Oct 23, 2015 Politics
Illustration: Chewed Pencil Studio
What’s the difference between Jacinda Ardern and Helen Clark?
Given a certain event in England, it may currently be safe to say league is the inferior code, played by working-class barbarians (and extraordinarily talented millionaires). Certainly the idea that league goes with Labour and union goes with National has enough historic truth to be a cliché. Michael Joseph Savage was patron of the New Zealand Rugby League. David Lange served on its board.
Back in 1981, the new Labour MP for Mt Albert, 31-year-old Helen Clark, became patron of the Mt Albert Lions Rugby League Club. It’s hard to believe she was genuine. Did the young politics lecturer nip down to Fowlds Park after a day tackling Simone de Beauvoir to watch the boys training?
Even were she a true fan back then, Clark would not have been blind to the politics. The radical feminist daughter of National-voting Waikato dairy farmers (all feminists were “radical” in 1981), Clark would have known participation in the local league club would mitigate both flaws. The timing is also important: a Labour MP joining her local league club in 1981, the year of the Springbok tour, involved at least an element of protest.
Whatever its origins, the relationship grew into something honest and unaffected. When Clark became patron of the New Zealand Rugby League in 2002 — marked by a parliamentary event reported as involving “dressing-shed banter, colourful language, impromptu haircuts” and Mad Butcher Peter Leitch using a few “bloody oaths” — the then Prime Minister could tease the legendary Stacey Jones that she remembered awarding him trophies when the Lion was knee-high.
In 2007, the equally legendary Steve Price declared “Clarkie” to be “a mad league girl”. A few weeks earlier, she had stopped by at the club to award certificates to the Under-6s, for which Price’s son played.
The relationship has endured. It was less than two years ago I had a jug at the club, where some of the talk would no doubt be regarded by Clark as sexist and “colourful”. But it would not be safe to speak ill of its much-loved patron.
And it is surely plausible Clark’s 34-year commitment to the club and the generations of boys who have passed through has made them better, more-balanced, less-sexist men than they might otherwise have been. They’d still comment on a hot girl but they’d know she could make a fine prime minister.
Recently, the also-legendary Graham Lowe endorsed Clark’s protégée, Auckland Central MP Jacinda Ardern, for prime minister. “She speaks pretty smart, I think,” he said with the oratorical elegance expected of a 68-year-old rugby league hero. Lowe also called her a “pretty little thing”.
It is true Ardern, like National’s Simon Bridges, is easier on the eye than most MPs. Neither should flatter themselves they were chosen to be TVNZ’s “young guns” from the parliamentary class of 2008 for anything other than their pretty faces. It’s what an MP makes of such opportunities that matters.
In Bridges’ case, he levered the attention to join Steven Joyce and Amy Adams as the only MPs from that intake to make it on to John Key’s front bench and to occasionally get a decimal point or two as preferred prime minister.
Arguably, Ardern has done better. While making no important contribution in her portfolio work, she has built her profile and now ranks fourth behind Key, Andrew Little and Winston Peters in the preferred prime minister stakes. But pretty faces get you only so far. Bridges will be judged on whether he modernises Auckland’s transport system. Ardern should be judged on whether she has leadership qualities.
The answer is a resounding no. When someone says publicly they believe you would make a good prime minister — especially someone with Lowe’s following among your party’s voting base — it’s best to be gracious. Instead, Ardern tweeted that she hoped he’d be kicked in the shins with pointy shoes. In contrast, Lowe apologised for how he expressed himself on live radio and said he was just trying to compliment her as “the full package — smart and compelling to watch and listen to”.
In this, the league hero is quite wrong. Ardern has demonstrated she has no political acumen at all. As a politician, she judged expressing offence in the instant to be more important than the 100-year connection with Labour’s league-playing voters. As a feminist, she lost an opportunity to engage positively with Lowe on his language about women.
Whether the 35-year-old is a pretty little thing is in the eye of the beholder. She’s definitely turned out to be pretty bloody stupid.