New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photograph: Madeleine Chapman/The Spinoff

‘Transformation does take time’: a cup of tea with Jacinda Ardern, one year on

Ahead of the first anniversary of Winston Peters’ knife-edge announcement, Jacinda Ardern pops by Spinoff HQ to talk to Toby Manhire about what’s been achieved, what hasn’t, and whether or not she’s allowed to say ‘Labour-led government’ any more.


 Listen to the full interview with the PM in our podcast special here.


A year and an eternity ago, New Zealand grimaced through the final days of a post-election limbo. It was three weeks since voters had left the New Zealand First Party holding the balance of power, and it would be a few days yet before Winston Peters released the white smoke from the Beehive Theatrette.

Spoiler: Peters chose Jacinda Ardern and the Labour Party. But even as Peters stared down the barrel of the camera, the PM-to-be didn’t know it. “I had absolutely no idea,” Ardern said when she called in to The Spinoff last week. “Absolutely none. I’ve always said, it was the moment – or a minute or two before – the now deputy prime minister made the announcement, that I thought it was going our way. But not before that.” Up till then, “I would have gone 50/50.”

The anointing of a Labour led government – more on that “Labour led” label later – became clear around the point that Peters disavowed any “modified status quo”, an echo of language used by Ardern after the election. He was going for change.

The year that followed has offered hardly a chance to draw breath. The new prime minister launched immediately into a 100-day plan, with the KiwiBuild housing scheme and Families Packages at its heart, while setting a galaxy of plates spinning: a tax working group, a mental health inquiry, a Royal Commission into abuse in state care, and countless more. The National Party, which dwarfed Labour head-to-head in parliament, scored early points under the new leader Simon Bridges. Ardern barely misstepped, but many of her ministers struggled to find their feet.

On the world stage, Ardern soared. The international press swarmed to New Zealand, everyone wanted a piece of her, from fashion bibles to icky Australians. At Buckingham Palace, cloaked in a kahu huruhuru, she out-royalled the queen. In New York she was as at ease on the chat-show sofas as she was on the UN podium. And as if that weren’t all enough, the prime minister of New Zealand and her partner Clarke Gayford had a baby, announced as Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, to the delight of all but the most zealous cynics.

There’s even a children’s picture book in their honour, Shhh! Don’t Wake The Baby!, which I’d casually left propped on the Spinoff meeting table when Ardern visited last Wednesday, in the hope that she might scowl and say something damning or indiscreet. She smiled and said she thought the book very sweet.

A definitely sinister page from Shhh! Don’t Wake The Baby! by Scott Pearson (Hachette NZ)

OK, but what about this spread, with its chilling “All is quiet, All is well”: doesn’t it just look ominous and terrifying?

“It is quite sinister, like he’s about to push me into the cot.”

Exactly.

“No, I think it’s sweet. I really like it.”

Where were we? It’s a year and a bit since Ardern was propelled to the leadership in a Hail Mary by a desperate Labour Party. Has she had a chance to process what has happened, to take stock of it all?

“No,” she said.

“No. And I know I haven’t because every so often I still catch myself thinking, you have these little brief moments – sitting on the UN General Assembly floor, a year ago would I have seen myself in that position on behalf of New Zealand? No. So there are these still quite surreal moments. But there’s so little time for that. You know, no one wants to hear that I’m sitting there having these moments. They want to know I’m just cracking on with the job, so that’s what I do.”

Surreal how? Are they Holy Fuck moments?

“Just really more an appreciation. When you’re someone who’s been interested in politics since you were 17 years old, the idea of being able to represent New Zealand at that level, in that context, at a time that’s pretty heightened – would I have imagined myself in that place? Absolutely not. So you spend a couple of seconds on it then get on with it, because you’ve got a speech to give or an interview to do, or something else that takes over that little space in time.

“But equally I have those moments knowing that I’ve got my three-month old daughter next to me as well. There’s lots of surprising things.”

About that. About the three-month daughter: just about every parent says they could never be prepared – emotionally, practically – for what it does to them, how it hits. How has she been hit?

“It’s how heightened it’s made my focus on kids,” she said.

“I was already pretty focused on child wellbeing. Now there’s this extra layer to it, that I can only describe as being heightened. When I think about whether we’re making sure that families have enough income to provide for their kids I think about that in very literal terms now. I think about how it would feel if I didn’t feel I could provide, or we weren’t able to provide properly for Neve. Or how I would feel if I heard Neve was being bullied in school. It just heightens the way you view all of the things that I already cared about, but now has this extra layer of the personal to it.”

Does this mean all policies are going to be specifically focused on Neve?

“Ha. Absolutely not. But really it’s reinforced for me the emphasis that we were already placing on those issues. I already wanted to make sure that child poverty was a focus for us, now I have that extra sentiment around it.”

Jacinda Ardern talks to Toby Manhire at The Spinoff last week. Photo: Madeleine Chapman

As the American politician Mario Cuomo had it, you campaign in poetry but govern in prose. One of the most pressing questions facing Ardern, a year on, is translating the rhetorical flourish into raw change.

At the Town Hall in Auckland in August 2017, the new Labour leader and future prime minister declared climate change “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”. At the UN, and around it in New York, Ardern was trumpeting the climate cause. Last week, an IPCC report laid bare the approaching hellscape. “I don’t think that’s quite the language they used, but essentially that’s between-the-lines, yup,” said Ardern into her English Breakfast.

At the same time, the government was being assailed over escalating petrol prices, in part driven by a new Auckland regional fuel excise. Ardern switched defence into attack: the petrol companies were “fleecing” New Zealanders, she said, and a new law was on its way to more closely scrutinise their pricing. It was a deft bit of political footwork, no doubt. But it left a striking juxtaposition – the future is on fire and one of the world’s leading climate change leaders is fighting for her constituents to burn fossil fuels more cheaply.

“No, we’ve always,” said the prime minister, before starting the sentence again.

“First of all, looking at New Zealand’s emissions profile, the biggest challenge for us actually sits in agriculture. Yes, our transport emissions profile, absolutely we need to do work in that space, no doubt. That’s why the [road] excise that we generate is going into alternatives like for instance public transport options, rail to the [Auckland] airport, significant transport infrastructure that needs to be built. That’s why we have things like our excise. But at the same time it needs to be a transition, and I can’t deny that at the moment, there are very few alternatives for people in large parts of our communities around alternative transport options.

“Now we’re trying to build those, and quickly, but it’s pretty jarring to in one year have a 40-cent increase. So that’s what I’m acknowledging there. At the same time we do need to move. We’ve set all our goals around [warming of ] 1.5 degrees, we’ve set net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We’re trying to legislate and get universal buy-in so that we don’t have an electoral cycle disrupting our long-term plans. And I hope that we’ll lead the world on the research that we do around food production, because 50% of our emissions come from agriculture. We can model to the world what it takes to bring down methane.”

Those emissions come principally from the belches of cows. And here Ardern is putting faith in technology. She offered a very different historical lodestar to the nuclear-free moment: Apollo 11.

“You know, when the United States said they were going to go to the moon, they didn’t have the answer on how they were going to get there, they just set the goal. So that’s what we need to do for agriculture. We know for instance that feed, the way that we graze, all of that can have an impact on our emissions profile, but there is more work to do, and if we figure out the IP for that, we’ll have something to sell to the world.”

As for the nuclear-free metaphor, “I’ve upgraded my position on that a little bit”, Ardern said.

How?

“We were unified around the nuclear free movement. And yet what we’re doing on climate change – it is just that much harder, because it’s a call to action for everyone. And so I’m hoping we can get to the place of having that same unified moment that we had around nuclear free for climate change.”

Again: how?

“It’s huge,” she said.

“I feel at least positive that we’ve moved significantly from a debate that 10 years ago was whether or not climate change was real, now to a debate about how much we need to do and how quickly. Ten years ago I got booed at a public meeting for talking about climate change. When I first came in to parliament, a select committee was established to look at the science of climate change. So now to have moved to where I’m still hopeful that we’ll get political support from across the house for a Zero Carbon Bill – I hope – that’s a big shift. So let’s feel positive about that.”

It was 50/50, and a small miracle that it had got even to that. Jacinda Ardern hadn’t by her own admission expected to be leading the Labour Party, let alone in a position to be forming a government with New Zealand First and the Greens’ support. It’s no wonder she was left having to fill the policy-making gaps with a bazillion working groups and consultancies. They were undercooked. She’d accept that, surely?

“No. No I wouldn’t,” she said.

“I think when people level that, it’s quite closely connected to people’s view that we shouldn’t be looking outwardly and seeking the views of experts and developing up some of the work we’re doing, and I really push back against that.”

She pointed by way of example to the crackdown on predatory lending, announced earlier that day. “We’ve developed those proposals having gone out to people who work in budget advisory services and said: what’s going to make the biggest difference for you?” she said. “And we’ve come up with a scheme that basically means you’ll never pay more than 100% of what you loan. We could have come back and just done that ourselves without asking the question. We might have ended up with an interest cap. But it might not have been what the community wanted so I don’t think we should be defensive about talking to people. And yet when people level that criticism about being undercooked, that’s often what they mean.”

But shouldn’t that policy be developed in opposition? Isn’t the parade of consultations, inquiries and working groups an outsourcing of policy development that should have been done across nine years of John Key-led National government?

“Not at all,” she shot back.

“I mean, some of the things are straightforward, like we’ve got to do something about child poverty. So, straight off the bat, first 100 days, a package that we developed while we were in opposition. I helped design the Best Start payment. Changes were made to Working For Families and the Winter Energy Payment. We did all of that from opposition. We also recognised from opposition we need to do a lot around mental health, so we came up with rolling out nurses in schools, because there was evidence behind that.

“But then at the same time we heard from people who worked in the sector when they said: actually we want you to come and talk to us before you go any further. So for us it’s always been about finding that balance between the two. Sometimes as well you just don’t have the resources from opposition. A great example is looking into abuse in state care. From opposition you just can’t safely roll out that piece of work. We needed to do that properly. These were highly vulnerable people. So I think we’ve got the balance right, between the work that we’ve gone out and done alongside people and the work we did ourselves.”

Revisiting Ardern’s speeches from 2017, one of the words that pops up again and again is “transformative”. It wasn’t something I’d noticed her saying much in recent times. In the humdrum of government it seemed to have faded away.

No, she said. “I have used it, absolutely.” (She’s right: it was at least in her big rally-style “blueprint” speech last month, when she heralded a “transparent, transformative and compassionate” government.)

The transformational character of the government is evidenced, she argued, in an area like housing. “First of all having a government that says: the housing market is broken, we’re just going to build ourselves. That hasn’t been done. Yes we did it with state housing, but this is different. We are literally building houses in the market now for first home buyers, because we’ve failed them. That’s a huge intervention to make, and one that the last government wasn’t brave enough to do. Because it has risk attached.

What else? “The work that we’ve done – and this doesn’t grab headlines, but – on the Reserve Bank, and changing up monetary policy. The work that we’ve asked the Tax Working Group to do: to say, actually, we don’t know whether we’ve got a fair tax system, and we want you to look at what it will take to change that. Those are significant changes.

“Equally, what we’ll leave behind, I hope, on child poverty, on holding ourselves to account, and on climate change, has the ability to leave a legacy that will go beyond this government.

“You know, transformation does take a bit of time, though. If there’s anything that I’ve learnt, that I’ve struggled with, it’s how long things take. And that’s something that has been hard, when you come in in a hurry.”

Jacinda Ardern has a knack for good timing, and so it was with New York. A series of high-profile media spots, speeches on kindness, climate change and in defence of globalism, and more than anything the General Assembly cameo by Neve, added up to a campaign-style poetry, a contrast to and respite from the prosaic politics she’d left behind in New Zealand. At home, the prime minister had been bedevilled by two misbehaving ministers and the task of mollifying businesses whose low confidence in the economy was not just the “elephant in the room” but a “flashing great neon sign”.

And then there was Winston Peters, not so much the elephant in the room as the Cheshire cat in the Cabinet. The deputy PM had been busy asserting the independence and indispensability of New Zealand First – there was no government policy without his ministers giving assent, he grumpily reminded everyone. The impression that the deputy prime minister was exerting an influence disproportionate to his party’s nine MPs – versus Labour’s 46 – only gathered steam when he declared the term “Labour led government” to be a heinous misnomer. A description used routinely for almost a year was suddenly verboten.

It’s fair to say Ardern was not thrilled to have this raised.

“I just honestly,” she said, breaking off into a laugh that turned into a sigh.

Ardern: “I laugh because it’s –”

Me: “You’re going to say it’s semantic.”

“I just – it feels trivial to me.”

“OK, but here’s why it’s not trivial.”

“OK, go ahead. Make your case.”

“Because it manifestly is a Labour led government.”

“Yeah … That’s why I said this is trivial.”

“Right, but you seem unwilling to now call it a Labour led government.”

“It’s a coalition government. I call it what it is.”

“But it’s a Labour led government, you just accepted it’s a Labour led government.”

“Yeah, I’m the Labour leader. We are the largest party in a coalition government.”

“But you’re not saying ‘Labour led government’. And so what it seems like is the idea of there being this unwieldy power, in the form of the deputy prime minister, who because he doesn’t like the sound of it – it’s almost because it’s trivial and petty that it takes on this meaning.”

“I don’t give it that much thought to be honest.”

“Right. But it’s a Labour led government, isn’t it?”

“We’re the biggest party, we wouldn’t be there without the votes that we bring. But equally, I’ve got to be fair, we wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the two parties that stand either side of us, supporting us, too.”

“But my point is it takes on this feeling like some kind of sorcery, like if you say ‘Labour led government’ something will burst out of the cupboard.”

“No, and of course that’s ridiculous. My point is I actually don’t think people care, and so therefore that translates into me not particularly caring either.”

“So, on another issue facing this Labour led government – something that absolutely isn’t trivial …”

“See, I’m not correcting you, that shows you how much I care about this.”

“Say, ‘Labour led government’.”

“Labour led government.”

“Aha!”

“Aha! And look, nothing has happened,” she said, at which point I swear I saw a pin-striped poltergeist sail out of an air vent.

Winston Peters, Jacinda Ardern and James Shaw put on a public show of unity before Ardern’s week at the UN. Photo: Toby Manhire

Ardern spoke only fleetingly with Donald Trump when in the US, but his presence hovered – hovers – over everything. Recent events – from the alleged murder of a journalist by the Saudi regime, to the suspicious resignation of the Chinese man who headed Interpol, to general Russian impunity – has prompted commentators to argue that autocrats have been emboldened by the US president’s indifference. Has Trump abdicated a responsibility for moral leadership?

Ardern did not say, God, yes, isn’t he a nightmare. She said: “If I could speak more broadly, rather than just around some individual cases, one thing I came away from the UN General Assembly feeling really strong is that there is a huge push and sentiment in support of maintaining the order that we have all fought for and tried to strengthen for so long. New Zealand, in particular, we sat around the table when the United Nations was first formed, and made the argument around us buying into a set of norms. A set of practices, country to country, not just between governments, but on behalf of our citizens around human rights, and we’ve been utterly consistent in that regard. There is a call for a reinforcement of those from a number of countries, and so I don’t think we should discount the fact that that still exists, regardless of what might be happening at a foreign policy level from one individual country or not.”

But New Zealand can do more. “Maybe we just need to be a bit louder. New Zealand has always been loud, I like to think, but we need to seek that upholding of those rules and norms now more than ever.”

What then is the mission, the essence, the overarching philosophy of this government? In an essay for The Spinoff last week, Max Rashbrooke identified the “wellbeing budget” as a kind of flagship idea. Is it?

“That is fair. As much as these things might sound a bit dry, moving away from the principle that we’ve had, internationally, where we report on our economic progress, without much regard to whether or not that’s been at the expense of the wellbeing of your people and your environment, has huge shortcomings and we’re pushing hard against that.

“So we’re developing a set of indicators that give us a real sense of how well we’re doing, and then translating that into the way we drive our budgets. If we do that, and we plan to, we’ll be the first in the world. The OECD has called for it for some time, and there’s huge interest in what we’re trying to do here in New Zealand. What we’re trying to do is embed it in the way we develop policy and the way we develop budgets.

Doesn’t that risk sound all a bit that, you know, airy-fairy?

“We need to prove it,” she said, and then she said it again. “We need to prove it … I accept, the proof is in the pudding.”

And, she said, apropos a discussion about polling, and the carousel of Australian leaders and the last New Zealand government: “I think if you’ve got political capital the easiest way to retain it is to do nothing. Yep. But as I heard Obama say once, better to use what you’ve got to do great things, rather than just good things.”


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