Madam President Jacinda Ardern

Too Right

A regular column by John Black

Rightminds.nz


Photoshopped image credit: Pixy

Last week, 1ZB carried a report on possums infesting the walls of the prime minister’s residence, Premier House. Of course, it didn’t take the possums’ side. Taking the marsupial’s point of view, the pests are our prime minister and her male companion. Oh, how the poor little buggers must suffer. The earnest discussions about feminism or the environment coming through the walls. The dance music. The complete lack of loosely tied supermarket plastic bags full of food scraps dumped outside for them to scavenge.

The title of this deeply-biased-against-possum-kind report was: ‘Noisy Intruders keeping the First Family Awake.’

First Family?

Sorry was there a coup I missed? Somewhere between Election day and now, did Cindy yell ‘Let’s do this’ and storm parliament buildings with a massed troop of jacindamaniacs and become president for life?

A ‘First lady’ and a ‘First Family’ belong to the presidential system. Our good old Westminster system is quite different, the prime minister being merely ’first among equals’ of their cabinet colleagues. The role evolved in Britain in the 18th century with the first prime minister recognized as Sir Robert Walpole. Walpole started chairing cabinet meetings and sitting in for King George II, when the monarch started spending all his time with his mistresses. The position has evolved since then and accrued considerable power. Prime ministers can hire and fire cabinet ministers, and they control the S.I.S but they still owe their position to a parliamentary majority and the confidence of their colleagues. Australians change theirs like Rod Stewart changes blondes. The Constitution Act of 1986 which codifies the conventions of government we inherited from Britain doesn’t even mention the position.

In Presidential systems like the American one, Presidents are not part of the executive, they are the executive. They command the armed forces and have the power to veto legislation and pardon their alcoholic brothers for drug offences (as Bill Clinton did). In Russia, they can annex the Crimea and put polonium-210 in their ex-employee’s Earl Grey.

The huge influence of American culture has led to some confusion about the two roles. The office of the U.S President was originally designed to take the place of a sovereign (George Washington turned down the offer to become king twice – what a man) and still has some residual royal trappings. Witness the ‘Camelot’ nonsense mythologizing that mad shagger J.F.K.

Our office of Prime Minister is a humbler position. Although lately, you wouldn’t know it. There is now an obsession with the personality of the prime minister that has a presidential tinge to it. It started with John Key but has surged into hyperdrive with Jacinda Ardern: the face that launched a thousand women’s magazine subscriptions. Her relative photogenicity is a key part of her popularity – her predecessor, Andrew Little always looked like a man suffering from serious dental trouble.

Such courting of the mass media is a recent phenomenon. Rob Muldoon for all his faults would never have appeared in a vogue fashion shoot, wearing a summer frock and opening up about the death of his pet cat.

Why the focus on the personal lives of politicians? Don’t ask me. I’m still wondering why so many people want to tune into TV programs about people baking. My mother used to bake a lot, but I don’t remember Dad ever sitting down with a six pack to watch her.

What it does for the politician is it increases their power. Theodore Roosevelt talked about the ‘Bully pulpit’, the power his position gave him to weigh in on public issues and be listened to. Last week Ardern did exactly this when excoriating oil companies and supermarket chains over their pricing. Although there is regulatory legislation coming – the Commerce Amendment Bill – she took the chance to do a bit of finger wagging at a few capitalists, knowing that the hoi polloi would eat it up.

The ancient Roman republic after suffering an early tyranny of kings ensured that their future rulers never assumed that title. After Julius Caesar, Roman leaders were called ‘Princeps civitatis’ (‘first citizen’) to ensure that a royal line would never be re-established.

When the media start calling little Neve, ‘princess’ we might have something to worry about.

 


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One of the only right-wing people in Education (we hold our meetings in a broom closet). I spend my nights drinking and working on the great New Zealand novel. I’m white, male and straight – so it’s all my fault. All of it.

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