Jacinda Ardern says there’s a “rawness” to public sentiment currently that didn’t exist before the pandemic, and it’s led to an increase in abuse towards politicians and people in high-profile jobs.

The Prime Minister told Newsroom the level of abuse towards her both online and in real life has increasingly got worse during her time leading the country.

“But I’m not yet willing to say it’s a permanent thing, because what I’ve observed is not only something that’s happening here in New Zealand.

“There’s a rawness at the moment to people’s sentiment,” Ardern says.

* Threats against MPs unite Parliament
* Threats ‘greater and more intense’ against MPs

“I think just under the surface is a lot of anxiety for people, it’s been a difficult period of time, and I think people just have less of a filter – people let you know – but I don’t think New Zealand is the only place experiencing that.”

When speaking to international counterparts, Ardern says other world leaders comment on the same increase in abusive comments and threats both online and in person.

“I think it’s probably a bit about the collective global experience we’ve had over the last couple of years, so I’m not willing to say the political environment has forever changed, it’s just changed for now,” she told Newsroom.

While some people are more forward in their opinions on Ardern and other politicians, she says that’s not emblematic of everyone.

“We tend as humans to fixate on the negative, it’s what we do, it doesn’t mean it demonstrates where everyone is.

“We’re all just humans trying to do our best, and I think it’s easy to forget that about politicians and about people who have high-profile jobs, like journalists.”

During the initial Covid-19 outbreak and lockdown Ardern says the country united, and it would be worth remembering that.

“I think that’s one thing Covid did, for a time there everyone was exposed as not having more or less information than anyone else. We were all in the same boat and all could see we were just humans trying to do our best, and we just need to remind ourselves of that sometimes.”

In times of crisis that happens, Ardern says, but it can also have the opposite effect.

“It had a really negative impact in other ways though because it frayed people, understandably, and now we’ve got to find that equilibrium again.”

A Herald-commissioned poll in late November explored the country’s social cohesion. It resulted in 64 percent of people believing New Zealand as a society had become more divided in the past few years, 16 percent felt the nation had become more united, and 20 percent thought it remained the same.

Those polled were asked if they thought New Zealand’s Covid-19 response had brought the country closer together or pushed it further apart.

Fifty-one percent said it had divided people, while 37 percent said it was unifying.

Concerns around increased abuse and attacks means MPs are rethinking how they might campaign at next year’s election as threats against some politicians continue to rise.

Green Party co-leader James Shaw proposed a cross-party group meet in 2023 to discuss the issue – he’s received a commitment from all parties that they’ll take part, but both National and ACT maintain they have no plans to change how they campaign.

Labour, meanwhile, is understood to be reconsidering public walkabouts and shopping mall visits, where it’s difficult for security to manage crowds.

The anxiety and division brought about by the pandemic has even caused nicknames to take on new meanings over time.

For Ardern, people calling her “Aunty Cindy” doesn’t bother her when it’s being said with affection, but those who aren’t fans use “Cindy” now, in a negative way.

“It’s so contextual … it depends on the situation. No matter what the nickname you can tell if someone’s intent is to do it affectionately or in a disparaging way.”

The Government’s overall response and handling of Covid-19 is now part of a Royal Commission of Inquiry, announced by Ardern on Monday.

It will examine the lessons learned and aims to help New Zealand better prepare for future pandemics. A final report is due back in mid-2024.

Ardern hasn’t taken time to reflect on that period in her leadership yet.

“I always say for those big things that maybe I will over summer.

“It never happens, perhaps that’s deliberate,” she says.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

Leave a comment