by Graham Adams in The Australian
When Sky News’s Jonathan Lea declared himself to be “surprised” that Jacinda Ardern refused to take questions from Australian journalists at the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva recently, many New Zealanders would have been surprised he was surprised.
Ardern has a reputation for picking carefully who she will take questions from — and for avoiding those who might prove difficult. She was no doubt wary that the Australian journalists might not have shown her the deference she has become accustomed to from what can only be described as a mostly tame New Zealand media.
During New Zealand’s “elimination” phase of Covid management in 2020-21, she reliably selected two senior television journalists — who were both seen as mostly sympathetic to the government — to ask the initial questions at her 1pm press conferences.
Her routine of selecting Tova O’Brien and Jessica Mutch McKay by name became a running joke on social media — “Jessica then Tova” one day and “Tova then Jessica” the next.
In March two years ago, she cancelled her regular weekly interview slot on commercial radio station Newstalk ZB, on which New Zealand’s Prime Ministers had been appearing for more than 30 years.
She announced she would no longer turn up each week to face its current host, Mike Hosking, despite the fact he commands the biggest breakfast radio audience in the country.
A quick-witted and formidable interviewer, Hosking described her as “running for the hills” to avoid his scrutiny.
“The Prime Minister is a lightweight at answering tough questions,” he said. “The number of times she’s fronted on this program with no knowledge around the questions I’m asking is frightening.”
Faced with questions in Parliament which she would prefer not to answer, or perhaps simply doesn’t understand, her common response is to announce she “rejects the premise of the question”. No one seems to know exactly what this means but she delivers it as a stern and authoritative rebuke nevertheless.
However, it is Ardern’s ability to not answer a question at length — while appearing to answer it — that is her most remarkable achievement.
As the Australian’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan, pointed out early this month, there is no political leader in the world, in his opinion, who “talks so much nonsense so consistently” and “gets such lavish, wonderful praise for it”.
In an appearance on Sky News, Sheridan described her being “as silly as a two-bob watch”.
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.’”
What is extraordinary is that the mainstream media in New Zealand rarely, if ever, comments on Ardern’s ability to seamlessly deliver what is sometimes little more than fluent gobbledygook in response to questions.
She does have an impressive memory for detail, which served her extremely well when fronting press conferences about the management of Covid, but she has shown herself to be poorly equipped intellectually for anything demanding more subtle thought.
This was never more apparent than during the fierce debate last year over her intention to introduce hate speech laws, which would have included a penalty of up to three years’ jail.
When she was asked to define the “threshold” demarcating reasonable criticism from hate speech, she replied: “When you see it, you’ll know it.”
Jacinda Ardern speaks to Penny Wong at the Pacific Islands Forum. Picture: AFP.
Critics rightly pointed out this would be a very difficult definition on which to base a law.
She also insisted that it was not the government’s responsibility to give the public a clear idea of what utterances might be deemed hate speech. That could be happily left to the courts to decide, the Prime Minister said — raising eyebrows from lawyers.
Ardern has long wanted to introduce hate-speech laws but it is clear she had no idea just how fraught that would be politically and just how difficult the questions she would have to answer would be.
In fact, fielding difficult questions is definitely not part of her political repertoire — and certainly not if they can be easily avoided.
When she was confronted last November at an outdoor press conference in Northland by a woman who heckled her and a man who asked about the efficacy of Covid vaccines, she simply shut down the session and moved it inside.
Most experienced politicians are adept at managing such disruptions, but Ardern is ill-equipped temperamentally to deal with what she views as hostile questioning — and the bar for what she perceives as being hostile is very low.
Australian journalists generally set that bar far higher than their New Zealand counterparts — which is no doubt why she declined to take questions from them in Suva.
Graham Adams is an editor and journalist who writes mainly about New Zealand politics.