Dr Liz Gordon: The Prime Minister and the people

One of the national characteristics of New Zealanders is that we are very open and direct in our communication.  While our new world directness causes frowns in the ancient precincts of Europe, where obfuscation and prevarication are the norm, I think it is one of our great strengths. 

It is certainly one of the Prime Minister’s best features.  From the first time I heard her speak, well before she became PM, her leadership and clear thinking were really impressive. She is quite a small woman, but with a powerful presence, enhanced further by her elevated position.

My friends on this blog have begged Jacinda not to go to Auckland, fearing a Dallas moment. I was 8 when Kennedy was assassinated, and yes, I can clearly picture where I was, mostly because of the dismay of my father as we watched our tiny (by today’s standards) black and white TV.  

Jacinda was, of course, not born when Kennedy was killed.  So should she take the advice of my friends, and stay away from Auckland, for fear of succumbing to violent assault from one of Bomber Bradbury’s colourfully-named splinter groups?

I think not.  It won’t help her, or the country, for her to stay away.  Remember when Helen Clark eschewed Waitangi?  In my view it was her weakest moment.  If you are going to be PM of a people, then you have to be able to stand up to all those people.

I watched the media footage at Whanganui several times. There is a shot used by Stuff that shows the protest there. The front row starts with a woman in a walking frame, another with a megaphone, two other women and four children.

The signs said things like “When we trade freedom for safety, we lose”, which, however inaccurate, is not the most disturbing of messages.  Thinking back to the US Congressional attack of 6 January, where signs said “Hang Pence” etc, the protest was positively rational.

And, frankly, to view Hunterville as a threat to anything (except, perhaps, methane emissions) is pushing things a bit far.

In those towns, the threat was not to Jacinda’s safety.  The key problem is the perception that Jacinda comes off worst in a street confrontation with shouting protestors.  But there are myriad ways to manage that.  Invite a few of the protestors for a cup of tea and hear their concerns, and give her viewpoint. Here is the PM trying to change opinions one person at a time, something many of us have been doing for weeks. Doing it on telly can only increase her mana.

My friends also say that it is only recently that Jacinda has been allocated full time security details.  Well, if she has those, then they should be using the normal practice of such people: limit the threat, do in-depth contingency planning, and shield when necessary.  It is not rocket science, really. Staying away might be good for security but it is terrible politics.

Jacinda must not appear to be too scared to go to Auckland.  A carefully-planned visit there, beautifully scripted (and her press team undoubtedly know their stuff), going to all the important places, having her say, letting some of them have their say, fronting protestors and then dealing with them with humour, openness and her great leadership qualities would Teflon coat her for years.

Staying away from Auckland at this point, hiding away from the people, is the worst thing she can do.  What if she dies, I hear you say.  What if Auckland is Jacinda’s Dallas?  Well, you know, there is risk everywhere.  Sometimes a risk is worth taking. It is not irresponsible to have Jacinda travel to Auckland.  It is her job.  It is also her hometown. She should encourage a few of her own supporters (not too many, we don’t want a vaccine war in Queen Street) to walk with her.

Stand tall, Jacinda.  Meet your people on their ground.  Talk to them.  Turn them around. Tama tū, tama ora, tama noho, tama mate.


Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.

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