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19 January 2018

What the reaction to Jacinda Ardern’s pregnancy reveals about New Zealand

Ardern – young, charismatic, glamorous, unwed, funny, great at social media – seems to represent a new spirit.

By Kieran O'Halloran

This week, New Zealand Labour Party Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced she was pregnant with her first child. She will be the first leader, in modern times, of a Western nation to give birth whilst in office. The reaction in New Zealand, and the coverage to come, tells us a lot about the politics and the preoccupations of a small, nimble society, but one where vestiges of a less permissive era remain.

It is perhaps appropriate that Ardern is from New Zealand, the first country to enfranchise women, and one which introduced a system of family allowances a generation before most European countries. Yet despite its progressive reputation, as a former resident of both countries, New Zealand often reminded me of another country I was resident in: Ireland, a similarly rainy country with a similarly small population.

Like Ireland, New Zealand inherited the institutions of the modern state from the British colonists, and used this institutions to construct developmentally precocious forms of social protection. But like Ireland, too, New Zealand does retain a conservative undercurrent. Abortion remains, in law if not in practice, heavily restricted. Labour MPs in deprived South Auckland avoid talking about their votes for gay marriage on the doorstep. And don’t expect to buy a drink on Good Friday.

During the 2017 election campaign, Ardern faced repeated questions about her plans for children. Seven hours after her elevation to the leadership, she was asked if she felt she had to choose between motherhood and her career. Given her position, it was inferred she might have already made that choice. Cameron Slater, a sort of Kiwi Guido Fawkes, suggested her possession of the shadow children’s portfolio was incompatible with her childlessness.

In the end, though, Ardern’s win seemed like a death knell for such attitudes. The party often characterised as conservative, New Zealand First, is better defined by a broad contrarianism and a small-town caution. Winston Peters, its charismatic and unorthodox leader, currently serves as deputy Prime Minister. The party’s demands for the referendum on smacking did not survive the churn of coalition negotiations, and they may never be revived. More than that, Ardern herself – young, charismatic, glamorous, unwed, funny, great at social media – seemed to represent this new spirit.

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The reaction of the press to Ardern’s announcement confirms a new spirit of toleration, if not complete liberalism. The New Zealand Herald, which leads the mainstream press, is politically anodyne. Some columnists suggested Ardern should have made the announcement earlier, another suggested, in short, that since it was going to happen anyway, better now than in the lead up to the 2020 election. So far, so bland. But New Zealand has an unusually influential and well-read blogosphere, in which right wing views predominate, and it was here that one might have expected criticism to coalesce. Slater has said nothing at the time of writing. David Farrar, a more leve-headed blogger who is nonetheless a harsh critic of Labour, cautiously welcomed the announcement. However, it may be that Ardern’s popularity insulates her against the possibility of criticism, and that, should the government stumble, the right will, albeit insidiously, link its difficulties to Ardern’s motherhood.

That notwithstanding, most of the commentary will concern the politics of motherhood more broadly, and not the politics of Ardern’s motherhood per se. Ardern has announced she will take six weeks’ maternity leave upon giving birth. Expect a debate about New Zealand’s pitiful arrangements for parental leave to ensue. The 18 weeks paid leave granted to new mothers is one of the lowest rates in the OECD, although the amount paid compares a little better. Fathers do not get any paternity pay, and in some cases are restricted to just a fortnight of unpaid leave.

In Ardern’s absence, Winston Peters will be Acting Prime Minister. He is known to covet the top job, and his critics greeted the news with some alarm. Whilst he will see his six weeks as an audition for the top job, the cabinet manual restricts the power of the Acting Prime Minister, which will make it harder for him to grab headlines. And what’s more, in a country with less monarchist fervour than most of the commonwealth, Ardern’s child will be the real royal baby, and the resultant media coverage will make it feel like she never really went away.

Kieran O’Halloran is the former Auckland campaign organiser for the New Zealand Labour Party. Follow him @kmjohalloran

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