Jacinda Ardern’s recent landslide victory in New Zealand is a victory not just for gender activists, democrats and the caring conscientised, but also for common sense. Her leadership of the tiny country with its population of only five million spread across two islands, literally at the bottom of the world, has won her friends and admirers across the globe.
Well before the advent of the Coronavirus, we saw her handle a lone, crazed, white-supremacist terrorist in Christchurch, acting as a lightning rod channelling her country’s abhorrence. When natural calamities befell Whakaari or White Island and a volcano literally erupted, she was just as resolute and as principled and the results were just as positive.
Ardern is proof that a toxic masculine archetype is a lousy precondition for successful leadership – especially in a time of long crisis. Indeed, the leaders of many of the nations that have been most successful in addressing COVID 19 and flattening the curve of its infection trajectory – if not breaking it altogether – have been women.
But it’s not just about gender, Ardern’s opponent in the general election was another woman; Judith Collins the leader of the National Party. So, if it isn’t simply the gender trope, what is it? Correlation is not causality. The causality surely is the hard-won context of tolerance in which these leaders grow. Looking at other countries that have handled the COVID-19 crisis well: Finland, Taiwan, Canada, South Korea, Germany, Singapore, Vietnam, Switzerland and Norway, it is possible to discern a high level of trust in government and strong non-partisan communal collaboration at higher levels.
The remarkable achievement is the transitions in these countries, over decades, where gender has ceased to be a dominant issue and sheer capability has replaced it. They are countries we might like both our boys and our girls to grow up in. In a world full of glass ceilings, what was it about the nature of these countries in the societies that has evolved over many years of work and voting, by both women and some men, that has changed gender and power relationships in a constructive manner? Where people of merit and capability can rise in fair and equal ways.
The countries that have done well, don’t have "sheeple”, a cowed populace doing what they are told because nanny knows best, far from it. New Zealand is resolutely egalitarian with an almost pathological need to take down anyone that takes themselves too seriously or ascribes to themselves airs and graces, pricking cant and waffle where they find it. If anyone should know about sheep, it’s the New Zealanders – and they are certainly not “sheeple”, as the anti-vaxxers and fake scientists disparage anyone who actually uses common sense in the face of this pandemic. Instead they use their capacities for critical thought to vigorously debate issues and then, when they’ve weighed up the facts and the science, choose the best course of action and cleave to it.
New Zealanders, like their Nordic cousins almost at the other pole of the globe, don’t like to see their fellow citizens suffering. They don’t like poverty and inequality. Like the other highly successful COVID-19 combatting nations, they are fully engaged, massively socially aware but also free and open with a concomitant level of tolerance too. In these societies it becomes far easier for people to rise based on their talent, both women and men alike.
Their leaders play to these strengths, are decisive and hold to standards, in a collaborative, compassionate and competent way, because they know their constituents – they couldn’t help but know them because they grew up there without the social isolation of blue light convoys and bodyguards to inure them to that lived reality.
It stands in stark contrast to what is happening in other countries that haven’t handled the pandemic at all well. Those leaders, most of them a style of men who are almost parodies of archaic, toxic masculinity, have either denied the science or dithered. In the process, their constituents have become confused and rapidly complacent about the threat of infection, making them less likely to heed entreaties to actually socially distance, sanitise or wear face masks in public. As for lockdown, forget about it – it’s an invitation for derision and dissent.
Yet these leaders are often the ones that have come to power through playing on the inequalities that exist in countries that are already deeply fractured. They have fomented the fears of the desperate that have even slightly more rights and assets than those who do not but are terrified of losing that which they have, in a heady and virulent strain of nationalism and identity politics.
Those fissures are so great – and those fears so real – that not even a mishandled pandemic can unseat them, which is perhaps the greatest concern because a myopia about something that is both so prevalent and so immediate shows how difficult it is to actively counter the other threats that wait in the wings that aren’t as immediately obvious or imminently life threatening.
The COVID-19 crisis will ultimately pass, even though we will be working through its consequences for several years to come, but if we have not learnt from this zoonotic crisis, what hope is there that we will reach sufficient consensus and common purpose when it comes to climate change, the catastrophic ongoing loss of entire species and the continued degradation of both our water and air supplies?
Our hope lies in societies that are not predicated on competitiveness at the expense of others in a devil take the hindmost fashion, but rather those like New Zealand where there is a sense of humanity, dare I say ubuntu, but also a wonderful openness, tolerance and diversity. Societies insisting on the equal rights and opportunities for our children, whatever their gender pronouns, age, cultural identities and skin pantones.
Rather than competitiveness, we need to herald a new era of collaboration, because we are all truly in this together. Irrespective of whether it’s finding a vaccine or living in the shadow of COVID, we are busy being colonised all over again, only this time we are colonising our future by our own acts over our future assets; the stuff we should be leaving for our children, like a functional planet with rich, diverse and self-sustaining systems, and enough resources for all of them and the generations that follow.
It’s not simply about blithely reintroducing species. You have to protect and husband what you still have. There has to be sufficient diversity of flora for them to flourish. As David Attenborough tells us, if you strip away the biodiversity, we all ultimately perish. “In this world a species can only thrive if everything else around it thrives too”. It’s the same with humanity. We need diversity; of creeds, cultures and peoples, all working together, doing their bit to ensure the whole survives. “It’s not about saving the world, it’s about saving ourselves…. The truth is, with or without us the world will rebuild.”
The monoculture, characterised by dead-eyed unimaginativeness, simply isn’t sustainable. Monocultures of any sort are, in reality, deserts. Those countries failing against COVID, are failing their citizens but they’re also subverting democracy. The anti-vaxxers and fake-newsers, the uncritical thinkers and accepters of pseudo-science and charismatic, cult-like leaders, in truth, are the ‘sheeple’, not those of us actually keeping our distance, washing our hands, opening our windows and wearing our masks. Realising that truth is perhaps the biggest irony of all.
As Ardern noted in her victory acceptance speech, she and her party will use their mandate – the first outright majority of any New Zealand political party in decades – to govern as they campaigned, with positivity, optimism and a relentless focus on creating a better life for all.
It’s the perfect possible counterpoint for the negativity, populism and identity politics – and hatred – in so many other parts of the world.