A Short Guide to New Zealand’s Feminist Authoritarian

OK, so there is not a lot to celebrate in New Zealand politics anymore, as the Covid pandemic remains, the hospitals and schools are in chaos, and the Ardern ministry can’t even help poor people who are about to lose their teeth. There is, however, always a photo opportunity for Ardern to show off her beaming smiles, or goofy grins, and display her perfect teeth. In the photo above, Ardern is joined by all the women in the current parliament, from all parties, who are now in the majority. Nirvana has arrived.

And of course, I’m a white bloke, over 50, and automatically sexist. Indeed, I borrowed the photo from a blog called Against the Current, and a post called ‘Trickle down Feminism’. The point being that just having more female parliamentarians does not necessarily improve decision-making in general, nor the plight of particularly poor women. The point of that blog was that the poverty still remains because the overall agenda hasn’t changed. Indeed, since Jacinda Ardern got a majority for her party in 2020, and had an opportunity to change things, she has chosen not to. She made a big deal of becoming the Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, but, as another blogger has discovered, she has spent all of 14 hours on that portfolio. Others criticise her views on free speech, I have focused on her flawed personal judgment, and the fact that she is not left wing in any sense, while becoming an international celebrity.

So very briefly, how did we get here. Ardern is a protégé of Helen Clark, the previous female Labour Party leader. Clark also came from the prosperous Waikato region, and was the daughter of farmers, who were actually members of the conservative National Party. Then she left the Waikato to attend the University of Auckland, where she studied Politics and History, and became a lecturer in the former subject while trying to complete a PhD. She did not complete the PhD, but became active in Labour Party politics, in what was known as the Princes Street branch. Guided by activist academics, she was able to pursue a career in Parliament, when elected in 1981, initially as an ally of the Labour Party president Jim Anderton (who became an MP in 1984). Auckland MPs came to dominate the Labour Party in the 1980s: most embraced what is now called ‘Neoliberalism’; Anderton formed a breakaway party, with left wing fringe dwellers, in 1989.

So Helen Clark managed to maintain a path through the toxic masculine, right wing politics of the 1980s, while the apparent ideological extremes of the time took flight, either setting up a purist right wing party, or following Anderton’s crusade to save the social democratic base of Labourism as it was understood in New Zealand. Of course, enormous amounts have been written about it, without offering any great insight into who set the agenda. It is often assumed that Clark was still in the latter tradition, but had just fallen out with Anderton over the strategy to combat the right wing takeover of the Labour Party. Indeed, when they had formed a rapprochement, once Clark became Prime Minister in 1999, and Anderton was her deputy, there did not seem to be a need for an alternative left wing party anymore.

More could be written on that, the effect of the Anderton/Clark split, and later alliance, which then resulted in a rather timid, though stable, government for nine years. Clark may be a competent person, with good political judgment, but she is not a left winger. When asked in an interview why she had not restored the swingeing welfare benefit cuts from the early 1990s, she replied that there was not enough money to do it; the truth was that there massive fiscal surpluses in the 2000s decade. For the sake of this piece it is far more important to state that Clark remained a feminist, first and foremost, and the goal of her faction was to put as many women into power as possible. Clark herself went on to a major role in the United Nations’ organisation, but missed out on the top job, which went to another European man.

So here we are in the year 2022, and the majority of journalists in the parliamentary press gallery are women, and they also have a slim majority in the House. Most of the journalists are openly cheerleaders for Ardern, and some obviously believe that it is her destiny to follow Clark’s path, but go one better and become U.N Secretary-General. One former political ‘editor’, named Tova O’Brien, based an entire interview with Ardern on this premise, and Ardern put on her beaming smile throughout. All was on track then. But now it has become clear that Ardern does not believe in free speech, thinks nothing of removing basic civil rights from women as punishment for not taking vaccinations, and has allowed poverty and homelessness to stay entrenched. The only mystery is why her mentor, Helen Clark, has not intervened, and suggest she spend less time on photo opportunities and more on poverty reduction. Maybe she already has, and was perhaps ignored, possibly because Ardern is already the bigger celebrity and doesn’t really need her party faction’s help anymore.

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