Performative Caring

SKY NEWS AUSTRALIA has reformulated Jacinda Ardern’s championing of “kindness” as “performative caring”. While the network has long displayed a strong right-wing bias, its derogatory re-casting of the New Zealand Prime Minister’s “brand” may nevertheless strike a chord with the growing number of her detractors on this side of the Tasman.

Sky News’ owners have a very real interest in undermining Ardern’s support in New Zealand. While she remains the Shaky Isles’ prime minister she will continue to remind Australian voters of what they do not have – likeable politicians. It’s a comparison Australian conservatives could do without. Especially when it encourages Aussie voters to focus on the extraordinary unloveliness of the Liberal and National parties’ leadership.

Hence Sky News’ willingness to do all it can to aid their ideological soulmates in the New Zealand Parliament. The sooner Ardern’s Gospel of Kindness is laid to rest, the sooner Australians can be reconciled to the unchangeable nature of the monstrous regiment of boofheads that has dominated their politics for decades.

It will be interesting to see if National and Act make use of the rhetorical gift Sky News’ Rita Panahi has given them. Of Iranian extraction, Panahi won her spurs as a right-wing political commentator by heaping criticism on the Islamic radicalism her family had fled. Now firmly ensconced in Rupert Murdoch’s stable of conservative columnists, Panahi’s ability to deliver political invective is not to be sneezed at. That said, however, echoing the Aussie sledges of a Kiwi PM may not be the most sensible way to win the hearts and minds of New Zealand voters.

Even if National and Act decline Sky News’ hatchet, there can be little doubt that the “performative caring” slur will spread rapidly: mostly by social media, but also through plain, old-fashioned word-of-mouth. That it will damage Ardern’s “brand” is indisputable. How could it not, when the Ardern Government’s successful demonstrations of practical kindness are so very thin on the ground?

Perhaps aware that it is not generally regarded as either fair or sensible for the journalists of one country to slag-off the prime-minister of that country’s oldest ally, Sky News’ morning line-up were careful to back their “performative caring” jibe with corroborative evidence. Panahi, in particular, pointed to Labour’s dismal failure to keep its promises to the New Zealand electorate. Not surprisingly, she homed-in on the Ardern Government’s failure to build the tens-of-thousands of affordable houses it had promised to supply.

New Zealanders could supply many more examples.

Where was the kindness – the empathy – in Health Minister Andrew Little’s blank refusal to acknowledge the obvious crisis gripping New Zealand’s health service? Where was even the most basic manifestation of political common sense? How is any government served by its ministers refusing to acknowledge truths plainly visible to the entire country?

Every New Zealander acquainted with reality knows that what the doctors and nurses are telling the news media is true. If they haven’t witnessed personally the tragic overloading of the country’s primary and emergency health services, then their family and friends have filled them in.

The fraught experience of operating well below optimum staffing levels is relived every day in their own workplaces. Between them, the Omicron variant of Covid-19 and the winter flu are infecting New Zealanders by the tens-of-thousands. Owners and managers are at their wits’ end, trying to keep their farms, factories, shops and offices functioning. They can all-too-easily imagine the stress of doctors and nurses struggling to do the same – only with the lives of their patients potentially at risk if they make the wrong decision.

Little’s refusal to accept the term “crisis” is, of course, entirely rational from a cynically political point of view. Were he to recognise it, he would then be morally obliged to take the necessary steps to fix it. And how could he possibly do that when the entire health system is in the midst of a complex restructuring process which he, himself, initiated?

To remove the enormous pressure on medical personnel would require immediate and effective action from the Department of Immigration, and the full co-operation of the gate-keeping professional bodies who have for far too long lorded it over the nation’s health system. With a clear-sighted grasp of the crisis, coupled with an iron will to overcome it, both of these objectives could be achieved. Now, if we could only lay our hands on a clear-sighted health minister with an iron will!

In 2020, Kiwis were bowled over by a government that actually delivered on its promise to fight the global Covid-19 pandemic with kindness. Astonished, they watched it slap down a business community demanding profits before people. Deeply impressed and appreciative, New Zealanders rewarded “Jacinda” and her Labour Government with an extraordinary election victory. And why not? Their government had not only cared, it had performed.

That was the secret sauce; the cipher key; the magic formula: telling people what you were hoping to do – and then asking them to assist you in making it happen. So long as the people remain at the heart of a Government’s performance, it cannot fail. If objectives aren’t being met, then go out and ask citizens for their help, listen to their advice, and back their assistance with dollars. For a few months this is exactly what Ardern did. It worked. And the country loved her for it.

The problem, of course, is that listening to the people can get a government into all kinds of trouble. It is also extremely difficult to sustain. It requires a very special political talent to recognise the voting public as the country’s most important interest group, especially when everybody else in the circle of power is telling you that it’s the business community, Treasury, the Reserve Bank, academic experts, the news media.

Turned out Ardern simply didn’t have enough of that special talent. Turned out 2020 was a fluke. Six months of genuine kindness was the most “Jacinda” could summon forth. And when she could no longer make it, she faked it.

Sadly, “performative caring” sums up Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Government very nicely.

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