Every time I read another excitable media article about New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern, I am reminded of an old quip: ‘Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful.’ That was Publius Cornelius Tacitus (AD 58-120). Were this Roman intellectual and historian alive today, he would make a great New York Times columnist. His tactic was to spin political and historical analogies so they could influence public affairs back home.
Tacitus’s Germania, for example, was about framing the Germanic tribes as a noble culture so that his Roman compatriots would recognize their own society as corrupt and decadent in contrast. The only problem was that Tacitus had never crossed the Rhine. That did not matter much: most Romans had not traveled far north either.
That is happening again, except this time New Zealanders are the noble savages being lovingly invented by global columnists. Hardly any of these writers actually live in New Zealand or understand it. Their op-eds reveal more about them than the country they purport to write about. In normal circumstances, this would not be a problem. But over the past few years, Jacinda Ardern has risen to international stardom. Her rise was based on remote reporting by a progressive world media thirsting for a noble alternative to strongmen leaders.
Anyone wishing for an anti-Trump, an anti-Johnson or an anti-Bolsonaro could not dream up a more suitable figure than Ardern. If she did not exist, she would have to be invented. She ticks all the boxes. As a young woman who became prime minister at the age of 37, she is one of the world’s first millennial heads of government. She is only the second world leader to give birth in office (the first was Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan).
Ardern’s political tenure is soaked in progressive holy water. The list of her adopted causes is long. She cited child poverty as her reason for entering politics. When she first ran for prime minister in 2017, she declared climate change her ‘generation’s nuclear free moment’. In early 2019, she promised in the Financial Times to champion a new ‘economics of kindness’. This was demonstrated shortly afterwards in the world’s first ‘well-being budget’.
Ardern has become the media’s poster child of a modern, centre-left politician, not least thanks to her expertise in communicating to every audience. Whether it is a Facebook Live broadcast from her home in her pyjamas or a traditional press conference, Ardern oozes a highly personalised brand of warmth, kindness and empathy.
This PR dexterity helped her steer through two major first-term crises. She found the right words to heal a shocked nation after a terrorist attack on the Christchurch Muslim community in March 2019. Last year, her near-daily TV appearances guided Kiwis through the first months of the coronavirus crisis.
For people watching from afar and sick of dealing with mortal, flawed and ineffective leaders, Ardern’s superheroine star shines bright. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt revealed in The Righteous Mind, we wish for things to be true, and no amount of counter-evidence will change our minds. Ardern is lucky that humans have this mental bug because on practically every single metric her administration has failed.
She wanted to solve New Zealand’s housing crisis by building 100,000 homes over a decade. This unworkable state-run program was abandoned after two years, and house prices have skyrocketed faster than before. A promised light-rail connection from Auckland’s central business district to the airport met the same fate: the project was scrapped before it even started. Child poverty also rose under Ardern’s leadership, as did carbon emissions. The so-called ‘wellbeing budget’ earmarked funds to fix mental health — but has still not found any projects on which to spend the money.
Even in the two major crises, actual policy implementation differed immensely from the PR-shaped perception. A gun buyback scheme after the Christchurch attack was a costly fiasco. And the country’s success against Covid-19 was more a result of geography than policy. The government failed to manage even basic quarantine facilities.
In the 2020 election campaign, Ardern should have struggled to explain why her grand promises had so utterly failed. Except no one demanded any accountability, and Ardern cruised to an absolute majority based on her saintly image. Ordinary Kiwis, unused to being the global centre of attention, also desperately want this internationalist narrative to be true.
The gap between people’s impression of Ardern and her actual performance as a leader has widened to a gulf. So long as enough modern Tacituses write gushing Ardern portraits, her superstar status will not change.
Oliver Hartwich is executive director of the New Zealand Initiative, a Wellington-based think tank. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2021 US edition