This week’s resignation of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, was something of a surprise, but for me not too surprising. Her reasons – not enough in the tank for another three-year term – were sound enough. If you haven’t got the energy left for the job, it’s professional to step down, and with an election in 11 months her party needed stability at the top well before the run-up to the polls. But I can’t help thinking about how hard a run Ardern has had of late in any case, thanks to the explosive and often mysogynistic hatred relentlessly levelled at her on local social media. This must, surely, have been an energy-sapping experience.
I should explain for my international readers: Arden has an enormous international profile globally as a progressive world leader. But in New Zealand she has become the focus of an incredible vortex of hate, mostly via social media. Some of it has been of incredible intensity: open abuse that is baseless, unjust, unfair and also relentless. Just the other week I read a lengthy diatribe masquerading as a feature article, penned by a gentleman whose surname reminds me of a woodlouse, in which he declared her the most evil person he’d ever met. I mean… what?
Such hatred is not rational, but it has become a persistent narrative on social media. What surprises me is the way Ardern has become the personal target. Prime Ministers have only rarely become the focus of serious public opprobium in the past. The last one I can think of is Robert Muldoon, the one-time accountant who was PM from 1975 to 1984 and can best be described as a political thug. He earned that opprobium through his bully-boy tactics, his open abuse of anybody who got in his way – journalists, commentators, other politicians – and his dictatorial style. That ended suddenly: one night Muldoon got drunk after arguing with one of his MP’s and called a snap election. Here’s the video. Spoiler: Muldoon lost.
But the annoyance directed at Muldoon has been nothing like the avalanche of hatred poured at Ardern, in her case mainly through social media that didn’t exist when Muldoon was in power. Ardern has basically been blamed for causing all New Zealand’s current problems. That, of course, is absurd. New Zealand’s current problems are a two-generation long outcome of the neoliberal revolution of the 1980s, a process that has steadily transferred money from the poor to the rich, that has under-funded essential infrastructure, and where public assets paid for by multiple generations of taxpayers have been handed over to private foreign enterprise, to be exploited by them for a profit.
We now have wide gulfs between rich and poor, a youth generation with no hope, and deep-seated infrastructure failures ranging from an ageing and over-capacity roading network to under-scale public health. Youth crime has soared by at least 30 percent of late: gangs of disaffected youths roam the streets in some areas at night, stealing cars with which to ‘ram raid’ retail premises, beating up passers-by and intimidating others. The main ‘gangs’ – the home of organised crime – are at war with each other over drug territories. It’s a problem that has been two generations in the making, and it will take at least two generations to fix. If it can be fixed.
Why target Ardern, then? I suspect part of the problem is frustration. People rendered powerless by the neo-liberal process want quick fixes. Ardern was originally seen as the one who could do it. Her government hasn’t delivered, in part because of a barrage of crises confronting the country – everything from a major terror attack to the Covid pandemic. But in any case, the inertia of two generations’ worth of neo-liberal juggernaut can’t be turned around overnight.
Couple that with the way Ardern took the lead in the Covid pandemic crisis – which kept New Zealand virus-free until third quarter 2021, buying time for vaccines and treatments to be developed; but where that was forgotten in the face of public health measures that the public swiftly wearied of, and where social media again played a significant part in spreading wild stories – and it’s easy to see how a public could turn on her. But this still doesn’t excuse the extent of the vitriol. All I can suppose is that social media has, once again, acted as both a mirror for the human condition – and a device to amplify the worst aspects. It’s not a good look.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2023