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Opinion: PM's baby news sends message on gender equality

Opinion: PM's baby news sends message on gender equality

by Associate Professor Grant Duncan

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s announcement of her pregnancy is fabulous news that we can all celebrate and support. It sends a very empowering message to women.

Even if she occupies the highest office in the land, a woman can become a mother, and there is full support around her to enable that. We can all get behind this, and it sends a powerful message to the world about the role of women and about gender equality.

Constitutionally, it is normal for the Deputy Prime Minister, in this case Winston Peters, to step up in an acting role for the duration of the Prime Minister’s leave. It’s not unusual, for instance, for a Prime Minister to take a holiday overseas, especially during the summer break, and for the Deputy to act on her behalf. A period of six weeks leave due to pregnancy can be accommodated within the norms of government. Pregnancy and motherhood should never be regarded as a disqualification or incapacity for higher duties and for participation in work – or in politics. Instead, it is a positive strength and a contribution to society.

We can also acknowledge the role that Clark Gayford will play as the country’s ‘first Dad’ and as primary caregiver. This is a very empowering example to set for men: that we can be the primary day-to-day carers for our infants. Having done it myself, for my daughter, I know that men can be good child-carers, and that, as a nation, we should encourage men to do more of this. This not only about balancing the family and economic responsibilities more equally between women and men; it is also about enriching and developing ourselves as human beings.

No doubt, political questions will be asked about how Mr Peters will behave as Acting PM, and about how this arrangement will work in the context of coalition government. So far, in his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, there is no reason to believe that Mr Peters will be anything less than responsible and statesman-like in his conduct. The period of leave that Ms Ardern will require may put the solidity of the coalition to the test. Despite not being made aware of the pregnancy before he agreed to a coalition deal with Labour, one assumes that Winston Peters is prepared to fully support Ms Ardern in her maternity leave and beyond. There can be no doubt that the Green Party will do everything they can to help.

I see no reason why the pregnancy of the Prime Minister should in itself create any significant constitutional or political problems. Instead, I see this as a great opportunity to show by example how we can support parenthood and family, and to show the world that New Zealand is leading the cause of gender equality.

Associate Professor Grant Duncan teaches political theory and New Zealand politics at Massey University.

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