WHAT DOES IT SAY about the state of New Zealand politics that our prime minister is being branded as “evil”? “Nothing good” is the obvious, if insufficient, response. Calling another human-being evil signals that political discussion has veered away from the predictably ideological towards the dangerously metaphysical. Good and Evil are religious – not political – terms.
Escalating the depiction of one’s political opponents from the merely incompetent, simply ignorant and defensively dishonest, to the overtly mendacious, fundamentally corrupt and self-consciously immoral, makes politics, “the art of the possible”, impossible.
After all, competence can be acquired through experience; ignorance can be corrected through education; and the political consequences of dishonesty can be powerfully corrective. But, mendacity, corruption, and the deliberate choice of clearly immoral options, are failings beyond the remedial powers of most ordinary mortals.
I vividly recall watching the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, waxing eloquent on the evil character of his Russian enemy. Zelensky’s depiction of President Vladimir Putin made the Devil himself look like a rank amateur. It was only when the journalist interviewing Zelensky pointed out that if Putin really was as bad as he was saying, then compromise would be impossible. How does one negotiate with pure evil? The question pulled the Ukrainian president up short. If only for a moment, doubt took command of his features. Is it ever possible to make peace with the Devil?
That is the problem with terms like Good and Evil: they tend to shut down the possibility of compromise and negotiation. Indeed, they render compromise and negotiation morally unacceptable. The threat posed by the individuals and/or groups described as evil is transformed into something viscerally existential. If “they” are not overcome, then “we” will be. The only options become: Victory – or Death.
Those who choose to characterise Jacinda Ardern as evil do so with a similarly binary political objective. In the simplest terms, they are hoping to rule out all other political options except the decisive destruction of the Labour Government and its leader.
Certainly, they do not want all those New Zealanders tossing-up whether to cast another vote for Labour to say: “On the one hand, Jacinda and her government have been pretty hopeless at keeping their promises on climate change, child poverty and affordable housing; but, on the other hand, they did a great job keeping the country going under Covid.”
Nor are Jacinda’s foes keen for voters to compare New Zealand’s economic and social performance with those of other nations. Once people grasp the fact that their own country is economically, socially and culturally out-performing a great many of the wealthy nations against which we like to compare ourselves, the idea of returning Labour to power doesn’t seem quite so unthinkable after all.
Transforming Jacinda Ardern into a hateful caricature, and loading her with responsibility for all the nation’s woes, will also serve to distract the electorate from the straightforward and eminently measurable response of her government to the most pressing (and potentially the most politically determinative) “bread and butter” issues bound up with the steadily rising cost-of-living, ballooning mortgage repayments, and the ability of working people to ensure that their wages and salaries at least keep pace with inflation.
If the data emerging from the Treasury and the Reserve Bank over the next 11 months indicates that the Labour Government is making a reasonable fist of managing the economy in unusually trying times, then the Prime Minister will have realistic grounds for electoral optimism. Doubly so, if her Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, is able to announce changes to the tax regime that penalise the rich and reward the poor.
It should also be noted that the Prime Minister’s enemies, those who want us to hate her, suffer from the not insubstantial handicap of being more than a little hateful themselves. Rendered nonsensical by their unwavering belief in the most absurd conspiracy theories; and dangerous by their relentless peddling of fake news about the Covid-19 vaccines; they stand exposed to the accusation that they are all exceptionally dark right-wing pots to be calling Labour’s kettle black.
Should Jacinda Ardern re-fashion herself as a humble witness to her own and her government’s shortcomings, and commit herself to achieving a very small number of extremely useful things, then her enemies’ accusations of evil are most unlikely to stick.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 January 2023.