When grinners are winners
In the television debate phase of the election, anyone hoping for old-school policy analysis can probably pack up and go home right now.
Instead of offering relief from celebrity politics, television debates double down on it. It’s what they do. Is Jacinda Ardern too nice to govern? Is Bill English smiling because he’s a nice guy, or because he’s been schooled to smile and look peppy, regardless of what he’s saying? Helen Clark developed a similarly unnerving tendency to smile mid-sentence, regardless of what she was saying.
Content tends to go out the window when success is judged by soundbites and the degree of poise exhibited at the podium. In the process, the apparent disjunct between an allegedly ‘‘strong’’ economy and an economy that seems unable to deliver wage gains to most of us – let alone sizeable or sustainable gains in productivity – remains largely unexplored.
To be fair, some of this skittishness about engaging in meaty exchanges reflects the deliberate tactics of the candidates themselves. Since Ardern’s ascent to the leadership, Labour has chosen to pursue a single-mindedly positive approach that involves talking straight past the government. Instead, it has been seeking to engage with the public’s aspirations for something other than the status quo.
Similarly, National has chosen not to attack Ardern directly – lest this should alienate a public that plainly likes Ardern personally, whatever they think of the policies of the party she leads. In that respect, the attacks on Labour policy as ‘‘vague’’ and ‘‘confused’’ have been an attempt to disrupt Ardern’s relentless positivity, and draw her into conflict. Thus far, Ardern has declined to be drawn.
Amid this sparring, gender is a major, unspoken element. It always is, when female leaders are involved. Regardless of her competence, Clark was subjected to stereotyping over her deep voice, her childlessness. If anything, Ardern has been reverse stereotyped, as being excessively feminine. For years, her youthful attractiveness was equated with being a policy lightweight. Of late, her intentions about having children have also been queried, in ways unimaginable for a male politician.
During last week’s first television debate, gender expectations were also evident. Notably, in English’s mansplaining of the economy to Ardern, and in moderator Mike Hosking’s tolerance of long, uninterrupted statements by English and his greater willingness to interrupt and talk over Ardern. Women can expect no less, given how readily they’re deemed to be talking too much.
In sum, gender stereotypes also work against substantive debates about policy. Yet this is risky territory for National, as it tries to defend its voter base. Traditionally, messages about a strong economy have always resonated with male voters on the centre-right. Equally, Ardern’s messages on social divisions and the environment – affordable housing, river quality, climate change, opportunity – address what have always been greater concerns for women voters.
Currently, women on the centre-right are one of Labour’s main targets. How those women respond to Ardern may well decide the election outcome.
Briefly, John Key bridged the gap National previously had among women voters. Ardern is opening that gap up again, and National will need to be careful about how it frames its attacks on her credibility.