The assessment of Jacinda Ardern’s prime ministership is well underway. Newsroom’s Māori issues editor Aaron Smale says sexism, racism, fairness and missed opportunities need to be considered when analysing Ardern’s complex legacy

The resignation of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a political story that has jolted everyone, but it should also lead to a moment for some national self-reflection, because her exit says quite a lot about us, even though she didn’t spell it out.

What I’m talking about is not politics, it’s simply abuse. And it is men targeting her because she is a woman. That abuse ranges from condescension to outright hostility and threats, including death threats.

This goes beyond our prime minister. A number of female public figures have been targeted in the same way, including friends and colleagues of mine in the media. I also know of male journalists who’ve copped abuse, but there seems to be a special vitriol directed at women. One has had to move house because of threats of violence and other vile abuse. Another was told by police not to leave her teenage daughters home on their own because her name and address popped up on a Telegram channel known to the police.

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If Christopher Luxon, David Seymour and Winston Peters are so agitated about crime and lawlessness, why haven’t they spoken up about this crime, committed in plain sight against the country’s leader? They seem happy to stay silent on the sidelines while this goes on, or mumble some comment occasionally.

By not speaking out they are effectively saying to all the female voters out there that they’re okay with it, particularly if it benefits them politically.

It’s not limited to the right or Pākehā either. Kelvin Davis made a personal attack on ACT MP Karen Chhour that was nasty and racist because she was questioning him, which is her job. What was particularly insulting was that Chhour was questioning Davis in his role as Minister of Oranga Tamariki, something she has a particular interest in because she came from an abusive background. Instead of recognising this genuine intent he implied she was just an ignorant Pākehā. She’s Ngā Puhi, Davis’ own iwi. Would he have directed that kind of abuse at a man?

I suspect women are reluctant to call out this constant abuse and undermining because it provokes further abuse, invites accusations that they can’t handle the pressure, or they’re making excuses.

But it’s not the responsibility of the victims to change the behaviour of the perpetrators, who are mostly men. If men who aren’t perpetrators stand by and don’t do something then we’re part of the problem.

This kind of misogyny is a close relative of racism, because racism and sexism are about maintaining power.

I have a friend who was minding her own business getting petrol when an old white guy starting aggressively racially abusing her completely unprovoked in broad daylight. This happened off and on for a sustained period until he eventually assaulted her. And what was her ‘crime’? She was a Māori woman. He told police he’d “had enough.”

It was hard not to come to the conclusion that this individual thought he was entitled to verbally abuse and assault a Māori woman because of a climate that has been created by public figures in both the media and politics.

What my friend found especially hurtful was that there were a number of bystanders who did nothing. Some seemed amused by it. That bystander silence can impact victims just as much as the abuse itself because it normalises it and makes the victim think they just have to take it on the chin.

Political careers are made up of all sorts of choices. But it does make you wonder how much Ardern’s political choices were influenced by not only a series of crises she had to manage, but the constant hectoring and abuse that was directly related to her gender in a way that a male leader would never have to deal with.

When she came in as prime minister in 2017 she gave herself a portfolio she created – minister of child poverty. Cynically it could be seen as one more layer of PR, but it showed an intent to address what was and is becoming an increasing blight in this country.

But managing Covid and all its implications hogged so much of the Government and Ardern’s energy that there was little left over to pursue some of the policies she’d set her sights on.

There’s an odd paradox here. Over the last term Ardern had the outright mandate to govern without the encumbrance of a coalition partner, particularly the likes of Winston Peters who always has to make out he is the only one that knows what’s best for the country. This was a rare opportunity in the MMP landscape. She could have done a Roger Douglas and made radical changes that set the country on a different trajectory. Rogernomics and neoliberalism in general has been found wanting. Ardern could have led New Zealand down a different path. The relationship between the state and the market is a subject politicians don’t talk about in any coherent way but Ardern could have started a long-overdue debate on this.

But she missed that opportunity – why? Was it that she was just exhausted and didn’t feel like opening up another front for the opposition to attack her on? Was it about hugging the centre ground so as not to rock the boat when the electorate had become grumpy and exhausted by the Covid measures? Was it about winning the next election and retaining power for its own sake, rather than effecting real change?

No doubt those and many other reasons played a part in various decisions. But framing poverty around children plays the empathy card while ignoring the reality behind it. That limited phrasing overlooks the fact that child poverty is a result of poverty that affect families and even whole communities and has complex, historic causes. This poverty is no longer simply a one-off disaster that has befallen people, or laziness or some moral failing that people should be punished for. It has become structural and it has become entrenched and can’t be addressed by tinkering around the edges with token gestures.

The biggest driver of poverty is the cost of housing followed by education and employment. On the housing front it was the market and the lack of regulation that delivered leaky homes, runaway housing prices, lack of basic building supplies and runaway housing prices. Let’s not forget it was the sub-prime mortgage fiasco – a lack of regulation – that cratered the global financial system that then had to be bailed out by taxpayers around the world, including here. Talk about welfarism. This then led to interest rates so low for the past decade that the whole cycle kicked off again.

And yet Ardern and her Government shied away from taking drastic measures to correct and rein in a distorted market and set parameters so the market worked for everyone, not just those who already owned a house. Even Don Brash said house prices needed to be brought down by 30-40 percent but neither major party had the guts to do anything in that direction. And he was saying that over five years ago. Housing inequality is even more entrenched, not just between Māori and Pākehā but also between generations.

Ardern didn’t make any such moves because Labour was too focused on not alienating white middle-class property owners. What we got instead was a hodge-podge of incrementalism mixed with a failed attempt by the state to build their way out of the crisis.

While she was indeed faced with managing constant crises, her Government has shown an inability or unwillingness to address some of the major structural issues creating poverty. These two things came to a head in the ugly riot that erupted on the front doorstep of Parliament.

One prominent political commentator referred to those rioting as scum, which was utterly tone deaf. What he ignored was that many of those throwing stuff at the cops and setting fire to things were Māori and they had all the appearance and rage of people who’d been totally disenfranchised. It wasn’t only the lockdowns that had led them to that point. For many that was just one more blow they’d suffered after decades and generations of being ground down by political decisions made by people who didn’t care. Instead, they’ve been treated as political canon-fodder. There was no coherent, rational centre to the mob but the collective rage was well beyond objections to Covid lockdowns.

Ardern did care but was forced to choose between the economy and a pile of Covid deaths. I was in New York in 2019 and watched in disbelief a few months later as trucks backed up to hospitals to take the overflow of bodies that were then dumped in mass graves. This happened in the US, in one of the greatest cities in the world, so it was beyond naive to think it couldn’t happen here. Those moaning about a dictatorship would be moaning if their loved ones were wiped off the map because the Government had done nothing.

Part of Ardern’s caution and unwillingness to take bold risks in addressing inequality may have been similar to Obama’s reticence around racial injustice, even though he had the mandate and the credentials. Western politics has created a whole language and narrative around issues of race that means even discussing it is portrayed as dangerous, unwarranted and divisive.

This hostility to any discussion on race has created a fear about addressing issues of racial inequality or the structure of the economy. Any change has to be bland or incremental so as not to attract attention, but even those minor concessions can be whipped into a white backlash. So the status quo continues while the underlying issues don’t go away. They get worse because they are ignored.

So Ardern departs before she did what she had the potential to do because she had other decisions to make. She steered the country through a number of crises, some of which she would have been criticised for no matter what she did. Who would want to face the decisions she had to make? She was decisive when she needed to be but wasn’t that bold when she could have been. We can be grateful for the former, but left wondering by the latter.

But those political decisions were always shadowed by a malicious tone from a number of quarters that has revealed a nasty streak in New Zealand society that has always been there. That raises a number of questions about us, not Ardern. Do we really want to follow the polarised rhetoric emanating from the US? Do we want to ape the kind of threats of violence and abuse that now seem normal in American political discourse?

The real question we need to ask ourselves is – do we want our daughters to see a talented and popular female leader driven out of the country’s highest political office because she has become exhausted not just by the job but by abuse and threats based on her gender? Men have a responsibility to stop this behaviour and to call it out when it happens.

Ardern wants to spend more time with her daughter Neve and partner Clarke and who could begrudge her that? But will she be able to tell her daughter honestly that New Zealand is a country that welcomes female leaders and that she can be and achieve anything she wants without facing prejudice, abuse and threats for being a woman? 

On the current evidence the answer is no.

Aaron Smale is Newsroom's Māori Issues Editor. Twitter: @ikon_media

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