THE PEOPLE who awarded the first Leaders Debate to Judith Collins are the people we learned to loathe during Lockdown. They’ve learned nothing from the public’s negative reaction to arrogance and aggression in the Time of Covid. Poor Simon Bridges paid the ultimate political price for lapses much less damaging than Judith Collins’ on Tuesday Night. But, fear not, Collins, too, will pay a price for her arrogance and aggression.
Jacinda Ardern, on the other hand, knew exactly what was expected of her in this encounter. Labour’s dominant position, three weeks out from the general election, is constructed out of the admiration and gratitude of hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders who, more often than not, vote National. Her calm demeanour at the helm, as she steered her country through the early stages of the global Covid-19 pandemic, was complemented by her ability to project an almost joyful confidence in the steadfastness and solidarity of her fellow New Zealanders. Nothing she said or did in Tuesday’s debate could be allowed to undermine that precious combination of calm and confidence. Nor did it.
Astonishingly, most political journalists and commentators still don’t get this. Like the snarling pack of newshounds who earned the instant (and likely permanent) dislike of those New Zealanders who tuned-in to the 1:00pm media briefings during Lockdown, these others regard arrogance and aggression as indispensable tools of the journalistic trade. People who are offended by their use are, in their professional opinion, naïve. They simply don’t understand how the news business works.
In the electronic media especially, broadcasters are expected to deliver performances overbrimming with confidence and energy. Like their colleagues in the print media, they have been trained to communicate with an audience whose average reading age is said to be twelve. But, as George Orwell makes clear in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the ruthless simplification of language leads swiftly and inevitably to the equally ruthless simplification of thought – the Holy Grail of totalitarian regimes everywhere. Simplicity in communication is a virtue, but sadly, the contemporary news media is increasingly prone to confuse simplicity with simple-mindedness.
So it was that while most New Zealanders responded positively to their Prime Minister’s clear command of the complex issues with which her government has had to grapple, the academics who train and educate the young people who emerge from our universities as professional “communicators” saw only someone who spoke to her fellow citizens as if they were seated around the cabinet table. Quelle horreur! In a democracy – a system of government which confers key decision-making powers upon the people themselves – a prime minister addressed her fellow citizens as, of all things, decision-makers!
How much more effective, according to these academics, were the tactics of the Leader of the Opposition who barked and snapped at her opponent like a demented terrier and addressed the watching voters as if they were intermediate school-children. With her arched eyebrows and curled lips; snorts and guffaws; puerile interjections and belligerent playground taunts; Judith Collins was held up as the possessor of all the theatrical and rhetorical gifts required of a modern (or should that be post-modern?) political leader. For declining to get down in the gutter with Collins; and for refusing to treat politics as a blood-sport; the loser of the first Leaders Debate was declared, by these erudite instructors of tomorrow’s journalists, to be the Prime Minister.
Most of the journalists in the Parliamentary Press Gallery concurred. Jacinda Ardern, they opined, lacked energy. Why was she so passive? Where were the zingers to match her magnificent put-down of Mike Hosking earlier in the day? Why didn’t this “superb communicator” not bark and snap at her opponent as expected? The clear consensus among the political scribes was that when the Prime Minister next went head-to-head with Judith Collins, she would have to lift her game.
Even among Jacinda’s supporters on the Left there were pockets of disappointment. Why didn’t she crush the crusher? Why didn’t she, figuratively, slash off the Tory champion’s head and hold it aloft, Game of Thrones-style, for her followers to revile? Why, when Collins offensively implied that people on the minimum wage were so much less consequential than school-teachers and small business owners, did she not condemn her appalling class prejudice? Why didn’t she call New Zealand’s dirty dairy farmers – dirty dairy farmers? Why all the boring centrism? Dammit Jacinda, you’re the leader of the Labour Party – would it kill you to act like it!
Yes, quite probably, it would. No matter how hard they might wish it were otherwise. And no matter how obdurately some leftists insist that the voters are only waiting for the word “To overturn the cities and the rivers/And split the house like a rotten totara log” [James K. Baxter] New Zealanders have never been insurrectionists. We are socialist renovators – not revolutionaries. Middle-class New Zealanders, the people Jacinda has to thank for being at 48 percent in the Colmar Brunton poll (and not 25 percent, like the hapless David Cunliffe) need to be persuaded to back Labour in a programme of non-terrifying change.
That’s why one of the most effective political statements of the whole evening came in response to John Campbell’s challenge to the Prime Minister over the Capital Gains Tax. “At some point, John,” Jacinda explained, acknowledging Labour’s three failed attempts to sell a CGT to the electorate, “you have to accept that voters don’t agree with you.” From those few, and yes, simple words, former National voters would have drawn reassurance that their ballots may be safely cast for Labour in 2020. They are not in the market for a “crusher”, but for a leader to construct the sort of “new normal” in which they and their families can feel comfortable and secure.
By presenting herself as that sort of political leader: calm, considered, compassionate and constructive; Jacinda Ardern held her middle-class supporters in place – and won the debate.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 24 September 2020.