On “Safe” Leadership

When I first caught the news that Prime Minister Ardern had resigned, it was on a messenger thread… I’d missed the earlier message and just caught the notification on my screen of the response by a cousin – it read: “No way… Ardern is gone??”

For a brief moment I didn’t want to click on it. My gut had dropped, and my mind raced ahead as time seemed to slow down.

I thought, for a brief horrifying moment, she had been killed.

Time caught up with itself as I clicked and scrolled up to see she had resigned – but I was left with the chill of how natural my assumption was, and the simple reflection of what must mean for her.

For the record, I do agree that Jacinda Ardern has been the best Prime Minister we have had. I don’t like the role of NZ Prime Minister, because I don’t like colonial governments – and so praising her as a good Prime Minister rings somewhat hollow. I’m extremely grateful that, in the current system, we had her in charge during the early stages of the pandemic – her counterpart would have overseen much more death. I’ve critiqued her as I would any other colonial leader, and all leaders should be open to critique. However what she has been subjected to over the past few years is not critique but violent, dehumanising, depraved attacks that, when boiled down, have little to do with her decisions so much as the fact that she is a woman who is not far-right.

Today, I’ve watched the speculation around her decision (most agree it’s at least in part due to the extreme misogyny) and the natural assessment of her performance. I’ve also watched Māori social media call up various Māori MPs to step into her role. I’ve read people question “is it time?”, “is New Zealand ready for a Māori Prime Minister?”. I guess given the strength of the Labour Maori Caucus there is some logic to even considering that question.

I’m at a loss, however, to understand why on Earth anyone would assume New Zealand is ready for a Māori Prime Minister in the current climate, given how we have allowed a white woman Prime Minister to be treated.

So we are on the same page – here is what I am referring to (please watch the clip and remember this is the toned-down version):

Now imagine that, every day of your life, for years. Not getting better, only getting worse. In all of the speculation about PM Ardern’s performance, we are missing what this is saying about US. We have allowed a Prime Minister to be subjected to an unprecedented level of violent, sexist attacks. As a nation, we have collectively failed to insist upon change. Racism plays a huge role in this too – a significant number of the more violent and worrisome attackers also subscribe to the “great replacement” theory, accusing Ardern’s government of allowing for a “Maori takeover”.

The truth of the matter is, for those of us who are committed to Mana Motuhake and Tiriti justice, Ardern presented a conundrum. She is progressive enough to avert radical decolonial change (she repeatedly dismissed the value and possibility of constitutional transformation) whilst still being politically wedded to a system that is overarchingly patriarchal, capitalist and colonial in nature. In no way did she deserve the treatment she was subjected to – and that treatment is also the natural distillation of the political system she has defended for a long time. A system that prioritises protection of patriarchal colonial privilege above all else. A system that would not provide protection for women (even its own leader) against extreme misogyny –- because it is inherently misogynist itself.

So when I hear my relations calling Māori MPs up to the role of Prime Minister, I recoil. If this is how a white woman is treated in the current political climate, what do you think a Māori Prime Minister will be subjected to – even moreso, a Wāhine Māori Prime Minister? If you need further explanation – check out the  recent findings from the Disinformation Project  which has tracked Wāhine Māori as the most targeted group for online hatred within New Zealand social media. The risk of a violent act would increase exponentially (and it is already quite high).

Even though there are Māori MPs in parliament right now that undoubtedly have the goods to lead – there is no way I would ask any Māori politician to step into that role right now, in the current climate. It’s physically perilous, mentally dangerous, and politically unwise. The center-right that drifted across to Labour for the past 2 elections is being courted back by the far right, and their own ingrained, normalised misogyny is their weakspot. The current polarization of NZ politics calls for a center-right male who doesn’t (by just existing) stoke toxic white male anxiety. If I were to make a call – I’d say it’s Andrew Little’s time to shine. Two elections ago, New Zealand wanted real change (and didn’t see that in Little – although I think he has become more seasoned through his more recent portfolios). One election ago, New Zealand wanted continued protection. This election, neither of those drivers are relevant. People have had more than enough change in recent years – hence why so many are willing to take risks with their own health as a pandemic still continues around them. Voters are looking for comfort, familiarity, and a sense of “returning to normal”. For all of the tumultuous times Ardern has led New Zealand through (and arguably because of them), she cannot be synonymised with normal. Normal and familiar, within the scope of the past 500 years, is a white, Christian, thin, abled, CIShet male. For Labour, Andrew Little is the safest option for holding on to the center right voterbase, and he will be attacked for many things, but not for merely existing.

But this cannot be our aspiration. What I have described above is a consequence of a deeply sick and harmful system that needs fundamental change. Regardless of how well Little would perform, it is supremely unjust that his gender, race, ability and sexual orientation – and what that means for his safety – should be the grounds upon which we appoint a leader. Tiriti justice does not look like a Māori Prime Minister within a Westminster parliamentary system designed to strip us of our rights and undo any progress every four years. Euro-parliamentary systems (and democratic capitalism) are deeply and inherently racist and misogynist and cannot help but beget further racism and misogyny.

A Tiriti centered political system, anchored with tikanga like manaakitanga, tauritetanga, and kaitiekitanga, would look after its leaders better, as well as looking after Aotearoa better. That is where we must set our sights. That is what Tiriti justice calls us to focus upon.

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