it “magic”. (Photo by John Miller)

WHAT IS IT? This weird, emotionally energetic style of politics that promises “transformational” change and then, mysteriously, fails to deliver it? What should we call it? Something less than the old-fashioned left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Much more, however, than the cynical deployment of standard PR techniques. It is a style which has so far defied all attempts to pin a label on it.

Nameless though it may be, few would deny that Jacinda Ardern is its most brilliant local exponent. Her openness: the sheer force of her empathic projection; imbues our Prime Minister’s statements with extraordinary persuasive power. So effective are “Jacinda’s” communication skills, that a great many New Zealanders have taken to confusing her declarations with actual achievements. Those who point out the discrepancy between the Prime Minister’s magnificent words and her government’s less-than-magnificent deeds are not well received. But, that does not mean they are wrong.

Her memorable declaration, made at the launch of the Labour Party’s 2017 election campaign, that climate change would be her generation’s nuclear-free moment, epitomises Ardern’s political style. So richly evocative of selfless activism and against-all-odds success was her declaration that Ardern’s audience’s critical faculties were suspended. Almost as if the promise and the deed were one and the same. Some people might call what she did “casting a spell”. Others, even more provocatively, might call it “magic”.

But, magic of a certain kind. Ardern’s are not the sort of spells that begin with fantasy but end in reality. Jacinda is no Churchill. Rather than a magician, she is a conjurer. What Ardern weaves with her words are not the intentions that lead to actual deeds, but the dangerous illusion that what is being asked of her has already been accomplished – made real by the unmistakable sincerity and the power of her will. Once she has declared her determination to end child poverty, who could be so churlish as to point out that the children of the poor are still with us?

Ardern’s conjuring is perfectly suited to that crucial group of voters who detached themselves from the National Party in response to what they saw as the “awful” problems which John Key and Bill English had failed to address during their nine years in office. Homelessness and unaffordable housing; worsening child poverty; inadequate spending on health and education; filthy rivers and streams; the manifest inadequacies of New Zealand’s mental health services: something had to be done.

Or, at least, something had to be said that made them feel better than the bleak and blameful rhetoric of Paula Bennett and Judith Collins.

Ardern’s game-changing intuition was that all these voters really wanted to hear were different words. Commitments, promises, studies, working-groups, projects: policies filled with good intentions and promoted with powerful displays of empathy. The number of voters eager to focus on the fiscal mechanisms required to pay for Labour’s kinder, gentler New Zealand were considerably fewer.

That had always been the problem with Labour’s dreary procession of earnest middle-aged blokes. They had all been way too keen on the nuts and bolts; far too ready to tell everybody how much fiscal pain they would have to be willing to suffer in order to make all the good things they wanted for New Zealand affordable. Who the hell wanted to hear about that!

That was Jacinda’s gift. A young face. A bright smile. A “Let’s Do This!” willingness to hit the ground running. And, most of all, an extraordinary ability to make her middle-class supporters believe that, as with the relentless rise in the value of their houses, her “politics of kindness” could be brought into being without serious sacrifice or effort.

Every successful conjurer, however, must have their very own Jonathan Creek. Somebody to design and build the equipment that turns the conjurer’s masterful misdirection into a reality that baffles and delights. Ardern’s misfortune is to preside over a coalition government decidedly lacking in Jonathan Creeks. Thanks to Clare Curran, Phil Twyford, Iain Lees-Galloway, Grant Robertson and Shane Jones, too many people in the audience are being distracted from Ardern’s magic spiel. Some are even beginning to work out how the tricks are done.

This is not how the story is supposed to end. Not with people wondering whether the Prime Minister’s promises are ultimately achievable.

It’s not that “Jacinda” has become less likeable. What New Zealander, watching her cut such an impressive figure on the international stage, has not felt a surge of national pride. It’s just that Ardern’s “Magic Politics”, as with all kinds of fiction, is absolutely dependent on the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief.

If (or should that be ‘as’) people discover that fighting climate change and ending child poverty will require the imposition of real and rising taxes, then Ardern’s illusions will begin to fade. The voters will start noticing the strings attached to her magical promises.

And the spell will be broken.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 7 March 2019.


BlisteringAttack said...

Jacinda is no Big Norm. She's merely tinkering with things.

Also Twyford is no John A Lee. He's out of his depth.

I suspect this Labour govt will be around for one term. They just couldn't get going.

Frank Black said...

promises “transformational” change and then, mysteriously, fails to deliver it? What should we call it?

Call it what it is: pie-in-the-sky thinking. Magic thinking.
Or more impolitely: fraud. swindle. A con game.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

To be fair, National runs everything down in its period in office, leaves Labour with the results, and then bitches about overspending. It is cyclical, and for that matter cynical. It would be nice if Labour started acting constructively to do something about this, but we're pissing into the wind here. They're essentially afraid of the middle class. And with good reason, because the middle-class, punishes pretty much anything that interferes with their nice comfortable lives. They might vote for Labour for its social policies perhaps, but as soon as they have to pay a bit more – you might as well give up.

Jack Scrivano said...

The government can’t solve the problems that it has pledged to solve, not because it is incompetent (although I think there is currently a good deal of incompetence on both sides of the house), but because there is not enough money. And the only way that the government can get more money is to take it from the people. But the day that the government does that will be the day before it ceases to be the government. Simple really.

Kat said...

Since when has it been "her government", its a coalition. What Jacinda Ardern is achieving is a change of mindset, from greed is good to kindness and sharing. Even if that alone is all she achieves its the best this country has seen since Norm Kirk ended conscription, gave the fingers to the French and their bombs and embraced Maori at Waitangi.

Philip said...

Interesting commentary Chris, and a real shift away from your commentary regarding Jacinda Ardern in the lead up to and during the election. I have been astounded at how many of my family and friends still see her as a wonderful Prime Minister who is achieving so much for NZ (and they are the ones who usually vote Conservatively). I think you are right that she does convince people that if she states something will be done, then people believe it has been done. Do you see the lack of coverage in the media in the early days of this Government of the same issues (eg. homelessness, rent increases, child poverty etc.) that were covered in the lead up to the election as pulling the wool over the eyes of the general public who do not have a keen interest in politics? Since these issues were no longer raised in mainstream media following the election, people assumed it was all solved? It has certainly started to shift now with the mainstream media beginning to check on progress by the government on these issues. However, there is still little accountability for the Prime Minister in most media articles who tend to show her in a positive light despite the situation. I guess you have to give any new Government a chance to prove themselves initially.

Polly. said...

Well said.
Jacinda's bubble has serious flaws.
The bubble will eventually burst.
Simon Bridges is playing the long game with increased tenacity.

Anonymous said...

Which little boy in the crowd will point out that she has no clothes?

pat said...

You may well be correct Chris but we will have a clearer picture when the Zero Carbon Bill is released in the coming months.....assuming it is not delayed

Guillaume said...

I hope that she reads Chris's observations, but then just who does one now vote for?

greywarbler said...

The racehorse can't run if its jockey is overweight. Poor Jacinda - we had high hopes but Chris did warn us of the drag that woud come from National's legacy and he embedded civil servants like Sir Humphrey saying that nothing should be done for the first time.

Frank Black is so funny - like a parody of a RW commenter.

And Kat we are disappointed. But then Helen Clark had to concentrate on the Party and steady as she goes. If enough people think like Frank Black
then any difficulties in the Party would be exaggerated. All the clever dicks would be full of scorn - oh if they could only get into Parliament they would sort the lot out. GS seems about right. I'll eat his porridge.

sumsuch said...

A sharp-toed kick to the nexus.

You're alluding to magical thinking. Comparing Climate Change to the 'nuclear-free moment' … wow, says it all. 'Light Weight'. She's passed her bill of goods past the mortgage-holders by not mentioning, or being prepared to present, the bill.

From this frippery she has got a soapbox to talk from. Her means of redemption.

Jens Meder said...

But could not Jacinda's govt. get the extra wealth for the country needed for social services and poverty reduction and elimination -

not through raising more taxes for immediate welfare consumption, but for raising the country's savings, investment and wealth ownership rate through channeling an increased taxation revenue component directly into taxpayers' and citizens' personal (retirement) wealth ownership accounts ?

Would that not reverse the deplorable situation where liberally altruistic welfare benefits for poverty alleviation actually encourages more poverty in order to qualify for the benefits ?

Tom Hunter said...


Usual daft Lefty thinking. Look at the last 25 years around the Western World.

1992 - Clinton. We will finally be delivered from Reagan. A Southern Accent? LBJ has returned, with less war and more Great Society. And he's soooo smart.

1997 - Blair. We will finally be delivered from Thatcher. And he's handsome. And he's sooooo smart

1999 - Clarke. We will finally be delivered from Roger Douglas. And a Wimen. And she's sooooo smart

2007 - Rudd My God, he speaks Mandarin. Not like that plonking Howard. And he's sooooo smart

2008 - Obama. ORGASM. We are finally delivered from Booosssshhhhh. And he's Black. And Handsome. And he's soooooo smart

2015 - Trudeau. Look! What yonder halo doth break over his head in this photo. And he's handsome. And caring. And soooo sma....Ah. OK. Good enough

2017 - Adern We are delivered from the evils of that financial trading scum, Key. And she's a Wimen. And attractive. And baby. And sooooooo smart

You people do this to yourselves every time. And then you have the gall to claim or imply that you've learned your lessons from past Cults of Personality like Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao.....

You've learned nothing. At least when we Righties throw some cheering to our lot it's after they've actually done something. It's why Key got the big, Meh, yeah, you're popular, and ......????

Anonymous said...

I’d never suspended disbelief with Jacinda before the 2017 election because I’d followed her progress for some time and knew she was a non-achiever. She’s got good communication skills but couldn’t do much more and her seat in Mt Albert was a gift. It’s a pity that so many NZers fell for her smiling rhetoric. I’d promote Chris Faafoi fast if I was in charge of the Labour Party. He’s hard working, actually gets things done and looks Prime Ministerial when speaking to the media.

Galeandra said...

Lots of Nat fans btl tonight, pity they don't do much to illuminate us about why they have no faith in the Coalition's pixie-dust & conjuring tricks many of them are keen to find fault with.
I am impressed that at least the agenda has been rewritten in relation the one inherited from the sleepwalking self-serving government that Key led, and the thinking of an increasing number of people I know is following in train. Of course all policies won't produce at once all the needed or desired results,of course ministers haven't got magic wands to cover all the shortfalls from the past, of course politicians are fallible and variable in their abilities, and of course a direction change of any substance will cause pain to those who are geared to the status quo.
Here in Taranaki, for example, the commitment to policies related reducing climate-change has caused some financial dislocation and aroused a serious amount of complaint. At some point we are going to have face the inevitable around taxation increases, consumption reduction and increasingly, limitations being imposed on what were previously matters of personal choice. We have under twelve years to get there. I for one am grateful for the Coalition's beginning to take these matters seriously.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

2017 Trump. He's a billionaire, and a very successful businessman, and we all know we should have a businessman in charge of the country. Everybody knows we right-wingers aren't susceptible to glitz and glamour.

Oh dear, sorry I had to recover I almost peed myself writing that.:) Because of your list of "terrible" "none achieving" "leftist" prime ministers, they all pretty much achieved more than Trump has.
Holyoke? He was nothing more than a plummy voice. Although to be fair he did keep us pretty much out of the Vietnam war.
English? Well I suppose he's left six kids but not much else.
Theresa May? Jesus wept she must've overseen the most incompetent bunch of fuckwits ever, making a cockup of the most important thing to happen to England – because Scotland and Northern Ireland will probably declare independence – in 100 years or so.
And don't you just love Boris Johnson? Full of rat cunning , but basically an empty head under a bad haircut. And it certainly wasn't leftists that voted for them.
What all this bullshit does show is that conservatives are great at thinking up clever lines and jokes, but not much else.

Nick J said...

Tom Hunter, that's a fine list of neo liberal shills. Please explain how any of them can claim to be of the 'Left" (or how you could possibly be so stupid to regard them as anything other than neo libs).

Nick J said...

Spot on Grey, liked GS analysis of the grasping middle class voting behaviour. Your Sir Humphreys are surrounded by a whole cadre of so called public servants whose whole role is to feather their nests.

Zemon said...

Empathetic??? I find her to be completely self-interested, superficial, and insincere.

Tom Hunter said...

Nick J said...
Tom Hunter, that's a fine list of neo liberal shills. Please explain how any of them can claim to be of the 'Left" (or how you could possibly be so stupid to regard them as anything other than neo libs).

Oh Gawwwd. That's the whole point. At the time, when it counted, all of these figures were hailed by tens of millions of people who thought of themselves as Left, supported many Left things, announced their opposition to the Right, and proclaimed that things would finally swing Left with these geniuses in charge. Each of these figures suported State institutions built by the Left, demanded more money be poured into them, demanded increased taxes to pay for it if necessary, railed about opposing wars (HA!), and pushed things socially liberal things like gay marriage, abortion and the rest - and were hailed by the same crowds of Left-Wingers.

Just look at what this blog author was saying about Justin Trudeau in 2015: One Picture's Worth

IT’S ONE OF THOSE PICTURES that freeze-frames a political leader in the making. Half-turned from the enthusiastic crowd of Prince Edward Islanders he is addressing, Justin Trudeau’s upraised arm acknowledges something beyond the image’s point of reference. A pale sunlight lightly gilds the palm of his outstretched hand and highlights the features of his face. Taken in 2013, Canadian Press photographer Andrew Vaughan’s photograph captures to perfection the same political magic that swept the 43-year-old Trudeau to victory in last Monday’s Canadian general election.

Were you one of them at the time and you're just now joining the crowd of growing naysayers who pick away at Clinton, Obama and the rest as being "not really Left"?

Or were you always so Pure And Virtuous: A True Believer who knew the Left was being suckered.? I've know a few such people, but they were a tiny, tiny minority amidst the rock star insanity.

charlese said...

WHAT IS IT? This weird, emotionally energetic style of politics that promises “transformational” change and then, mysteriously, fails to deliver it? What should we call it?
Infantile perhaps?
No that is not quite it... because I do not beive it is innocent.
An inabilidy to tell the little ones the truth? That is what a bad mother does.
And that to me is cowardice. But also it is fraud, because she done it to get the job.
I do not feel pride when she goes abroad, I cringe at the dreamy platitudes and badly pronounced clichés she will come out with.
Remember the third form nonsense she spoke at the UN, starting with the fiction that the place was founded to make everyone equal. What a howler! No it was not and nor is that possible on this earth. Even if she had said it was created to promote the rule of law internationally and the ideal of equality before the law for all people, not just the West she would still be wrong but forgivable. Even admirable.
No your brilliant, and brave essay Chris says it very well. But I'm sure her minders and her adoring fans have blocked out your wisdom long ago. We don't want to upset the children now do we sweetie!

Nick J said...

I take it Tom that you are saying that these motley Right Wing economic shills basically suckered the Left voters with "social" deliverables. And as we know the idiots fell for it, in fact still are.

John Hurley said...

More hotels for Queenstown. Nothing down there suggests meeting climate targets. Golly G says part of being Kiwi is a love of travel (her and Guy do a lot of it). It the same clip she describes herself as an environmental activist.