New Zealand’s ‘Jacindarama’

While the USA has been engaged in “navel gazing” of the most intense kind, caught up in buyer’s remorse over President Trump, the British have been caught between a “rock and a hard place” over their Brexit referendum at the same time Jamaicans are contemplating citizenship and elections, New Zealand elected its youngest prime minister, a woman, 37 years old Jacinda Ardern. The matter of youthfulness and political leadership is a constant on the agenda of political leadership since a relatively young Barack Obama at 47 years was elected to lead the United States. Since then Canada’s Justin Trudeau at 45 became Canada’s youngest prime minister in 2015. In many ways political leadership had become the purview of old men, and in Europe and neo-Europe, the purview or old white men. Jacinda Ardern, at 37 years old is in many ways a revolution. Young women do not traditionally inspire the confidence of the patriarchy, her election is therefore interesting and certainly an exciting new development for women’s leadership and for political leadership generally. In fact she succeeded Andrew Little, who resigned at 52 years old; under his leadership the party’s popularity dropped 23%. Little represents the traditional, the ideal of who a leader should be. Interesting that he had to resign to give the party a chance at leading the government.

Jacinda Ardern is among a group of only thirteen women heads of state. Less than 7% of world leaders are women and certainly she stands as the youngest among them. She is a rare occurrence, not just in New Zealand, she is also global rarity – a woman leading a sovereign state at 37 years. I am not sure if we can predict any global trend or change with her leadership but certainly, this is an important moment in women’s political leadership.

Ardern describes herself openly as a feminist who is putting issues of equal pay and supporting women in whatever role they choose, on her political agenda. She is passionate about issues of the environment, attends Pride rallies and has spoken openly about her own problems with anxiety connecting with a mental health crisis that New Zealanders are grappling with, her open show of emotions connected with an issue that most men leaders would perhaps ignore, she is inspiring many and humanizing her leadership in profound ways. Her political agenda is leftist, humanist and exciting. She is committed to a fairer New Zealand and has indicated that she will have a referendum on personal use of Cannabis by 2020, and to exploring the historic abuse of children in state care and to ensuring that rental homes are warm and dry. I like the the issues she has put on her agenda, sounds like the classic tagline for putting people at the centre of politics.

The New Zealand electoral system is a mixed member proportional representation (MMP) system. They had previously been a first past the post, two party entrenched system but this was changed in the early 1990s. There are about one hundred and twenty (120) seats for contestation in each election. In an MMP representation system smaller parties have the potential to become ‘king makers’ if the larger parties do not win an overwhelming majority of the votes. In the case of New Zealand even though the incumbent National Party won more votes than the Labour Party, neither won a clear majority; by themselves they could not therefore have formed the government. Two smaller parties won enough of the votes to ensure that the two major parties would need their support to form the new government. To form the coalition government The New Zealand Labour Party joined forces with the New Zealand First Party and the Green Party to form the government. With all their seats combined – Labour party with 36.9% of the votes and 46 seats, New Zealand’s First Party with 7.2% of the votes and nine (9) seats and the Green Party with 6.3% of the votes and eight (8) seats joined forces to form the coalition government, which now has a sixty-three (63) seat majority and 50.4% of the votes. Though her party did not win a majority of the seats so that she would have had her own mandate, her leadership of the Labour Party was what pulled them back from the brink of political obscurity after languishing under the leadership of Andrew Little. She has been described as convincing and charismatic and the ‘Jacinda effect’ became the highlight of the election.

If we look closely enough and if we think hard enough about it, this wave of election of younger politicians to leadership: Macron at 39, Trudeau at 45, Holness, 43 and now Jacinda Ardern at 37; could be interpreted as a rejection of the staid, boring and status quo preserving politics of old men. Can I conclude that voters are tired of political leadership that is more focused on the preservation of traditions, institutions and systems and less on people and the politics of well being and progress? Patriarchy is typically hostile to younger men and women in general, would it make sense for me to ask if this could be a ‘middle finger’ in the face of patriarchal leadership and perhaps a decisive indication that voters are tired of ‘muscular’ politics which is tough on talk and soft on action. Are voters asking for a more responsive looking and sounding government? The jury is out, but there are a number of factors which can be assessed in an attempt to arrive at a true assessment of what is at hand. what I know for sure is that no one saw ‘Jacindarama’ coming. She took the world by surprise, perhaps when we stop being amazed at the lows to which American politics can go we will look to places like New Zealand and find a woman leader who in her own indomitable style has put a serious crack in the women and political leadership glass ceiling.

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