Thursday, January 25, 2018

None of our business? Of course it is

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, January 24.)

First things first. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford are entitled to our congratulations and goodwill following the announcement that they are expecting a baby.

There are few experiences more joyous or life-changing than becoming a parent, and anyone with a modicum of human empathy will want them to be blessed with a healthy baby who will grow up loved and happy. 

But amid the wave of euphoria that swept the news media following the announcement, one or two inconvenient questions appear to have been overlooked.

There is enormous pressure, even on Ardern’s political opponents, to unreservedly welcome the impending birth. Anyone not caught up in the general mood of feel-goodism risks being pilloried as a sexist, a reactionary and a killjoy.

Make no mistake: This is an ideological minefield, and the Left-leaning commentariat lost no time firing warning shots across the bows of anyone who might dare to question the circumstances of the pregnancy or its political implications.

After all, everyone knows what happened to AM Show co- host Mark Richardson when he asked Ardern, following her elevation to the Labour leadership last August, whether she had motherhood aspirations.

Richardson has a reputation as a jock and a bit of a loudmouth (that’s his role), but it was a fair and arguably obvious question to ask on behalf of viewers, many of whom might have been wondering about the same thing.

Indeed, Ardern acknowledged that Richardson was entitled to ask about it, since she had raised the issue herself and effectively invited questions. In any case, shouldn’t all cards have been on the table when someone was asking us to elect her as prime minister?

But the subject was deemed to be off-limits because we’re told that motherhood intentions are no one’s business but the woman’s, and certainly not the business of a prospective employer. This applies even when the prospective employer is the public of New Zealand and the woman in question is running for the most important office in the land.

The message from that episode was clear: anyone who asks personal questions, particularly relating to the prime minister’s gender, can expect to be crucified. But in politics, the personal and the political constantly overlap, since personal factors unavoidably influence political positions.

It follows that only the most sensitive and intrusive personal matters should be off-limits. Yet the boundaries around what are deemed to be legitimate subjects of public discussion are being drawn ever tighter.

So what awkward questions, if any, have the media shied away from asking about Ardern’s pregnancy? They relate mainly to disclosure and political practicalities. 

Ardern has said she learned of the pregnancy on October 13. At that stage Labour and National were still vying for the favour of kingmaker Winston Peters.

The discovery that she was pregnant must have presented Ardern with an acute moral dilemma. Should she have said something?

Couples are understandably reluctant to announce a pregnancy in the early stages because apart from anything else, there’s a chance something might go amiss. Besides, Ardern at that stage might not have been confident of forming a government.

Even so, there was a chance that she would become prime minister, in which case she would have to take time off – and this during her vital first few months in charge of an inexperienced government that would still be feeling its way.

There is a valid argument that Ardern should have disclosed then that she was pregnant. That would have enabled the pregnancy to be factored into coalition negotiations, and later into how the new government would be set up and who might deputise for her.

She had a choice between disclosure and staying silent, and she chose silence. Some people, while appreciating that she must have been in an awkward predicament, will think less of her for that. Some say she misled by omission.

She then agreed to the appointment of Peters as her deputy, knowing that a man whose party won only 7 percent of the vote would be acting prime minister while she takes six weeks off – and possibly longer, given the unpredictability of childbirth and the challenges of adjusting to the demands of a baby.

And if anything goes wrong, or if Ardern struggles with the combined demands of motherhood and the prime ministership (although we’re not supposed to consider that prospect), what then? These are issues of public interest. We are entitled to discuss them without being shushed.

I don’t have an opinion on whether Ardern can do a good job as PM while simultaneously attending to the needs of a new baby. Perhaps she can, although mothers I know say the demands of a baby, particularly a first one, can be all-consuming and overwhelming.

We shall see. But if things don’t work out, it could have consequences for the country. This puts Ardern’s pregnancy in a different category from other expectant mothers whose personal decisions are said to be none of our business. 

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