Dr Bryce Edwards
It was only a matter of time before “babymania” became politicised. After all, the birth of Jacinda Ardern’s child is inherently political, and along with the positivity there has always been the likelihood that fights would break out and accusations would be made relating to partisan politics and attempts to capitalise on the birth.
Simon Bridges has unwittingly found himself at the centre of the first stoush over the prime minister’s baby, following his Radio Hauraki interview with Jeremy Wells and Matt Heath on Friday.
The interview has been interpreted as Mr Bridges being disrespectful to Ardern’s baby, Ms Ardern herself, and to the LGBTQ+ community. In this interview, Bridges jokes along with the hosts about the negative impact of babymania on his own popularity and media coverage: “I know that nothing I say is going to make the news in the next like seven days … I'm in a complete news vacuum.” The whole four-minute interview can be heard and is best covered by the New Zealand Herald article, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's baby could be a National voter, Simon Bridges says.
The hosts asked the National leader if he “hates” the baby, to which he replied: “Look, I don't think it's going to do a lot to help my poll ratings, let's put it that way, but you know I don't hate it! Hate is a strong word, I should say, I wish her all the best.”
When asked whether Ardern having a girl was “politically correct,” Mr Bridges played along, replying: “only under a Labour government.” The hosts took this further, raising the question of whether the baby should be considered “gender fluid”, with Bridges responding that, “She should be going to school like in boy's clothes right?”.
Jokes continued about how the National Party might be able to win Neve Gayford over to voting National in the future, with Mr Bridges suggesting Ms Ardern’s parents might really be National voters, and Ms Ardern might only have turned left wing after getting some “funny ideas” from her time at university.
Condemnation of Bridges’ interview
The most hostile response to the interview was penned by Newshub’s new political editor, Tova O'Brien. She tore strips off Bridges for his jokes, calling out the “loutish, transphobic rubbish that poured freely from his mouth” – see: Simon Bridges has some apologising to do.
Ms O’Brien doesn’t hold back in her criticisms: “Failing to unequivocally say you don't hate the prime minister's newborn baby is weird and tone deaf. Calling the prime minister and her partner 'pinkos' a day after they became new parents is ill-judged. Making judgments about the prime minister's parents – proud new grandparents – and using them as political capital is cheap.”
Mr Bridges’ words amounted to “discrimination”, and the fact that it wasn’t meant to be serious cut no ice with her: “He probably felt like he was having a laugh with the cool kids, just a blokey chat with the lads, but that's not an excuse for prejudice.”
The National leader obviously rejects Ms O’Brien’s criticisms, and explained in a further interview that he wasn’t about to apologise: “It was incredibly light-hearted and intended that way – an interview on Radio Hauraki. But I wish Jacinda, her partner and little Neve all the very best. Just absolute happiness” – see Dan Satherley’s No apology from Simon Bridges over 'pinko' baby comments.
Mr Bridges also said his comments needed context, suggesting that people who listened to the whole interview would “see the context and understand what it is.”
This hasn’t convinced critics – especially on the left. For example, Chris Trotter suggests that the Hauraki FM comments are evidence that Mr Bridges is not qualified to lead the National Party: “Anyone who can make discriminatory comments about his fellow citizens with a light heart may not be the best-qualified person to lead his country” – see: Does the National Party know anything about genuine conservatism?
Trotter’s main points about the National leader are these: “Bridges’ discourtesy toward Jacinda Ardern, Clarke Gayford and their baby not only demonstrated his ignorance of the way someone in his position is expected to behave but was also proof that he is sorely lacking in the qualities associated with a true political leader. He showed himself to be a man without grace, generosity or sensitivity. More importantly, he showed himself to be a man without judgement. To handle the shock-jocks of commercial radio requires the ability to think clearly and remain in complete control under pressure.”
Not all on the left agree. Martyn Bradbury says such strong criticisms are an over-reaction, and play into the hands of the political right because a lot of New Zealanders would regard Mr Bridges’ remarks to be “exceptionally mild” – see: Why amplifying Simon Bridges comments will probably help him.
Problems with politicising the baby
What this flurry does show is that there are clearly dangers for any politician – or otherwise – who is seen to be trying to make some sort of political gain out of Ardern’s new baby. In the weekend, John Roughan warned the Labour Party was itself sailing close to the wind: “The Labour Party's congratulatory message, ‘Welcome to the team’ and Andrew Little's posted photo, celebrating in a party hat, suggests some in the party are salivating at the political possibilities but they need to be careful” – see: The public would not respond well to baby's political exploitation.
Mr Roughan does believe the baby will prove a political asset for Ardern, as long as she is subtle: “The prime minister and her party will not need to labour the point. When she speaks on subjects such as parental leave, equal employment opportunities, childcare, facilities for mothers in workplaces, pay equity, career interruptions, work-life balance and much else, she can speak with implicit empathy and authority.”
Similarly, a New Zealand Herald editorial warned Labour’s “Welcome to the team” publicity “was possibly not the wisest” – see: NZ shares the PM's happiness today. The newspaper said the country’s pleasure in the baby’s arrival “transcends politics.” And it predicted that the baby would not end up being any defence shield for the government: “It will not redeem the government if mistakes are made or unwise decisions made, nor will it be held to blame.”
Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins sees the arrival of the baby as significant for Ardern’s status, both domestically and internationally – see: Business as usual as Jacinda Ardern gives birth? Yeah, nah.
Here’s Watkins’ main point, which is worth quoting at length: “It will be one of the defining moments of this government's first term. The opposition is resigned to the baby news sucking up most of the political oxygen for the next few days and weeks before the novelty of a new mum being prime minister wears off. But, after the initial flurry, her experience as a new parent will continue to give Ms Ardern cut-through on the issues of generational change that helped sweep her into power – and not just on the national stage. Ardern had already achieved an international profile as a young, female, left-wing leader. Being the first woman in 30 years to give birth in office has only elevated her celebrity status. That will give her voice greater resonance on the world stage.”
In another column, Watkins does foresee problems: “The biggest minefield of all will be knowing how much to share. New Zealand politicians have a tradition of separating their public and private lives but Ardern's situation is so unique the choices are not as easy … But Ardern will also be desperate to avoid being seen to use her baby for political purposes” – see: Labour's baby present? Let Jacinda be a mum for six weeks.
She also says: “Ardern also has the added minefield of unprecedented public scrutiny over what for others are deeply personal parenting decisions – breast or bottle, cloth nappies or disposables, choosing a name.”
Branding expert Cas Carter has also written today about the advantages and disadvantages that the baby might have for both Ms Ardern and Mr Bridges, arguing kids have the “potential to enhance or damage your reputation” – see: It's risky being a parent when you're in politics.
For Bridges, Carters’ analysis is: “How could the Opposition say anything unkind to the blushing First Mum? Simon Bridges might well be advised to talk to his wife about rolling out their six-month-old more often.”
For Ms Ardern, the political impact of the new baby is unavoidable: “Ms Ardern has just produced a little human who will be a large part of how New Zealand and the world sees her; part of her personal brand. Whether she actively leverages the publicity opportunities created by her new daughter or not, her new role will impact on her reputation.” But Carter warns, there could still be risks. For example, “How much will the media be interested when she draws on the walls at the Beehive or vomits on the cream couches?”
Finally, for a very politicised discussion of the arrival of Jacinda Ardern’s new baby, see Tom Sainsbury’s Kiwis of Snapchat: Paula Bennett welcomes the First Baby.
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