Friday, March 1, 2024

Would You Want To Be A Female Politician In This Country? Because I Sure As Hell Wouldn’t

In 2021, Aotearoa welcomed in the most diverse government in the world. Just three years later, politics is an increasingly vicious place for women, and particularly women of colour, and the collateral damage of that could have a long-lasting impact.

This is an opinion piece

One of my best friends has worked in politics for more than a decade and every once in a while, we would harass her to consider becoming an MP. She’s brilliant, empathetic, fair-minded; whenever I have a dumb political question (frequent), she’s the person I run it by. She would be a fantastic MP, Aotearoa would be lucky to have her.

I’m not sure when, but over the past few years, the loving harassment from us has stopped. Now, I wouldn’t wish that job on my worst enemy.

When the news of Golriz Ghahraman’s shoplifting allegations first broke this week, it was shocking, and the updates just kept getting worse. My first thought was ‘wow, as a country we are not in a good place to be helpful here’ and well, I wasn’t wrong. As David Farrier wrote in his excellent Web Worm piece, the unfolding news story was treated by the NZ media like ‘they’d caught a serial killer’, complete with live blogs, shadowy photos of cops outside the MP’s front door and breaking news alerts for the smallest of details.

One story, titled ‘The Rise and Fall of Golriz Ghahraman’ was running within hours – minutes? – of her resignation. The finality of the word ‘fall’ sent, like most of the news coverage, a clear message: we’re done here. There’s no coming back from this.

It is difficult to watch yet another brilliant, rare career path by a young political superstar get cut short by an unexpected incident. It is simply devastating to watch it be handled, badly and it seems almost gleefully, by the media and the loudest cranks in the room.

It is also interesting to note what is, and isn’t, unforgivable. Which momentary lapses of judgement (Sam Uffindell), mental health issues (Todd Muller) or weird public behaviour (SIR John Key) are written off as youthful transgressions, an understandable cry for help or ‘a bit of banter.’ (Yes, that last one is a reference to ‘ponytail gate’, one of the creepiest political stories from the past few years that seemed to do literally zero damage PR wise).

Here at Capsule, we have written a lot about the rise of death threats for women in the public eye – from Paula Penfold discussing the call for journalists to be executed during the parliament protest, to the ongoing vitriol that Dr Siouxsie Wiles has had to deal with hand-in-hand with being named New Zealander of the Year for her lifesaving efforts during the pandemic.

Both these women faced violent threats because of their job; Siouxsie herself has been on the receiving end of a wide-spread and targeted campaign that reached a fever pitch as we headed into the election last year. As she told Capsule, it had taken a significant toll.

Both these women are only tangentially related to the government – so how bad must it be for those female MPs who are in the spotlight? And for the women of colour who have had to, as Madeleine Chapman put it, face a whole host of extra pressures their Pākeha colleagues don’t ever have to deal with.

In the press conference about the allegations, Greens co-leader James Shaw detailed how Golriz had experienced ‘continuous threats of sexual violence, physical violence, and death threats.’ You think of how much the average job grates on you – the influx of the ‘Sunday scaries’, the joy of the end of the working week, the slow, dreaded drag back to normality after the summer holidays.

Now imagine your job is all that, plus threats of rape, sexual violence, the consistent use of racial slurs. The reality that you have to carry around personal security from time to time when it gets particularly bad. When did that become the cost of doing business, and by business, I mean existing as a woman of colour in the public eye. Who would sign up for that?

Call me cynical, but I can’t help wonder if that isn’t the wider point – to make the realities of a job in politics so unpleasant that young girls stop saying ‘become Prime Minister’ when they’re asked for their dream career path. In February 2021, the 53rd NZ government was hailed as the most diverse government in the history of the world, “nearly 50% of the 120 seats held by women, 11% LGBTQI representation and 21% Māori MPs (25 members),” according to The Guardian.

For a handful of years, our government made us a global good news story – a rare, shining light in a sea of increasingly divisive politics and ever-dwindling diversity. Three years later, that bubble has popped.

Aotearoa now fits into the global status quo, voting in the most conservative government in our country’s history. Several of those rising political superstars included in that once-inclusive government have now left due to toxic work conditions and the damage on their mental health. What can we expect in another three years’ time?

Whatever you may think of this week’s unfolding news event with yet another embattled female politician, ask yourself this: would you want to work in parliament? Would you, hand on heart, recommend a loved one follow a path into politics, knowing what might be included in their day-to-day job, the personal sacrifices they might have to make? Because I sure as hell wouldn’t. And whatever characteristics we want our politicians to have, I’m not sure that ‘unwavering courage and mental stability in the face of violent death threats’ should have to be on the list.

But, for the foreseeable future, it is.

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