Lady of the rings

  • New Zealand’s Prime MinisterJacinda Arden talks about being only the second world leader to give birth
- MAUREEN DOWD

Sep 11, 2018-

When she took office last October at 37, JacindaArdern was celebrated with sunny abandon as New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in 150 years and only the second world leader (after Benazir Bhutto in 1990) to give birth and the first to take maternity leave. She was going to be able to run a country and nurse a baby at the same time —without a nanny or a wedding ring! Why had it taken us so long to realize how seamless it could all be?

Then Ardern took her first official trip since she gave birth to her daughter, Neve, 11 weeks ago and the fantasy of easy equality evaporated.

She has been forced to justify abbreviating her trip to the Pacific Islands Forum on the island of Nauru from three days to one, flying separately from her foreign affairs minister, Winston Peters, on an Air Force jet—at a cost of about $50,000 in American dollars—so that she could breast-feed her daughter. Neve was too young to get the vaccinations necessary to go along. Even though Ardern had to fly there in the middle of the night and fly back a day later in the middle of the night, she wanted to attend because all Kiwi prime ministers consider it a can’t-miss; and also because she didn’t want to seem like she was shying away from an ongoing debate with Australia, as she tries to rescue refugees from the hideous holding facilities in Nauru, the shame of Australia.

Critics said Ardern should have gone for the whole three days or just stayed home and left the duties to Peters, who was “more than capable of holding court with all the local leaders over a drink at happy hour,” as the morning TV host Duncan Garner huffed.

Never mind that in a nation dependent on tourism, Jacinda is the biggest thing to hit here since Frodo dropped the ring into Mount Doom. Her ministers had to defend her.

 “This is an aircraft and a crew who would be working anyway,” Grant Robertson, the finance minister, told the press. “We allocate a certain amount of money to them each year, so it’s either this flight or another flight.’’

And Peters told me that he knew of an instance when a man in government here “with less authority and status who did that and no media beat him up. She should ignore the craven, cowardly trolls.”

But she is not ignoring the trolls. When I met her at her gray frame bungalow, a few hours after she got home, she was handing off her big black briefcase to an aide at the door, breast-feeding her daughter and anguishing about what she calls her “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” moment.

“What surprised me the most is how hard I took that, being given a hard time for going, but actually it did upset me a bit,” she said. “In New Zealand, we’re really careful about excess,” said Ardern, who bought her maternity clothes at Kmart and frequents secondhand stores. The country even resisted the global pandemic of Starbucks. “I hate the idea of anyone thinking that I don’t put a lot of thought about the cost to taxpayers. I make our ministers travel to events in vans to pool together.” She instituted a salary freeze last month that stopped a 3 percent raise for her and the members of Parliament.

“I want to be a good leader, not a good lady leader,” Ardern said, stretching out her legs. “I don’t want to be known simply as the woman who gave birth.”

Despite its beer and rugby bro culture, New Zealand is more progressive than Australia, where women leaders are lining up to call out sexism and bullying. Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand, is celebrating 125 years of suffrage and its third woman prime minister. But Ardern says there’s still work to be done.

“I got this letter today from a young woman that was so lovely, I just scribbled a reply back,” she said. “She got pregnant around the same time as me and she just felt like her boss was more willing to be flexible because he saw this expectation being built around making sure that women could have babies and remain in their jobs. And I thought, well, even if I only create that sentiment or that environment or even create a little bit of solidarity for other women, that is something.”

She wants to show that women can lead with different styles, not cast themselves in the egotistical, brash mold of many male politicians. “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak,” she said. “I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

Ardern is so committed to moral leadership, I wondered what she made of the charge in the explosive anonymous Times Op-Ed piece about Trump’s “amorality” and how his aides are working to ameliorate his habit of roughing up allies and flirting with foes. New Zealand, after all, is part of the Five Eyes intelligence coalition. Doesn’t she ever call the prime minister of Canada and yell, “OMG, Justin! Are you seeing this?”

With classic New Zealand understatement, Ardern replied: “Well, I mean, there was a time when things were a lot more predictable than they are now.” She said she is not fearful because she believes the checks in the American system will hold.

President Trump will be presiding over the United Nations Security Council when the General Assembly meets in New York later this month. The prime minister will be trying to combine mothering and traveling again, this time hopefully with less ludicrous commentary. She will be juggling more than 40 events in seven days, with Neve and her partner ClakreGayford as part of the entourage.

I wonder if she worries that she will do something to evoke Trump’s wrath and get a nickname hurled at her.

“I’ve been given so many, it’d be quite hard to come up with a new one,” she said, laughing. “Back in the early days of my political career, I was called Socialist Cindy. I just hate the nickname Cindy.”

—©2018The New York Times

Published: 11-09-2018 07:55

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