Editorial: Christchurch massacre movie news an unfortunate controversy for Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern needed the mosque attacks movie controversy about as much as a bunch of film lights shining in her face.

There has been widespread disdain here at reports from the United States that the film They Are Uswould follow the PM’s response to the 2019 attacks and her successful push to ban some types of guns – rather than be about the 51 people murdered at two mosques.

Ardern quickly distanced herself: “There are plenty of stories from March 15 that could be told, but I don’t consider mine to be one of them”.

In its own way, the public reaction to the news shows the tougher environment the Government and its leader is in compared to two years ago. Despite recent solid party polling numbers and being easily the country’s preferred leader, Ardern faces an array of challenges this year.

The vaccine rollout is stuttering unconvincingly. Covid-19’s Delta variant is a threat considering our low vaccination levels – and the travel bubble keeps that possibility alive. Fiji is struggling with an alarming outbreak of more than 600 cases on our doorstep.

There’s also been dissatisfaction over transparency, housing, infrastructure funding, public sector pay, climate and land use rules.

The new rebate scheme announced yesterday to encourage uptake of electric and hybrid vehicles, will stir the pot further thanks to a fee on buying newly imported used cars from next year.

Despite the coronavirus briefings, there has still been a fog over what’s happening on the ground with vaccination and what general steps are ahead of us. For instance, people in group 3 were supposed to start to be vaccinated in May. Now doses “by late July” have been mentioned – which is when the general population is supposed to get jabs.

With these various issues the Government has a habit of putting out bits of information and policy without enough detail and explanation. Opponents then jump in and define what it’s all about, in their view. The vehicle story, dropped on a Sunday, has already been referred to as “middle-class welfare” by National’s shadow minister for Climate Change Stuart Smith and “taxing the tradies to subsidise Teslas” by Act leader David Seymour.

The Government could be better at selling its ideas and decisions to the public. It has relied on trust built up with the public over health safety, a National Party which sometimes trips over internal troubles, and the front bench leadership.

The PM’s ability to provide focus and reassurance for the country in a crisis was a notable part of the aftermath of the Christchurch attack.

But a flurry of reactions have outlined why a film version of the mosque shootings seems exploitative and insensitive to many Kiwis’ eyes.

One common reason is that it is far too soon, the grief for victims’ families is raw. It hasn’t been that long since they had to face legal proceedings against the perpetrator. A film about the Aramoana massacre,Out of the Blue, was made 16 years after the real-life event.

Muslim groups are concerned the Christchurch film could gloss over some aspects such as the lack of focus on the white supremacist threat beforehand.

It’s not hard to understand why the film-makers were interested in how Ardern dealt with the tragedy. A divided America has had many shooting massacres in recent years with little action on gun control. Leadership empathy in the US was missing during much of last year during the pandemic.

Ardern’s actions over Christchurch and Covid last year won praise internationally and elevated her own and New Zealand’s profiles. Ardern has name recognition beyond previous New Zealand leaders. But this year has been tougher.

Controversies can be problematic for public figures when they amplify an image that already exists about that person.

As the Government grapples with substantive governing issues, Ardern could do without unwanted associations with star power, fulsome overseas praise, and Hollywood perceptions of reality right now.

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