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.

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