Political pregnancies and Opposition renewal in New Zealand

Feb 20, 2018

Political pregnancies are the subject of public debate on both sides of the Tasman.  In Australia, the Deputy Prime Minister faces a career crisis over his indiscretions.  In New Zealand, the Prime Minister is due to give birth in June. 

In Australia the debate is about whether the Deputy Prime Minister deserves to keep his perks, privileges and power or be dumped. In New Zealand there is enthusiastic support for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s situation.  Columnists wrote about “our Royal baby”.  Jacindamania became Jacindababymania.  When asked if she would keep working, Ardern said she is pregnant, not incapacitated.

At the risk of introducing a negative note, observers might ask some awkward questions. After September’s election held under New Zealand’s Mixed Member Proportional electoral system, the role of King- (or Queen-) maker fell to the leader of a very small party holding the balance of power (7%), Winston Peters of New Zealand First.  

Ardern knew she was pregnant on 13 October and told her partner Clarke Gayford.  She said she used Facebook’s video function to tell him the news.  They celebrated with hamburgers and flowers from the corner shop.  On that date negotiations between Peters and the two main parties were still in progress.  Ardern says she didn’t tell anyone around the negotiating table about the pregnancy.  That includes Winston Peters.  Should he have been told?  Would it have affected his decision about which side to support?

Ardern would have had a dilemma.  The early stages of a pregnancy are uncertain, but other major factors should have weighed heavily in favour of telling Peters.  He was about to make an historic decision which in the event favoured the party with fewer seats (but potentially more minor party support) than the governing National Party (which actually received more votes overall).  Peters would have had to consider whether to back a pregnant Prime Minister.  Should he have been told in advance that he would be acting Prime Minister for six weeks from the due date in June?  Should he have known he was about to elevate an expectant single woman to the top job?

A suspicion of duplicity surrounds the decision not to tell Peters, but telling him would have made his decision more complicated.  Under New Zealand law it is illegal to discriminate against women job applicants on the grounds of pregnancy or any gender specific issues, and the knowledge of the pregnancy would have complicated an already difficult political process.  

Unlike Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister’s situation, Ardern and Gayford’s domestic arrangements appear to be free of hypocrisy and deceit.  Ardern’s child will be born into an apparently stable, warm relationship. Ardern and her partner (the star of a TV fishing programme) have agreed Gayford will be the house-husband while Ardern is a busy with her job.  Ardern has already said there will be plenty of help for him.  It is unlikely he or the Prime Minister will ever have to change a nappy if they don’t want to.  The child’s comfort and welfare are assured.

Ardern will be an inspiration for the many women who may fear being turned down for top jobs because they are of childbearing age.  Childbearing Prime Ministers are rare.  The only other example was Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto who was assassinated in 2007.  She was the first modern head of state to give birth while in office.

While nature takes its course in the Prime Minister’s suite in Wellington, the leader of the losing National Party has been brought down.  The former Prime Minister and Opposition leader Bill English last week resigned as leader.  English is a decent and intelligent man, a farmer from the deep south of the country, but he has twice failed to win an election as leader of the party.  He leaves politics on March 1.  He lacked the charisma of Ardern but there’s no evidence it was entirely his fault that Winston Peters chose to side with Labour. National’s campaign Manager Steven Joyce (no known relationship to Barnaby) did more harm than good among voters and alienated Peters during last year’s campaign.

On 27 February the 56 members of the National Party Caucus will choose the new Leader of the Opposition from, at the time of writing, a field of three.  Judith Collins, commonly known as “Crusher Collins”, is a willing brawler.  When asked if she would stop backstabbing Ardern, she said “no problem. I stab from the front.”  She is hard core conservative but her behaviour has caused problems for her party leaders in the past.  So far she’s the bookies’ favourite. Amy Adams has handled major portfolios as a cabinet minister under John Key and Bill English and could rise to the occasion as Opposition leader if she gets the chance. The third candidate, Simon Bridges, would be the first Maori leader of the National Party.  He has handled some major portfolios including Transport and has the wit to lead an opposition.  

Whoever wins will find it difficult to tarnish the brilliant polish and smooth competence of New Zealand’s Prime Minister and her government.  Ardern has been interviewed and photographed for the March edition of Vogue magazine which describes her as the “anti-Trump”.  The Opposition will find it difficult to get traction against such star-like qualities and international credibility.

During last year’s election campaign the Labour party published a plan for its first hundred days in government.  It has accomplished all of them and they say they have paid for it all by “fiscal responsibility” and by cancelling a tax cut promised by the National Party. Their achievements include progress on passing a families’ package through Parliament to help lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty and improve the income of over three hundred thousand families.  The Government has committed to equal pay for women and raised the minimum wage. Paid Parental Leave will increase from 18 weeks to 22 weeks in July this year and then to 26 weeks from 2020. They have committed to building 100,000 more homes, taken steps to increase the number of state (social) houses and introduced a bill to guarantee that rental properties are warm and dry. Climate change is a major priority of the government and it has moved to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  They’ve banned microbeads. There will be a ministerial inquiry into mental health, an inquiry into the historical abuse of children in state care and legislation to legalise medicinal cannabis. Government contributions to the Cullen fund (the sovereign fund to help pay for pensions in the future) have been resumed and a tax working group will look into the fairness of the tax system.  Major changes are likely to result.

Ardern’s coalition of many hues has developed a reputation for speaking plain English and for doing what they say.  Their work rate so far has been prodigious.  The Prime Minister’s confidence and vitality suggest that giving birth in June is unlikely to be a problem. Instead there may be more serious challenges ahead if the National Party Opposition is reborn and reinvigorated under its still unknown new leader.

Max Hayton is a New Zealand journalist with parliamentary and international experience. 


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