Do Australians Have a Case of ‘Jacinda Envy’?
Two similar countries, two very different attitudes toward women in leadership.
PERTH, Australia — It didn’t take long after the Christchurch massacre last month for Australian politics to turn ugly.
That very afternoon, Senator Fraser Anning, a member of Parliament, released an official statement in which he claimed “the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program which allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place.” His comments were followed, the next day, by a news conference, during which a teenager, with precision timing, cracked an egg on Mr. Anning’s head in protest. Mr. Anning responded by punching the boy several times. A group of Mr. Anning’s supporters then tackled the teenager and placed him in a chokehold, in an appalling show of machismo entirely unbefitting the moment.
Then there was New Zealand.
“Having been confronted with the worst news a leader can receive,” wrote Annabel Crabb, a well-known Australian journalist, “Ms. Ardern has yet to put a foot wrong.” On the day after the shooting, I met up with friends, where we too spoke in praise of Jacinda Ardern, whose empathy and grace had held together her country while ours fell apart. “Imagine her as our prime minister?” someone said. Everyone smiled at the absurdity.
Are Australians developing a case of “Jacinda envy”?
Certainly, while her response to the Christchurch shooting has been marked by respect, here in Australia, our highest-profile, primarily male politicians have been less than inspiring.
As Ms. Ardern was announcing that she would push through measures to ban semiautomatic weapons and assault rifles, her counterpart in Canberra was picking needless and unwinnable fights: Prime Minister Scott Morrison reportedly threatened to sue a journalist (and New York Times contributing opinion writer), Waleed Aly, for defamation, because on the evening of the massacre, Mr. Aly had referred to reports that the prime minister had spoken in a 2010 meeting about how his party could capitalize on concerns over Muslim immigration. (Mr. Morrison denies these reports.)
Then, as Ms. Ardern was busy demonstrating an ease with her Muslim compatriots and an ability to grapple with the issues of ethnicity, culture and faith, Mr. Morrison — who eventually withdrew his threat to sue — sat for an awkward and defensive interview with Mr. Aly, who is Muslim, during which he seemed uncomfortable countenancing any possibility of racist or Islamophobic behavior either at a personal level or as a collective issue.
But even before the tragedy, the sense of envy was already on display. Since Ms. Ardern became prime minister in 2017, Australian women’s magazines have watched her closely, often with a sense of rapt wonder. Australian politics have long been marked by ugly incidents of sexism: The country’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, was an especially high-profile target. A 2013 Liberal National Party fund-raiser became infamous after its menu included a dish called “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail — Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box.”
“The country was angry at her,” said Clare Wright, a feminist historian at La Trobe University. “It was as though we needed to punish her for being a capable, accomplished woman. New Zealanders, on the other hand, seem really proud of Jacinda, proud to have a woman as a prime minister.” And a woman who has become an international star at that.
Australians are not used to being overshadowed by their smaller neighbor, whose primary claim to fame until now has been “Lord of the Rings,” and which they tend to view as quiet and provincial. But the two countries and cultures have much in common, and so if New Zealand can produce a politician like Ms. Ardern while Australia produces the likes of Fraser Anning and abuse against Julia Gillard, it’s worth taking a deeper look at why.
A sense of machismo — and the anxiety that walks alongside it — is fundamentally entwined with Australia’s national identity. The heroes of Australian folklore are all men — from the convicts who first settled the country when Britain established it as a penal colony to the miners who worked the gold fields in the late 1800s to the soldiers who fought in World War I and distinguished themselves through their grit and courage at Gallipoli.
Collectively, these legends form the basis of the Aussie “battler”: a stoic, often silent, underdog who neither complains nor quits in the face of adversity. He is armed with wry humor and iron-jawed stoicism, but the battler — the archetypal Australian male — is uniquely ill equipped to serve as a role model for a millennium that demands compassion and humanity.
Fortunately, there’s a better way, and one just as true to the country’s roots. Some of Australia’s best traits offer pathways into the 21st century. There is, among its mythic characters, a much-loved, kinder and gentler national hero: the larrikin.
While the British roots of the term apply to boisterous young men, in Australia, larrikinism has evolved over the years from being the preserve of men to being emblematic of a shared national sensibility that cuts across race and gender. The larrikin is irreverent and jocular, ready to challenge hierarchy and upend class-based pretensions. Long before the invention of political correctness, the larrikin was eschewing convention, resisting mainstream respectability and adding levity to politics. In other words, though larrikinism has changed shape over many years, it is now profoundly suited to this moment in Australian life.
In recent times, as far-right racism and sexism have become more mainstream, Australia’s larrikins have multiplied, and many at their forefront are women. As a newer, browner, blacker, queerer, multicultural generation comes of age, larrikinism has grown sharper teeth. The laconic and vulnerable humor that made Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette” a breakout success is emblematic of the best of larrikinism; so is the work of the Indigenous playwright and actor Nakkiah Lui, whose 2018 play “Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death” focused on the exploits of “an Indigenous vigilante superheroine.” There’s also the comedy of Zoe Coombs Marr, who performed to sold-out audiences across the country as “Dave,” a caricature of a bad male comedian who doesn’t seem to understand why his sexist jokes aren’t funny. These and other voices are on the rise, occupying a place in the national consciousness where bracing honesty meets with a commitment to giving everyone a fair go.
Ms. Ardern is indeed admirable, but there is no need for envy. There is no shortage of dynamic and compassionate women in this country. They are in the public domain, making jokes and taking on blokes. They simply aren’t in politics — yet.
Ms. Msimang is a writer who divides her time between Australia and South Africa.