The Tacitus temptation

N.B.: Below is the text submitted to The Spectator. The magazine published a heavily redacted and unauthorised version on 6 February 2021, which can be found here.

Earlier this month, it happened again. Yet another international news outlet dedicated a cover story to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. In this instance, it was Germany’s View magazine that declared her “the world’s best politician” because “she defeated Corona and overcomes all crises.”

Every time I read another excitable media article about Ardern and her government, I am reminded of an old quip: “Viewed from a distance, everything is beautiful.”

That phrase ironically came from Publius Cornelius Tacitus (58-120 AD). Were this Roman intellectual and historian alive today, he would make a great New York Times columnist or British prime minister. Just like those, his tactic was to spin political and historical analogies so they could influence public affairs back home.

Tacitus’ Germania, for example, was about framing the Germanic tribes as a more noble culture. The idea was that Tacitus’ Roman compatriots would recognise their own society as corrupt and decadent by looking at themselves through a Germanic mirror.

The only problem was that Tacitus had never crossed the Rhine, so he had no idea if Germanic tribes were noble savages at all. That did not matter since most Romans had not travelled very far north either. Tacitus’ goal was not necessarily the truth; it was to create an idyllic but imaginary picture of Germanic tribes to help win political squabbles back in Rome.

This is all happening again, except this time New Zealanders are the noble savages being lovingly invented by global columnists channelling the ghost of Tacitus.

Hardly any of these writers understand New Zealand. So, penning an op-ed about this country reveals more about them than the country they purport to write about.

As someone living in “the land of the long white cloud,” it may be painful to admit, but this country matters little. If New Zealand’s five million people sprinkled over two medium-sized islands disappeared tomorrow, few outside the country would notice. This is the last bus stop before Antarctica, as one of our former prime ministers put it.

This lack of global relevance means no international media can justify covering New Zealand with a dedicated correspondent. Whatever you read about New Zealand in the international media is usually compiled by journalists living in Sydney, Singapore or Hong Kong. Writing reports from only three to ten flight hours away, they are considered close enough.

In normal circumstances, this would not be a problem. Except over the past few years, prime minister Jacinda Ardern has risen to international stardom. Her rise was based on such remote reporting by the world’s progressive media thirsting for a more “noble” alternative to strong-men (or milquetoast) leaders.

Anyone wishing for an anti-Trump, an anti-Johnson or an anti-Bolsonaro could not dream up a more impressive figure like Jacinda Ardern. If she did not exist, she would have to be invented.

Ardern ticks all the boxes. As a young woman who became prime minister at 37, she is one of the world’s first millennial heads of government. She is only the second leader to give birth in office (the first being Benazir Bhutto). And she has soaked her political tenure with every molecule of progressive holy water.

The list of Ardern’s adopted causes is long. When first running for prime minister in 2017, she declared climate change “my generation’s nuclear free moment.” Ardern cited child poverty as her reason for entering politics. In early 2019, she promised in the Financial Times to champion a new “economics of kindness,” demonstrated shortly afterwards in the world’s first “wellbeing budget.”

Ardern has become the media’s posterchild of a modern, centre-left politician, not least due to her expertise at communicating to every audience. Whether it is a Facebook live from her home in her pyjamas or a traditional press conference, Ardern oozes her personal brand of warmth, kindness and empathy.

This PR dexterity helped her steer through two major first-term crises. She found the right words to heal a shocked nation after a terrorist attack on the Christchurch Muslim community in March 2019. A year later, her near-daily TV appearances guided Kiwis through the coronavirus crisis.

For people watching from afar sick of dealing with mortal, flawed and ineffective leaders, Ardern’s superheroine star shines bright.

But the Tacitus temptation trap is now sprung. As US psychologist Jonathan Haidt revealed in The Righteous Mind, we wish for things to be true and no amount of counter evidence will change our minds.

Ardern is lucky that humans have this mental bug because on practically every single metric her administration has failed.

Ardern wanted to solve New Zealand’s housing crisis by building 100,000 homes over a decade. This unworkable state-run programme was abandoned after two years, and house prices skyrocketed faster than before.

A promised light-rail connection from the centre of Auckland’s CBD to the airport met the same fate. The project was scrapped before it even started.

Child poverty also rose under Ardern’s leadership, as did carbon emissions. The so-called “wellbeing budget” earmarked funds to fix mental health – but has still not found any projects on which to spend the money.

Even in the two major crises, the actual policy delivery differed immensely from the PR-shaped perception. The gun buyback scheme after the terrorist attack was a costly fiasco. And the country’s success against Covid-19 was more a result of its geography than policy. The government fumbled to manage even basic quarantine facilities.

In the 2020 election campaign, Ardern should have struggled to explain why her grand promises so utterly failed. Except no-one demanded any accountability, and so Ardern cruised to an absolute majority based on her saintly image.

The gap between people’s impression of Ardern and her actual delivery has widened to a gulf. Indeed, her second term continues just where the first finished. Instead of being at the front of the queue for vaccines, as Ardern’s government had promised, New Zealanders will only start getting vaccinated when countries like Israel will have almost finished its rollout.

Yet as long as enough modern Tacituses write gushing Ardern portraits, her superstar status will not change. And ordinary Kiwis, who are unused to being the global centre of attention, will also wish for this narrative to be true.

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