A recent respondent on this blog referred to the “cult of Jacinda.” A cult? The dictionary defines ‘cult’ as devotion or worship of someone, with an added significant reference to a “transient fad.” So probably it’s a fair description although unlike religious cults, in Jacinda’s case, she’s not responsible for seeking or promoting it.
The fact is she’s a genuinely nice person and that comes through to the public; ergo their affection. That said she’s not the first New Zealand politician to stimulate such messiah-like adoration. Michael Joseph Savage certainly did with the working classes, it persisting long after his death.
In my young days I was obsessed with boxing. Back then it was dominated in its management and participation by Catholics, this before the influx of Islanders in the mid-1950s. Going to Catholic boxing mates’ homes was entering an alien world of crucifixes on the wall, and always, the stock photo of Savage in their hallways.
But nothing matches the fervour Rob Muldoon generated in 1974-6. He was a plain fare, highly intelligent straight talker who had a natural affinity with the “ordinary bloke” as he referred to the average man in the street, and as with Jacinda they sensed it. And like Jacinda he was quite at ease talking to them. But he never struck the same connect with the opposite sex, something I suspect is also true of Jacinda.
There are other commonalities. Both saw their stars soar in times of crisis with Rob’s an economic one and Jacinda, the corona health issue. Rob emanated an aura of economic competence which is what people sought. Conversely with the health crisis Jacinda delivered the needed empathy. Like everywhere then in the Western world, Rob dealt with the problems by an unimaginative persistence with the prevailing orthodoxy. But the world had changed, something he never recognised. As said, that wasn’t peculiar to New Zealand. The world was wallowing in an economic doldrum instigated by the oil price surge and soaring inflation and was being dealt with by hanging on in, and heavy state borrowing to see it through.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s with Reagan, Hawke, Thatcher, Douglas et al that the world woke to the shortcomings of big government and embraced the low direct tax, market economy. Eventually Rob’s star power waned, culminating ultimately in public contempt.
Currently Jacinda is following the same orthodox path with the covid crisis. That’s understandable and logical but it may prove, as with Muldoon, that it’s not the answer.
If for example, as is possible, no vaccine is successfully developed and the world continues to have periodic covid outbreaks, common-sense says we cannot persist with lockdowns. The social, health and economic toll would be horrendous.
Nevertheless, albeit on the economic front, that effectively is what Muldoon did, thereby compounding the problem. Should that covid scenario arise it will be a huge test of character whether Jacinda can make a bold decision. This of course assumes Labour wins the election.
It’s not a criticism but a fact that in achievement terms, Jacinda’s current star power is based on a mythology. Repeatedly we read of her brilliant handling of three crises. First the mosque massacre. Her reaction was widely (and ignorantly) praised. Urging New Zealand females to don headscarves in empathy, which sheep-like they did, was regrettable.
For the headscarf had become the symbol for young Muslim women everywhere to fight the oppression of their religion’s treatment of them. In the week our women dutifully donned headscarves, a prominent middle-aged Iranian woman lawyer was sentenced to 150 lashes followed by life imprisonment for defending young Iranian women who were rejecting the headscarf in protest.
To illustrate how things are changing on this front, even the despot currently ruling Saudi Arabia is urging Saudi women to burn their burkas and throw away their headscarves in his effort to modernise the Moslem culture.
The second momentous event Jacinda has been praised for was her handling of the White Island tragedy. Why? I’m damned if I know.
This is part of the contagious Messiah mythology. It’s virtually represented as if Jacinda told the volcano to stop being a naughty boy and cut out the eruptions. In fact she did nothing. Nor could she.
And now we have the pandemic.
Ludicrous praise has fallen her way for the “hard and fast” nonsense. In fact, the New Zealand reaction, in every single detail, was copied from other nations’ responses, which of course is not a criticism. The world was sailing in the dark and additionally, was confused by the multitude of academic experts voicing a rich variety of different response proposals.
In that respect we should not ignore the human factor. A hitherto totally unknown academic is suddenly thrust to the fore and finds him or herself a household name. It’s a reality, not cynicism when I say that’s not something people give up lightly; to the contrary, they have an interest in its continuation. This dominance in our news has brought about a climate of fear.
A recent statistics evidence-based article in the highly respected The Lancet revealed the odds of anyone under 50 dying from Covid-19 is less than being killed in a road accident. We know now who’s vulnerable and should target protection efforts on them.
Churchill acknowledged that in times of crisis, the public deify leaders. He scoffed at the saviour imagery he received after the war, once saying, “a Liverpool housewife could have done what I did”. As according to his closest advisor he was sensibly blind drunk most days during the war, doubtless that was correct.
So looking to history the current deification of Jacinda is explicable. As to its durability, history offers a less optimistic outlook, in New Zealand’s case with the derision subsequently heaped on Muldoon. The legacy of his orthodoxy was a massive state debt, as to an immensely greater degree will be the case with the virus. That said, the historically low, current near nil interest rates levels out the quantum significance.
The Nazis were defeated so Churchill’s nonsensical saviour reputation remained intact, but not so for the vanquished such as Hitler and Mussolini, hitherto accorded messiah status.
Ultimately, as with all human events the outcome will rest on chance, that is plain old luck.
In the case of Covid-19 that’s the possibility of a vaccine. But many experts are warning that may not eventuate. Should that be the case and we have third and subsequent virus waves, the true test of Jacinda’s leadership will arise as the messiah mythology, as with Muldoon, fades away.
Leadership is easy most of the time in a known world. But its calibre is only truly revealed in an unknown situation, as would be the case with Covid-19 given a no vaccine situation. In such a scenario closing down society is no answer.