Looking back once on the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the American novelist Saul Bellow remembered a late summer evening in Chicago in the 1930s, when he was a young man. Roosevelt had become president at a time of enormous crisis, when the United States, like New Zealand and other countries, was gripped by its worst economic depression – so bad that one of Roosevelt’s first actions in office was to temporarily shut down the entire banking system in order to stabilise it. In a political masterstroke he also began what came to be called “fireside chats”, evening radio talks broadcast to the nation from the White House, in which he explained what the government was doing, and why.
There was no television then, and most major newspapers were hostile to his presidency, so it was a brilliant (and pioneering) way of reaching voters without interruption or interference. The millions who tuned in were able to feel, in turn, that they had a direct line of communication from their president: it was as if he were talking to each of them individually.
That summer evening, when it was still light after 9pm, Bellow was walking along one of the tree-lined streets that runs through Chicago’s Midway Park, and under the elms, he wrote, “Drivers had pulled over, parking bumper-to-bumper, and turned on their radios to hear Roosevelt. They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. Everywhere the same voice … You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by. You felt joined to these unknown drivers, men and women smoking their cigarettes in silence, not so much considering the President’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and taking assurance from it.”
In this memorable image, Bellow captured one of those rare moments when a country’s people are united in a common response. Moments, you might say, when a nation becomes conscious of itself as a nation – when virtually everybody is on the same wavelength, and the many become one. At the first moon landing in 1969, there was perhaps even a moment when the people of the whole world felt like that. Maybe it also happens in war, particularly when a nation’s very existence is threatened by a formidable enemy.
In it together
The unexpected deaths in office of popular leaders can do it, too: think John F Kennedy or Norman Kirk. And, perhaps especially for smaller nations like New Zealand, great sporting success can do it, too – as on September 2, 1960, when within an hour of each other Peter Snell and Murray Halberg won gold medals at the Rome Olympics. As a boy then, I remember how thrilled and proud the whole country was. There were not even 21/2 million of us then.
After Kirk’s death in 1974, though, it did not really happen again in New Zealand until March 2020 – a time that has already taken on the coloration of ancient history, even myth. The first lockdown. Level 4. The deserted streets, the shuttered shops. The silence of the cities. A two-month nationwide lockdown. We were all in it together; and we accepted being in it together. No protest. No dissident voices. This was a life-or-death matter – and we, the people, chose life. The prime minister said go home, take care, be kind, stay out of trouble, wait until I say it’s safe to come out again. We listened, and we obeyed.
As with the Americans and Roosevelt, we affirmed the rightness of her tone and took assurance from it. In those first fraught weeks, Jacinda Ardern spoke for us. She was us. Government and people were one.
For a while, that huge mass experience kept most New Zealanders bound in a common purpose. Two sealants did the binding. One was the series of daily 1pm briefings by the prime minister and the director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield. For much of 2020 and 2021, those briefings were almost mandatory viewing. The other binding factor was the regular release of statistics showing New Zealand’s low infection and mortality rates.
Incredibly, at a time when Covid was killing thousands in places like Italy and Spain, there were days in New Zealand when the Ministry of Health was able to report “no active cases”. Not a single one. By the time of the general election in October 2020, when 1.1 million people in other countries had died of the coronavirus, New Zealand’s death toll was 24.
The nation rewarded Ardern for that, sweeping Labour to an unprecedented victory. Many National Party diehards were so impressed with her – one might even say charmed by her – that they switched their vote. All seemed set fair for Labour to govern for at least two more terms.
Well, we all know what has happened since. By the time of the next election, Ardern was already gone, and her party stumbled to a messy defeat. The mood of oneness had been shattered. Less than 16 months after the 2020 election, Parliament grounds were occupied by thousands of people who appeared to believe they were living under a fascist regime led by an insufferable dictator. Having lain relatively low in the run-up to the election, these people (and their less-visible backers) now turned on Ardern like a pack of snarling wolves. In the tunnels and rabbit holes of social media they called her everything from a cockroach to a c***, depicted her as the Devil incarnate, threatened torture, rape and execution.
It’s abundantly clear that no New Zealand leader has ever been the target of such vicious, violent abuse – from, of course, people so proud of their forthright views that they wouldn’t put their names to them.
The occupation could be attributed to many factors, but not to the fact that the Covid infection and death rates eventually began to rise; that didn’t really happen until 2022. The striking thing about the occupation, in fact, was that it had virtually nothing to do with the actual pandemic. The predominant motive was rage at having been told what to do, particularly when it came to vaccination.
It seemed that thousands and thousands of people (not all of us by any means, but enough to poison the air) had so hated having their lives saved and their health preserved that they simply had to take revenge on the person who had most publicly striven to save them. As if her attempts to be kind and protective were an insult to their rugged individualism. As if someone else presumed to know better than they did. How outrageous was that? So, having been saved, they turned on their saviour.
Is that why Ardern had to be punished? Is that why one of the most popular and internationally admired New Zealand politicians of recent years was driven out of office? Or was it that we just couldn’t stand being united for one microsecond longer? A nation that wished to take a long, hard look at itself would at least try to answer those questions. But commentary on it has been skimpy, and public debate nonexistent.
The curious thing is that governments tell us what to do most of the time – it’s a large part of their job description – and unless we want to break the law, we obey them. We’ll pay our taxes, put on our seatbelt, put out the cigarette, fill out the forms required to get benefits, permits, passports, etc.
We can’t drive down a city street or rural highway without relying on and trusting a vast network of traffic organisation. We can’t come and go from the country without the government’s say-so. I may have missed something while doing a cryptic crossword, but I don’t recall thousands occupying Parliament grounds choleric with fury about having to stop at red lights or put on their seatbelt.
Maybe something more was involved here. Maybe several currents converged to create the momentum for the occupation of Parliament grounds in February 2022. One was undoubtedly imitation, particularly the angry truck drivers blocking streets in the centre of the Canadian capital a month earlier and the Capitol insurrection in Washington DC the previous year. These events clearly motivated certain New Zealanders: like, if it was okay to behave that way in DC and Ottawa, it was okay to do so in Wellington, too.
But a deeper kind of imitation was also at play. The feverish mood of the occupation was like a second pandemic: a virus of rage and resentment at the soulless neoliberal politics of the professional managerial class infected a large part of the population.
It went wider than the actual occupation, which was tacitly endorsed by far more people than those who filled Parliament grounds. It was, in fact, reinforced by the silence of those who privately abhorred the occupation (where was the counter-protest, the formation of action groups standing up against the occupiers?) and by the government’s reluctance to take swift action against it from the outset.
Misogyny to the fore
Since the 2023 election, it has become common to attribute Labour’s defeat to the anger felt by Aucklanders about the lockdown to which their region was specifically subjected during the Delta outbreak in September-October 2021. This, so the story goes, really pissed them off. Like, one major lockdown was okay, but two? Hence the loss of several Auckland seats traditionally held by Labour. But the swing against Labour was not confined to Auckland: it ran right through the country. So that can’t be the only reason.
Nor can it be argued that Ardern was forced to resign because people felt disenfranchised and powerless, frustrated by a government seemingly beholden to spin doctors, consultants and neoliberal bean-counters. It’s true that a similar reaction in the US had led to the election of Donald Trump, but countries with similar neoliberal cultures to New Zealand (Britain and Australia, for instance) experienced no occupations even though their responses to the pandemic were less impressive than ours. Could that possibly have been because their leaders were male (Boris Johnson, Scott Morrison) and their governing parties right-wing (Conservative, Liberal-National)?
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the political style, person and above all the very gender of Jacinda Ardern were provocation enough for the occupiers and those who covertly backed them. After all, nothing so extreme was directed at the two other most prominent figures in the fight against Covid: Bloomfield and then-Health Minister Chris Hipkins. The vilest social media abuse is usually directed at women, and when the woman in question is the leader of a country, misogyny not only rears its head but spits venom and sicks up all over your shoes.
This is not to downplay or dismiss criticism of the Labour government’s performance in office, or indeed of Ardern’s own political performance. The fundamental question remains: why was she driven from office? Why her?
Leaving Parliament in April 2023, Ardern ended her long valedictory speech with these words: “You can be anxious, sensitive, kind, and wear your heart on your sleeve, you can be a mother or not, you can be an ex-Mormon or not, you can be a nerd, a crier, a hugger – you can be all of these things, and not only can you be here, you can lead. Just like me.”
Let’s hope she’s right. Because, in the end, she was no longer able to lead while being those things. But the politics of compassion that she practised (not only when Covid struck but also, of course, after the mosque massacres) may yet have the last word. And the folk memory of her response to the first lockdown will have entered the national subconscious, and may yet play out in unforeseeable ways. Put it this way: the British electorate voted Winston Churchill out of office as soon as World War II was over but the memory of what he did in the country’s darkest hour, the abiding image of what he stood for – freedom, democracy, resistance to evil, among other things – never went away. It remains embedded in the British national consciousness, however traduced by Churchill’s successors, however flawed Churchill himself was in other respects.
So it may be with the memory of Ardern in some of this nation’s darkest hours. The best leaders make us feel bigger than ourselves, make you feel like a better person living in a better world. At those times, she did that. And, like Churchill, though on a far lesser scale, she saved lives. How soon has that been forgotten? There are people walking among us who would not be alive today (20,000 of them, by a recent scientific estimate) had Ardern’s government not taken the swift, decisive action it did in March 2020. We should thank her, not vilify her. I will, anyway. Thank you, Jacinda Ardern. You did the right thing. You did good. We’ll remember your kindness long after the posturing and prattling of lesser leaders has died away.
Denis Welch is a former Listener political columnist. His most recent book, We Need to Talk About Norman: New Zealand’s Lost Leader, was published in June.