Ardern’s politics of kindness

Published : 26 Jan 2023 08:55 PM

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s charismatic, energetic and empathetic leader, shocked her nation and the world last week by announcing that she would step down from her position as prime minister.

The announcement was perfectly in line with her reputation: honest and forthright. It was another reminder of her commitment to her job and to her understanding that public positions are about service, not power.

The obvious read is that the decision was driven by domestic politics. Ardern became the youngest prime minister in New Zealand in 161 years when she took office in 2017 and won re-election in 2020, largely on the strength of her government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, her government and the ruling New Zealand Labour Party have been battered by economic headwinds and high-profile violent crime.

In a December poll, support for Labour sagged to 33%, trailing the National Party, which claimed 38%. The domestic politics argument is that, with national polls scheduled for October, the time to change leadership is now, to give the new team time to settle in and win back public support.

Ardern dismissed that explanation — or darker speculations that invariably follow such abrupt moves — when she announced her plans. “What I’m sharing today is it,” adding that “Leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging.” She went on, “You cannot and should not do it unless you have a full tank plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges.” Quite simply, Ardern said, she no longer had “enough in the tank” to perform the job as it should be done. “We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it’s time.” For once, it seems that a politician’s stated desire to spend more time with her family is sincere.

Ardern’s governing style has been called the “politics of kindness,” a nebulous concept, said Washington Post columnist Monica Hesse, “that catapulted her into worldwide celebrity — this nursing mother, this millennial feminist — and that drew eye rolls from critics.” Whatever the right term is — it will encompass honesty, empathy, commitment to public service and competence — it has served New Zealand well.

The country had one of the toughest and ultimately most successful responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. She offered solace and support after an extremist murdered 50 New Zealanders in attacks on Christchurch mosques and then guided a national ban of assault weapons. And if her party is taking a beating in opinion polls, Ardern remains popular: She is the “preferred prime minister” in most surveys. While she is a better practitioner than most other politicians, her qualities are associated with women in positions of leadership more generally. Considerable research shows that countries led by women outperform those with a man in charge. A 2021 study by two British economists found that COVID-19 outcomes were better in countries led by women. A 2013 analysis found leadership by a woman correlated with a 6.9% increase in gross domestic product when compared to countries led by men.

When women act like male leaders, they are not only punished for it but seen as illegitimate. In “Women, Peace and Security: An Introduction,” Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College highlights research that shows women are judged more personally than men and are expected to be “likable,” “nice” and to work for the communal good. Yet women are more likely to be blamed when things go wrong than are men, even when data shows women to be more competent overall. Those studies provide context for Ardern’s 2017 statement made during an interview that she was “constantly anxious” about making mistakes as deputy leader of her party and worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of additional responsibility. That’s typical, explained Johnson-Freese in her book. Not only do women talk themselves out of running for office — U.S. women are twice as likely as men to see themselves as “not at all qualified to run for office” even when their credentials were equivalent — but public tolerance of women politicians’ faults is, she warns, “thin and unforgiving,” and worse than that of men. Not surprisingly, burnout is frequent.

That is to be expected when women are under-represented in politics — not only because of the attitudinal headwinds they face but because their absence means that women’s priorities aren’t reflected in legislation. Child care or support for the elderly, duties that typically fall on women in households, don’t get funding, which then keeps all but the most committed busy with those tasks.

That’s not the worst of it, either. Ardern was subject to terrible abuse. According to data from New Zealand’s Official Information Act, threats recorded against her almost tripled in the past few years. Sanjana Hattotuwa, a researcher at the Te Punaha Matatini Disinformation Project, which monitors misinformation and online extremism, was quoted in the Guardian newspaper saying “The vocabulary … has migrated from implicit and elusive references to her murder, assassination and rape now to explicit calls for it.”

Helen Clark, a former New Zealand prime minister, issued a statement after Ardern’s announcement saying that “The pressures on prime ministers are always great, but in this era of social media, clickbait and 24/7 media cycles, Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country.” She’s not alone. Studies of women politicians in the U.S., Canada, India and the U.K. have all found that they are subject to more intense and more frequent abuse than their male counterparts. According to a 2021 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the African Parliamentary Union, “sexism, harassment and violence against women are ubiquitous in parliaments across Africa.” Frequently, the abuse came from their male colleagues.

The situation in Japan falls well within this disappointing mainstream. The country lags when it comes to gender equality, ranking 116th among 146 countries in gender gap rankings (lowest in the East Asia and Pacific group) and 139th in politics, according to a 2022 report by the World Economic Forum. 

A Kyodo News survey last year reported that just 43 of Japan’s 1,741 municipalities are headed by women. In the Cabinet Office poll of legislative members and candidates, 65.5% of female respondents said they had experienced some form of harassment from voters and other people, while 58% of male respondents had. Those numbers offer perspective on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s pledge, made in Monday’s parliament session, to make child care one of his priorities. It’s a sad, sad commentary on the state of politics and the price being paid by some of our most capable and committed public servants. New Zealand was lucky to have had Ardern as prime minister.

While she has earned time for herself and her family, it doesn’t seem selfish to hope that she will return to politics and resume working for her country and the world.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019). 

Source: Japan Times