NZ prime minister Jacinda Ardern at her Auckland home. Photo: Toby Manhire

‘No room for doubt that I can do this’: the Spinoff meets Jacinda Ardern

As she marks six months as Labour leader and embarks on a critical year for her newly formed government, Jacinda Ardern hosts Spinoff editor Toby Manhire at her Auckland home.

Mid-morning, Anniversary Monday, and Auckland is melting. “Yesterday, I was trying to write a speech, and it was 31 degrees in the house, and in the roof cavity it was 50. It was 50 degrees,” says Jacinda Ardern. She is standing in her kitchen, barefoot, dipping a tea bag into a mug.

“So I was instructed to climb into the roof in my underpants at midnight,” chips in Clarke Gayford – also in the kitchen, also barefoot – “to find …“

Ardern: “The fan.”

“The old fan hidden in the back corner. Dusted it off. But worth it.”

“Yeah, worth it.”

“Oh, it was good.”

“It was worth it.”

If Ardern is feeling any strain at the start of the first big political week of the year, it is well disguised. After the regular Monday morning round of broadcast interviews, the prime minister has popped back to the Point Chevalier home she shares with Gayford, fishing luminary and fellow expectant parent. At lunchtime she has an appearance at the Laneway music festival in Albert Park before heading down to Wellington and a congested week that includes ticking off the last few items on the feted 100-day plan, the resumption of parliament and a state of the nation speech. Correction: not a state of the nation speech. “It’s only 10 minutes long!”

If the week all looks like a blur, hasn’t it all? On the morning of Auckland Anniversary Monday in 2017, Ardern was also preparing for a visit to Laneway. But she was doing so as a list MP for a party in the polling doldrums, gearing up for a sleepy and genial Mt Albert byelection. In the year since, Ardern has become an electorate MP, been promoted to deputy party leader, elected party leader, and made prime minister. A thing or two has happened in her personal life, too. She lost a grandmother. She lost a cat. In the middle of January she told the country she was pregnant. And those are just the bits we’re privy to.

Has she had a chance to reflect on it all?

“I always said I was going to do that over summer, and then I just decided, over summer, to not think about anything,” says Ardern. “So, no, not really.”

The prime minister is sitting on the sofa, flanked by frames containing a Dick Frizzell print and a chart of the Tāmaki Strait. Over on the sideboard stands a watercolour of Paddles, sent by a well-wisher after the celebrity cat perished under a car in November. In front of the prime minister is a long, thin coffee table, laden with a bowl of little ornamental globes, a plate of blueberry muffins and piles of books and magazines. Sample titles: Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect, and Communicate with Your Baby (“we’ve been given all of these books; I just haven’t done anything with them yet”) and The Best of Shed Magazine. Gayford has disappeared to another part of the house.

“I did think about her quite a bit when we announced that I was pregnant.” Ardern is referring to her grandmother, who died in the final days of the campaign. “I called my grandfather, and I think it’s fair to say he was quite speechless. He just said: ‘Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.’ Over and over. And then he said: ‘Poor you!’

“‘Poor you!’ He kept saying that and I said, ‘look, grandad’ – because obviously he was just completely thrown by the news – I said, ‘look, grandad, just don’t listen to talkback for two weeks. I’ll give you a call back.’”

Ardern’s grandmother has been brought up a number of times in the couple of weeks since the pregnancy was revealed, implicitly sending an olive branch to those who have misgivings about the announcement. “I did think about how my grandma would have reacted. She probably would have questioned me juggling both things, a little bit. My grandma was a very traditional woman. But at the same time would want me to have kids. So a bit torn, probably.”

The first ever press conference to discuss a New Zealand prime minister’s pregnancy, held 10 days earlier outside the same modest two-bedroom house we’re sitting in now, had come after a lot of planning. Everything had been tied down: Winston Peters was to babysit the PM’s seat for six weeks. Gayford would be stay-at-home dad. It was “a complete surprise” for a couple that had already begun seeking fertility advice – a note sounded to forestall criticisms that the nation should have been given louder warning of the first couple’s procreational ambitions. Grandad, don’t listen to talkback.

“I definitely tried to look at it really dispassionately,” she says, pausing for a sip from the Shackleton mug. “To think: What would someone who doesn’t know me at all, who may have a slightly different view towards my leadership, how are they going to take this news? I really tried to think about it from that perspective. I think probably they’re looking for certainty. And the best way I can provide that is by providing a plan. And so that’s what I really thought through. How can I really demonstrate that, yes, amid all this happy news, I have a plan.

“That was quite important to me. Also because I wanted people to know that, given how soon it was after being elected, that I took this job really seriously. I felt like the best way to convey that was to show that I’d thought it all through, surprise or not.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford with Gayford’s nieces at Parliament after a swearing-in ceremony in October. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Six months ago today, Andrew Little quit the Labour leadership and endorsed Jacinda Ardern as his successor. After being unanimously elected by the caucus, her first public task as leader, with less than seven weeks to polling day, was before the cynics, scholars and cadavers of the parliamentary press gallery. It could hardly have gone better – assured, confident, witty. Did some kind of switch flick?

“No, I don’t think so. Unless you take the view that you’ve never seen it since,” she deadpans.

“I’d say it was always in me – it’s just what’s required of you is very different in the moment that you become leader. When you’re part of a team you defer and you’re there to support your leader.”

And there was no time to overthink it. “That was probably a good thing. I just came straight out of caucus and went down there, and I thought: the one thing people just need to get a sense of from me in this moment is that I can do this. And I’m not going to leave any room for doubt that I can do this… There was no time to be anything else, or anyone else, other than just who I was. Even the debates. You had a bit of debate prep time. Not much. So it meant that, if nothing else, people at least got authenticity.”

Ardern’s arrival as leader detonated every prediction of a pedestrian campaign. Labour surged, even overtaking National in successive polls. Ardern erred tactically, however, in reversing Little’s pledge that any changes stemming from a tax working group would be held until after the 2020 election. That “captain’s call”, which left open the possibility of unknown tax changes, was a gift for National, which targeted Labour with ads that refashioned its “Let’s Do This” slogan into “Let’s Tax This”. Ardern folded her hand, reverting to the earlier position.

How does Ardern look back on that now. It was a cock-up, right?

“Do you know,” she says, intimating yes without actually saying it, “what I wish I had done is sat and thought through the timelines of all of that, because I’d said that I wanted to get it all done and dusted within a three-year period; I wanted there to be clarity over where we were going and I saw urgency over why we needed to do it. But if I’d sat down and thought: OK but what is that realistically going to look like, I would have quickly worked out that actually we would have been so close to the next election anyway that I could have gone through the process, got the work done, even put the legislation in, but still leave enough of an overhang for people to have their say. I wish I had thought that timeline through. But I still felt that really keen sense of urgency.”

Ardern remains ropeable over National’s assertion that Labour would raise income tax – a claim that rested on the semantic contortion that they would have to reverse the National government’s future tax cuts. “You can repeat what you know to be true till you’re blue in the face. But when you’re standing in a debate, and without even flinching your opponent just says it continually, you just sit there sounding like a politician, saying it’s not true, it’s not true, it’s not true… I needed to put a line under that. I needed to signal that that was just not on the table for us, for that period. That was frustrating.”

Did it feel at that point as if the campaign as a whole might be slipping through their fingers?  “No, I didn’t feel like it was slipping away. I just knew it was something that I needed to manage.”

Jacinda Ardern: ‘over time I’ve decided there are enough young women watching that I just can’t choose to say nothing every time’. Photo: T Manhire

Another reality that Ardern had to manage in the 2017 campaign was sexism. Most infamously, there was the sign held aloft at a Morrinsville rally opposing Labour’s water tax plans: ‘She’s a pretty communist‘. There was the standoff with Mark Richardson over whether it was acceptable to quiz a female employee about child-bearing plans. And there’s plenty more in the archive: Graham Lowe’s “pretty little thing” remark (“I wasn’t offended by that,” says Ardern now) and the branding of the Auckland Central race against Nikki Kaye “The Battle of the Babes” (“that was Patrick Gower in the Herald“, she says, with a death stare).

But how bad was it in 2017? “It wasn’t Helen Clark circa 2005,” says Ardern. “I remember that campaign. There were some horrific moments in there. So I, you know, note the progress. And I don’t take that lightly because other people have gone through quite a bit in order to get you there.”

Like it or not, Ardern is seen by countless people as a torch-bearer for women in New Zealand and beyond. “It took me a while to acknowledge that,” she says. “I remember there was this cartoon. It was just after David Cunliffe had taken over as leader. They portrayed me as a ring girl. I was in a bikini with stilettos and holding up ring cards, and it said: ‘The caucus won’t be happy unless I find a job for Jacinda’.

“I got a call from a journalist who wanted comment on it, and the said journalist was quietly enraged by the portrayal, and I had this huge hesitance. I thought, if I say anything particularly negative will I be portrayed as humourless? And that’s probably a little bit indicative of how I’ve sometimes treated those issues. If you say something do you further or your cause or make it worse? And yet, over time I’ve decided there are enough young women watching that I just can’t choose to say nothing every time.”

In September 2017 Labour did fade, but it didn’t fall. The prospect of a Labour government with NZ First and the Greens in support looked shaky on election night, but after the tally of special votes – a great number of which came from first-time voters enrolling as they cast their ballots –  Winston Peters’ party had two clear options. Its decision – or his decision, who knows – as dramatically revealed to all on the evening of October 19, saw Ardern complete her vertiginous rise to the premiership.

Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters get into governing mode. Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Anyone hoping for a good lie-down was quickly disappointed, however, with the starter gun fired immediately on the 100 day plan. The last of those days arrives this Saturday, and the final items are being ticked off – the inquiry into mental health, the programme to tackle child poverty within 10 years, and finally the inquiry into abuse in state care. Almost everything in the 100 day plan is a starting point – the government remains in its infancy. But as far as momentum and energy goes, the test will come on day 101.

That challenge was part of a focus of the speech – the not-the-state-of-the-nation speech that Ardern delivered yesterday, during which she also laid out the ambition of a halving in child poverty within 10 years.

But back up a bit: why no state of the nation address? “The State of the Nation feels really backward-facing to me,” says Ardern. “We spent the election campaign really canvassing where we were as a nation, deciding who had the mandate to change that up, going forward. But I think the challenge for us will be, as with any government, your actions demonstrate your legacy.

“You know, when you think about the Kirk government or the Lange government, there’s often things that will come to mind. That’s not just about what you do, but how you do it. So in amongst it is your relationship with Māori, the reputation you build on the international stage, the way that you choose to operate, your transparency, how transformative you try to be – all of that builds into the kind of government you are. So I think the next stage is scene setting, a little bit, for the kind of government we want to be. Not leaving that to chance, being really deliberate about the things we want to achieve.”

The prime minister has been using the word transformative a lot in 2018. “Ultimately I do want us to be a transformative government,” she says. “I want, when we’ve left, for people to say we’re not just clean-green any more, we’re carbon neutral, or we’re striving to be. That we genuinely have got things in place now that could make us the best place in the world to be a child. And that we have our international reputation back.”

Ardern has been hailed and assailed as a harbinger of socialism – just as she has for being a voice of third-way orthodoxy. Which is it? Is she Jeremy Corbyn or Tony Blair – both of whom you could imagine heralding a transformative moment.

“We’re just going to be ourselves,” Ardern says. “I get this constant need to compare and find a mould. Because that makes it easier to determine what kind of government this is going to be. But we will be our own government. And I’m not modelling myself after any political leader. In particular I’ve got a very different set of circumstances that we’re having to govern under. I’m a pragmatic idealist. You have to be pragmatic when you’re in an MMP government. I’m going to try the blueberry muffins.”

One of the earliest tests of the three-part government Ardern leads centres on the TPP, which has been given a Thick of It style rebrand as CPTPP – the C and P tacked on to persuade the world that it is comprehensive and progressive as well as Trans-Pacific and a Partnership. Thousands marched in the streets opposing the deal last year, and the opposition Labour Party strongly opposed National’s embrace. Some changes have been secured, but crucial elements remain, such as the investor state dispute system. Yet Labour, now in favour of the deal, has so far faced only muted objection – many seem to be giving Ardern the benefit of the doubt.

“Yup,” she says. “But I think some of the fear dissipated when the United States left. I think that’s fair. And that wasn’t just symbolic. I think it’s roughly 20 provisions, off the top of my head, have been suspended since then.”

Ardern points to the removal of clauses around copyright and Pharmac, foreign ownership and the treaty. But New Zealand could not get ISDS scrapped. “It’s not perfect,” says Ardern. “It is not a perfect agreement. And I will not tell people it’s a perfect agreement. But in all agreements you’re always weighing up the benefits versus the cost. And going forward now, we don’t want to keep having this debate around ISDS. We have side letters we’re still negotiating. I’ve already said Australia will be covered by that, which means 50% of our foreign direct investment through TPP countries will not have ISDS clauses applying to them. And we’re trying to get a few more of those. So we did our best.”

Jacinda Ardern and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau at the ASEAN summit in Manila. Photo: Trudeau’s Twitter

Proper scrutiny of the TPP redux is impossible for now, however, because the text itself has not been released – something that Labour vocally decried in opposition. “We want the text out there,” says Ardern now. “We want to do that as soon as possible. There’s a slight holdup – all negotiating parties are meant to agree before text is released. It’s a translation issue that’s holding us up at the moment.”

While Labour might have changed its tune, the Greens’ opposition to the deal is implacable. That means CPTPP legislation will depend on the support of the National Party, against a backdrop of MPs from the government-supporting Greens actively encouraging protest. Hardly a glowing advertisement for a stable government.

Ardern disagrees. “I think it just demonstrates we’re in an MMP environment. And we know the Greens’ position. We’ve always known it. We’ve had open dialogue about it. When I was over in Da Nang [the Apec summit in Vietnam, where TPP was salvaged], I had conversations directly with the Greens, to make sure they were up to date with what was going on, because of course we had Winston Peters with us during that trip. So, no, I don’t see it as being fragile. I see it as being robust. This is an MMP environment.”

At the end of the week Ardern heads to Waitangi and the annual commemorations for which Ardern’s advice to her grandfather about talkback radio should be universal. The new prime minister will buck with recent tradition not just by attending, but by staying five days in the north.

I was interested to know who and how that decision was arrived at – imagining, perhaps, a high-level party strategy team that came up with the plan. “It was just me,” says Ardern with a laugh. “In part it was programming that drove it” – the diary became filled up and it just made sense. “So the option was: dip up, and go back, and I thought, no, there’s a lot of things that I can usefully do up there.”

And something else. “One of my frustrations, the entire time I’ve been a politician, and I’ve only missed a couple of Waitangi Days, is I just don’t feel like there’s a true sense of the celebrations up there being broadcast. Yes, sometimes there’s protest. There’s robust discussion. But by and large it’s a celebratory event with a really nice feel to it, where lots of people come and participate, lots of kids, and the longer I’m there perhaps the more people might see of that. Perhaps.”

How’s her reo? “Poor. It’s poor. I’m working on my pronunciation. I’m just finding, in amongst everything else, that I’m taking in the constant briefing phase, that my memory for the reo isn’t what I’d like it to be. But I’m working on my pronunciation. I get my colleagues to help me. I try and learn mihi that are specific for different events. I have a kaumatua who helps me. I’m really mindful of it, because I’m right on the cusp of a generation that should be better, but isn’t. Right on the cusp. So I feel a weight of expectation.”

The more immediate demands of that generation are in the baking heat at Albert Park and Laneway – an analogue, perhaps for John Key’s happy place at, say, the Matakana Farmers’ Market. But anyone expecting a repeat of the 2014 appearance as a DJ will be disappointed. “No. No, no, no. No,” she says, just in case that’s not clear. “That was many years ago.”

Ardern introduces DD Dumbo at Laneway Festival 2018. Photo: Dave Simpson/Getty Images

I wonder aloud whether she sighs every time that photograph of her DJing is rolled out. She’s unambiguous on this point, too. “I hate that. I really hate it! I really, really hate it. Not least because it’s, like, full bingo wings, from underneath my,” she says, tailing off into a grim laugh.

At Glastonbury last year, the crowd chanted “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. “That will not happen. That will not happen,” says Ardern. “Firstly, I’m not that presumptuous to ever assume that that would spontaneously happen.” You could start it? “I don’t think it works like that. Secondly, I’m there as the gates open. No one goes to Laneway right at the beginning – a few die-hard fans who really want to see the opening acts. And, thirdly, I’m not delivering some watershed speech. I’m literally welcoming everyone there, and acknowledging the artists and the audiences… I’ve been enough to know that it will be a passing moment in time.”

Jacinda Ardern on the campaign in Whanganui. Photo: Toby Manhire

Which loops us back to the beginning: how to process everything, that blur of passing moments in time? “In some ways, I think people have all sorts of things that happen in their lives, mine’s just particularly public,” says the prime minister.

“People see my life list writ large. And I think, if anything, you probably realise how most of us at some point just put things in compartments. Sometimes, whether rightly or wrongly, we just deal with it later. I just haven’t done any of that yet.”

 


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