While Jacinda Ardern did not cite it as one of the reasons she is quitting politics, there is little doubt the prime minister has faced an increasingly violent and vitriolic rhetoric.
She gave a “simple” reason – not having enough left “in the tank to do the job justice” after handling – in just five years – “a major biosecurity incursion, a domestic terror attack, a volcanic eruption and a one-in-100-year global pandemic and ensuing economic crisis”.
Notably absent from that list was the growing level of abuse directed at politicians, particularly women.
National Party leader Christopher Luxon has clarified some of the comments he made about being “unsure” if women politicians suffered worse abuse from the public, saying he chose not to live on Twitter.
“I think there is an element of gendered abuse that happens with female politicians that is different from what we experience as men.
“What I’d say to you is the bigger issue, though, is we also have deep polarisation of politics emerging and it’s really important that we manage that appropriately.
“I don’t want to see New Zealand getting into a place where we have such deep, entrenched polarisation that we actually can’t still walk across the room and have a conversation with each other about taking the country forward.”
His deputy, Nicola Willis, said all politicians received their share of flak and abuse, and much of what she had faced had been gendered.
“It’s about having respectful debate. We can disagree with each other, but let’s attack the issue, not the person.”
Green Party co-leader James Shaw said Ardern had been subject to some of the worst personal attacks on social media, but they were not exclusively targeted at the prime minister.
“It’s clear – and the data supports it – that there is an exponential increase in very, very personal and very vitriolic attacks,” Shaw told Morning Report on Friday, less than 24 hours after Ardern’s announcement.
“Some of those do stretch to threats of personal harm.”
Despite being nominally against the vaccine mandates and organisers promoting a family-friendly atmosphere, the protests featured calls for politicians – including Ardern – to be executed, and flags supporting former US President Donald Trump, who is under investigation for his alleged role in inciting the 6 January, 2022 attack on the US Capitol.
“It’s a bit of a cliche to say it now, but President Trump in the United States created a permissive environment for extreme-right, king of proto-fascist people, extreme misogynists and so on, to operate in,” said Shaw. “That’s actually gotten worse.”
A study published last year just before Christmas found one of the most common words used to describe Ardern in far-right circles in mid-2022 was c—, and she was most frequently depicted visually as a witch.
“Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been the person subject to the worst of this, but it’s not exclusive,” said Shaw, who has served in Ardern’s cabinet as climate change minister since 2017.
“There have been many other politicians who have received these threats. It is worse if you are a woman – female politicians get significantly greater levels of threat than male politicians. And also people of colour – so Māori, non-white New Zealanders of other ethnicities.”
He said social media was driving the worsening atmosphere, and has cut back his own use of Twitter recently, calling it a “cesspit”.
“I put up a post yesterday just acknowledging the prime minister’s leadership. Last time I checked there were something like 85 comments, and I blocked all but six of them because it was just vile.”
It has been a privilege to work alongside Jacinda Ardern over the last five years of our government. She is one of the most dedicated, authentic, values-driven people I have had the pleasure of knowing. I completely understand her decision to stand aside, but I will miss her.
— James Shaw (@jamespeshaw) January 19, 2023
Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, co-leader of Te Pati Māori, said Ardern was subjected to the “worst misogyny that you could ever have seen in Aotearoa”.
Despite this, Ngarewa-Packer said she was able to bring “empathy into politics”.
‘It will start to have an impact’
Ardern’s former chief of staff Mike Munro told Morning Report there was “no doubt” the toxicity took its toll.
“She has faced enormous pressures in the role. She’s faced an enormous amount of vitriol, and this sort of thing takes its toll… it’s come on top of an enormous workload.”
Munro also served as chief of staff to Helen Clark, who was prime minister between 1999 and 2008. He said Clark was subject to vitriol too, but not as badly as Ardern had been.
“The world has changed, and media consumption habits have changed. Social media enables anybody and everybody now to be an expert, to be a commentator…
“A lot of people are ill-informed about the issues, but that doesn’t stop them stepping up and saying things which are often dreadfully insulting and appalling. But that commentary is just continual and over time, it will start to have an impact on the people who are the target of it.”
During the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic Ardern was an almost-daily presence in the media – and frequently used social media to post updates outside of work hours, often from home. Munro said while it was important to show leadership, the “downside, the consequence of that, is that maybe people got sick of [her]”.
He said his advice to the next prime minister would be to consider reducing their availability to the media and public.
“The prime ministers in recent times have made themselves very, very available to the media… I think it’s too much. I think maybe we need to regulate it a wee bit.
“She’s expected to be an expert on everything… she is asked about pretty much any issue that’s current at the time. Maybe we need to think about that workload and think about fronting her other ministers more to explain the issues of the day.”