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After her Q&A appearance, many viewers would have been left wondering whether the Prime Minister can’t follow an argument or whether she is simply willing to say anything to wriggle out of a tight spot
Graham Adams
Contributing Writer
August 3rd, 2022

OPINION: It takes a bizarre kind of chutzpah to translate a question about your failures into an accusation that the interviewer really meant you should have set your sights much lower.

Yet that was how Jacinda Ardern responded on Q&A after Jack Tame listed her government’s many shortcomings. As he put it: “KiwiBuild was a failure… the polytech merger is a disaster… the Mental Health Foundation has been highly critical… KidsCan says child poverty is the worst they’ve ever seen…”

He then asked: “When you compare your policy aspirations with the results your government has achieved, what have you learned?”

Ardern replied: “You know what, I would not ever change the fact that we have always throughout been highly aspirational. We have always focused on how we can make New Zealand better.”

The Prime Minister — looking characteristically pleased with herself — seemed oblivious to the fact Tame was suggesting she had actually made life in New Zealand worse.

Rather than answering the question he had posed, she continued to answer one he hadn’t, expanding on the value of being aspirational:

“In setting out a vision for what that should look like, you will still hear me talk about New Zealand as a place that should be free of child poverty. Absolutely, because anything less in my mind… anything less demonstrates that we don’t believe that things can and need to improve.

At that point, Tame chipped in with his own assessment: “An A for aspiration and an E for execution.”

Undeterred, Ardern went on: “What you’re asking me essentially is to shy away from aspiration… set targets lower… set out ambition that is lesser because then perhaps at the end your scorecard might say you achieved it because you set out to do nothing.”

In fact, Tame was asking her nothing of the sort. He simply wanted to know what the Prime Minister had learned from her litany of failures — which unfortunately have had the cumulative effect of propelling the nation’s wellbeing backwards.

In Ardern’s world, it appears that intentions count for everything. It’s almost as if she has not shrugged off her strict Mormon upbringing and doctrine, in which believers are saved principally by faith and grace, not works.

Intentions are apparently sacred to Ardern; results are nice to have.

For anyone watching her performance who is not imbued with a similar religious sensibility, however, it would be difficult not to prefer the simple, secular assessment made by the foreign editor of The Australian newspaper.

In an appearance on Sky News last month, Greg Sheridan described Ardern as being “as silly as a two-bob watch”.

He reckoned there is no political leader in the world who “talks so much nonsense so consistently” and “gets such lavish, wonderful praise for it”.

He highlighted one comment Ardern had made on her recent overseas tour while discussing China’s push for hegemony in the Pacific: “Don’t cast this struggle as one between authoritarianism and democracy.”

Sheridan remarked, “She might as well say, ‘Don’t describe the sky as blue and the trees as green.’”

An ability to talk smugly and seamlessly without making a skerrick of sense is one of Ardern’s principal skills. She has an astonishing capacity to not answer a question at length — while appearing to answer it in a stream of fluent gobbledegook.

After her Q&A appearance, many viewers would have been left wondering whether the Prime Minister can’t follow an argument or whether she is simply willing to say anything — no matter how stupid and untrue — to avoid answering a question she doesn’t want to.

When Tame asked whether Ardern agreed with Willie Jackson’s assertion that: “Democracy has changed. We’re in a consensus-type democracy now. We are not in a majority [situation] any more,” Ardern replied: “Well, I would argue that [with] consensus and majority aren’t we driving therefore for the same things?”

It should worry everyone if the nation’s Prime Minister really can’t understand the difference between majority rule and everyone eventually agreeing on a matter under discussion. However, it is equally possible that she understood the difference perfectly and was slithering away from what she saw as a trap.

As Tame continued to press Ardern about the nature of democracy, it became obvious she was determined to avoid answering his question of whether Maori are being given greater representation than non-Maori in the Regional Representation Groups that will set the overarching strategy for Three Waters.

Tame: “Most people’s definition of democracy is ‘one person, one vote’. So what I want to know is, under those regional representative groups, [do] you and I as Pakeha people have the same level of representation guaranteed as Maori people?”

Rather than admitting the undeniable fact that Maori will be given greater representation, and that the principle of “one person, one vote” has been abandoned in selecting the groups’ members, Ardern described Tame’s question as “overly simplistic”.

In a clumsy and obvious sidestep, she asserted that power still lies with councils — as if that was a reasonable response to a question about democracy.

“Power sits with ownership,” Ardern said, and ”the ownership of these entities sits with local bodies and government so it is not changing the ownership structures.”

Not only was it a clumsy and obvious jink, it also isn’t true.

As Dr Jason Smith, Mayor of Kaipara, responded on Twitter: “Kaipara District Council will go from 100 per cent ownership and accountability of Three Waters assets to 1 per cent ‘ownership’. Plenty of change.”

Constitutional lawyer Stephen Franks put it this way: “Ardern and her ministers (and the Water Services Entities Bill) say councils own the four corporations through shares. But the bill’s fine print expressly excludes every known legal right or power of share ownership.”

Tame wasn’t fooled by Ardern’s segue from equal representation to ownership but she refused to concede his point. When he again reminded her with a grin that she still hadn’t answered the question about representation, she looked annoyed.

She jiggled impatiently in her seat and scrunched her brow into a frown: “Well, I think it’s again because I don’t know if your question really is getting to the heart of the issue here.”

Of course, it was and she wasn’t.

Although Ardern is quick to pose as a dedicated champion of democracy overseas — including warning 8000 Harvard students in May that “democracy can be fragile” — at home she is far more evasive and equivocal when questioned.

As her passive-aggressive responses to Jack Tame showed, she really doesn’t like that fact being exposed.

Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore.