Emmanuel Macron and New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

The meaning of Jacinda Ardern

Expect soggy authoritarianism from elite darlings

Artillery Row

There’s a new type of Western leader: kind, empathetic, rational, considerate. At least, that’s what Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, wants you to think. Although her party has been slipping in the polls, she remains a potent figurehead of progressive politics for governments around the world, who revere her as a modern-day saint for her ability to produce extraordinary electoral results whilst staying true to her centre-left politics. 

We shouldn’t dismiss Ardern as an ideologue, though. Take for example some of the comments made by Tourism Minister Stuart Nash regarding immigration: rapid demographic changes (migration has contributed to 30 per cent of New Zealand’s total population growth since the 1990s) means that “businesses have been able to rely on lower-skilled labour and suppress wages rather than investing capital in productivity-enhancing plant and machinery, or employing and upskilling New Zealanders into work”. This pattern can also be identified in Britain, where we have been trapped in a “productivity puzzle” since the early 2000’s

Ardern’s meteoric rise to power is less impressive than her ability to maintain an iron grip on the Labour party. Rogue MPs who attempt to break from the party line are dismissed not after the expected public slanging-match, but with a terse smile and conclusive phrase from the PM. Indeed, all Labour party functionaries are expected to display rigorous discipline and loyalty. This is where Ardern’s true power lies: her ability to hide her ruthless nature under a carefully-maintained presentational façade. 

New Zealand instituted one of the most draconian lockdowns in the world

It is vital to understand the context behind Ardern’s enduring success, and why exactly her latest round of softly-spoken scolding is so concerning for public liberties. Speaking at the UN General Assembly last month, the New Zealand premier promoted a passion project that has long driven her political project: the importance of restricting “dangerous” speech online. She urged her fellow leaders to take action against “misinformation and disinformation online”, comparing the sharing of “misinformation” to “weapons of war”. Her comparison continued: “A bullet takes a life. A bomb takes out a whole village. A lie online or from a podium does not. But what if that lie, told repeatedly, and across many platforms, prompts, inspires, or motivates others to take up arms. To threaten the security of others. To turn a blind eye to atrocities, or worse, to become complicit in them. What then?”

Her concern over online expression is not novel. Indeed, she (along with Emmanuel Macron) founded a NGO called the Christchurch Call to Action Summit two months after the New Zealand Mosque terror attacks. The group aims to “bring together countries and tech companies in an attempt to bring to an end the ability to use social media to organise and promote terrorism and violent extremism”, and enlisted social media giants like Facebook and Twitter along with over 120 governments. Even Roblox — a Minecraft-inspired online children’s videogame — has signed the petition to end online extremism. 

One can easily identify the ramifications of such a policy being instituted, alongside the cynical political motivations that may lie behind Jacinda’s actions. After all, New Zealand instituted one of the most draconian lockdown policies in the world. The inevitable end of the “Zero Covid” strategy — maintained by stranding thousands of citizens abroad for years out of fear of infection — was followed by crackdowns on anti-vaccine-mandate protests. Nowhere is Ardern’s influence more clear than seen through the myriad street signs telling citizens to “stay home — be kind”. If you refused to “be kind”, expect the full force of the New Zealand state to come crashing down on you. The Labour government then attempted to paint Covid dissenters as “dangerous extremists”. The same sort of extremists, in other words, that Ardern rallied against in her UN address. 

It comes from an ideological distrust of unregulated behaviour

There are other, less immediately obvious consequences to restricting free speech online — even if the targets appear to be indisputably unsympathetic. You can identify many questionable places on the internet as hotbeds of political radicalism and unkind speech. Take, for example, the notorious forum Kiwifarms, a site which contained the doxing information of the online world’s greatest laughing stocks. There is no denying that the website was cruel, and it could be used for bullying merely eccentric people. (The “Kiwi” in the name was not a reference to New Zealand — though the New Zealand police did demand information about its members after it hosted the livestream and manifesto of the Christchurch shooter.)

Following a relentless social media campaign, Cloudflare — the Internet hosting service — severed relations with the website’s founder Joshua Moon, forcing the closure of the website. Few people will mourn its disappearance. As well as hosting obnoxious material, it is notable that it hosted a great deal of unflattering information about public figures — public figures who also indulge in obnoxious behaviour but are not the target of mainstream condemnation, never mind censorship. The likes of Ardern love to imagine that “harassment” or “disinformation” have a few specific sources instead of being suffused throughout out culture. But don’t worry! They’re here to protect us. Aren’t we lucky?

I don’t believe that Ardern’s commitment to ending free expression online comes from a fundamental misunderstanding about the origins of terrorist radicalisation. She is much smarter than that. It comes from an ideological distrust of unregulated speech and behaviour, wherever it might show itself. She compared online safety restrictions to weapons controls at the UN not out of foolishness, or soppy sentimentalism, but from a coldly coherent understanding that her brand of politics cannot survive without external help. This was an appeal of a democratically-elected Western leader to an unaccountable supra-state to protect her from her own electorate. This is the true face of “civility politics” — a call to remove debate and disagreement from the public sphere for our own good. Make no mistake: Ardern is the face of the coming wave of soppy, sentimental authoritarianism.

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