28 February 2023

Don Watson reflects on why Jacinda Ardern was beloved around the world: “Whatever drove her to resign — exhaustion, policy failures, far-right lunacy, misogyny — for a while, Ardern reminded us that kindness has a central place in politics because it has an essential place in human lives. Perhaps it was an illusion, a being in which we wanted to believe, like a mermaid on a rock. But Ardern did seem to lack all vanity and affectation, bombast, cunning, brutishness or any of the other qualities we associate with power. Her authority, while it lasted, derived from a kind of charismatic decency. And from our need to see and feel sympathy. She said that a leader could be ‘kind’ and still be strong. She spoke of empathy, which is a perfectly good word, but it is the less fashionable sympathy that we offer people in misery and strife, and it is sympathy that makes us choke. Ardern radiated human sympathy, and at critical moments in her country’s history she gave it concrete expression.” This seems right, given how she was honoured in a well-received mural here in Melbourne.

Watson then considers the lack of sympathy in a current Australian controversy: “[T]o take sympathy out of the political system, which means also taking out consideration of circumstances, is much like taking it from the justice system. It reduces the capacity for moral judgement. … It was in pursuit of efficiency dividends that the designers of robodebt decided sympathy could go to hell and hundreds of thousands of blighted lives with it. That the scheme known as robodebt was illegal is almost immaterial: it is much more telling that the people who conceived and operated it, including ministers and prime ministers, suspected (does anyone think they didn’t know?) it was illegal, but reckoned it better not to check. Better, because ‘cracking down on welfare cheats’ was going down well in ‘key’ electorates. … Robodebt is where the notion of ‘legitimate authority’ comes unstuck — less because the system was illegal than because it was cynical, punitive, heartless and political.”