With a New Zealand election due later this year, it can’t hurt to revisit this piece I wrote in August last year.
Here’s a political fairytale that New Zealand readers might find familiar: a youthful neophyte with almost no political experience unexpectedly sweeps to leadership of the Opposition, and within a few short months rides a red wave of adulation and unseats a clapped-out, long-term conservative government. The media swoon. Polls soar to stratospheric heights.
The prime ministerial media darling wafts into government tossing out virtue-signalling lefty policies as if they were fairy-dust: climate change, refugees, wealth redistribution. The pixie-dust policies shine with the rainbow glow of faux-“compassionate” moralising.
The media fawn and caper with delight. Their fairy princess can do no wrong, and woe betide curmudgeonly children who ask why the sovereign has no clothes.
Because ominous clouds quickly gather over fairy-land. A few sour goblins in the press begin to mutter that the fairy queen is spending too much time on fatuous displays of wish-granting, and not enough on the boring tedium of governing. The pots of gold are vanishing at an alarming rate. The hard-working gnomes in business begin to lose confidence. Some of the other fairies begin to talk more like wicked witches.
It all ends in tears and broken wands, and the fairy princess’ reign is over, as quickly as it began.
I’m talking, of course, about Kevin Rudd. But, if it sounds familiar to New Zealanders, it should. The parallels between Rudd and Jacinda Ardern are many, and informative.
“Kevin07” didn’t ascend to the throne of fairy-land quite as quickly, or as young, as Jacinderella. But his rise to power, and unseating of the wheezing Howard government had the same air of revolutionary glamour.
Rudd also liked to call himself a “fiscal conservative”, instead of bashing capitalism, but it was all said with a nod and a wink. The sense that Rudd was just playing it safe so as not to spook the voting horses was confirmed when fellow political neophyte, Peter Garrett, confided to a reporter that “once we get in, we’ll just change it all”.
Still, the chattering class and the media loved Kevin, and he entered the Lodge on an unprecedented wave of popularity.
But, he soon found that glamour and fairy-dust don’t count for much.
It very early on became obvious that Rudd’s government was big on crowd-pleasing rhetoric and media stunts, but short on political nous. A series of brain-fart policies, never more than beer-and-circuses in the first place, began to unravel at a shocking cost, not just to the fast-vanishing Howard government surplus, but even in human lives.
The National Broadband Network, dreamed up practically on the back of a beer-coaster, grew and grew like an ogre that swallowed money and spat out dodgy internet connections. The “Energy Efficient Homes Package” was ruinously expensive, and led to the deaths of four workers, as greedy cowboys flocked to the scent of free government money.
With an almost Maoist obsession with bombastic slogans, the Rudd government rolled out more and more big-spending policies, from “Building the Education Revolution”, “National Solar Schools” and “Cash for Clunkers”, to “Living Greener”. One by one, these grandiose schemes ignominiously collapsed. Carbon taxes and mining taxes became millstones around Labor’s neck.
Business confidence collapsed, and treasurer Wayne Swan’s repeated promises of returning to budget surplus became a running gag.
Yet, one business boomed: people smuggling. When Howard left office, literally one person was in immigration detention. Illegal arrivals began to trickle in almost immediately, then, sensing the new government’s two-faced weakness on border protection, became a flood. Within 18 months, the rate of illegal arrivals soared from thousands to tens of thousands. Boats arrived daily.
The Rudd fairytale fell apart as quickly as it began: as stratospheric approval ratings plunged, Rudd’s colleagues turned on him like wolves. Just over two years after taking office, Rudd was unceremoniously knifed by his deputy, Julia Gillard.
This should serve as a cautionary tale for Jacinda Ardern.
Prime ministerships cobbled together from fairy dust and wishes don’t last. Everyone at the ball may be temporarily enchanted by Jacinderella, but the clock strikes midnight sooner than anyone thinks. When the glass slippers come off, feet of clay are exposed for all to see. The courtiers in the press start to stare and whisper, and the next thing you know, your loyal footmen have turned into rats.
And, as the miller’s daughter discovered, in Rumpelstiltskin, not even a baby is proof against vengeful sprites.