Politics

‘My final, final plea’: a day in Whanganui with Jacinda Ardern

Five days out from the election, is the Jacinda effect still alive? As farmers protest in Morrinsville amid talk of a rural-urban divide, Toby Manhire joins the Labour leader on the trail in Whanganui.

Jacinda Ardern is up the front, in 1C. On a big plane, it’s a posh seat – but there are no posh seats on the 30-seater turboprop to Whanganui, and the Air Chathams cabin attendant wants to know if she’s happy sitting by the emergency exit, and whether she is familiar with the procedure in case of an accident. Unlike the rest of us, the leader of the Labour Party can’t simply lie and say yes, not with Lloyd Burr from Newshub sitting directly behind her. So she scans the operational information and nods. “OK,” says the attendant. “Let’s do this.”

What we’re doing is departing Auckland for a day’s campaigning in the River City, in an electorate that is something of a bellwether. If the rejuvenated Labour Party were to take Whanganui, a seat being vacated by National’s Chester Burrows, who has held it since 2005, that would suggest the Ardern tide has proved strong enough to change the government.

The man in 4C, wearing a Kathmandu beanie with the label still attached, deadpans to his neighbour, “I hope we’re not going to Morrinsville.” We’re not, but that’s where the story is – the ground zero of the so-called “rural-urban divide”, with farmers gathering, pointedly in Ardern’s home town, to vent their anger against Labour’s water tax policy and to jeer Winston Peters as he bloviates beneath an enormous fibreglass cow. We’ve also left the other story of the day behind at Auckland airport, where planes and passengers are stranded by a jet fuel shortage.

Furious farmers and a fuel crisis – an almost nostalgic, late ‘70s pair of stories – will dominate Ardern’s media stand-up later in the day. Probably there are talking points laid out in the ‘Leader of the Opposition Briefing Notes’ that Ardern flicks through on the plane. “Shortly we’ll be coming around the cabin with complimentary tea, coffee and water,” announces the attendant over the crackly PA. “And some Tim Tam biscuits.”

“Tim Tams!” says the leader of the opposition.

Selfies at Whanganui City College. Photo: Toby Manhire

The Labour leader’s day of campaigning, five days out, begins with a student welcome in the assembly hall at Whanganui City College. Steph Lewis, Labour’s 29-year-old candidate in the electorate, is there, and her name is on the dux honours board, too. “I wasn’t dux,” says Ardern, who chooses not to mention that she was student rep on the Board of Trustees at Morrinsville College.

The school’s principal, Peter Kaua, tellingly welcomes Ardern by relating a joke from John Key, when he visited the school as opposition leader. “There was a huge gust of wind and he didn’t miss a beat. He said, ‘the winds of change are nigh’. And there could be changing winds for you, too.”

The students, glancing suspiciously at the media huddled to the side, pitch a bunch of smart questions, everything from plastic bags to options for young Māori, even something on fiscal responsibility. Ardern keeps the energy up, drops a joke or two in, though sometimes drifts off into wonk-speak – listing numbers in the billions that mean nothing to people and beginning sentences with the dreaded words, “what we’ve said is”.

“What do you think about National’s ad campaign about tax?” asks one student. “How do you handle that, professionally?”

“Professionally!” says Ardern. “That’s a good caveat you put on that question. Um, look, obviously election campaigns are pretty robust. There’s a lot at stake. We both care a lot about what we’re campaigning about. My frustration is just making sure that we’re campaigning on things that are truthful and sometimes I’ve seen ads that have said things that just aren’t true. So that is frustrating. But, you know, this is politics. I just really wanted to run a really positive campaign.”

Another student asks: “Do you see yourself as prime minister in the future?”

“I’m hoping to do it by Saturday,” she says, to a wave of laughter. “Not the distant future. Five days, actually.”

On a tour of the school, a handful of students manoeuvre to grab a photo with their guest. “Jacinda is great,” says one. Do you know who the last leader of the Labour Party was? “Nup.”

Jacinda Ardern in Majestic Square. Photo: Toby Manhire

At Ardern’s side in the assembly hall is Annette King, who is lauded by the new Labour leader as the longest serving woman in parliament. King is manifestly invigorated, and has been at Ardern’s elbow for most of the campaign. Doesn’t part of her wish she hadn’t decided to stand down, I ask her as we wander from the school and towards the centre of Whanganui.

“No. No, not at all.”

Not even a bit?

“No, I made the decision and it was the right decision.”

What’s her role on the Ardern campaign trail?

“I’m the official support crew.”

The chaperone?

“Chaperone! I go up and stand there and move things on. She gets crowded, surrounded by people.”

You’re the consigliere?

“Ooh, I like that. Except it sounds a bit like something from the mafia.”

Jacinda ARdern and Colleen Garrett. Photo: Toby Manhire

Surrounded by a bevy of Labour T-shirted supporters, Ardern walks down Victoria Avenue. The sun has come out after a hailstorm, and there are waves and toots of support along Whanganui’s main street. The first person Ardern meets as she turns into Majestic Square, the base of a pancake of layers down from the grand old Sarjeant Gallery, is Colleen Garrett (“double L, double E, double R, double T”), who embraces he fellow former pupil from Morrinsville College.

“We were best buddies in the school production, Driftwood. It was a really good show.”

Did she seem destined to scale the political heights then?

“When she went on a visit to the Beehive, and came back to the college to give a speech about it, I just knew she was going to be the PM one day. She was excited. It was in her, you know? That speech just basically told me: You’re going to be PM one day. She was excited. You could hear the excitement in her voice.”

Garrett long since left Morrinsville and settled in Whanganui, where she’s bought a house, but still has friends and family in the Waikato town. She doesn’t know about the farmers’ protest, though. “That just sounds pretty stupid.”

There’s a big turnout for Ardern’s public appearance – as many as 500, according to the Wanganui Chronicle, which will document her visit the next day with the front-page headline “Ardent fans out in force”. As the woman dubbed “stardust” by Bill English showers the crowd with hugs and handshakes and selfies, I bump into the city’s mayor, Hamish McDouall, whose CV includes victories in TV contests Mastermind and Sale of the Century as well as three unsuccessful bids as Labour candidate for the seat of Whanganui.

At the rally. Photo: Toby Manhire

And it turns out he’s also related to the leader of the opposition. “She’s my second cousin. We only worked it out four or five years ago, when my sister was doing some genealogy and mentioned this matriarch of our family, Queenie, and said, What was Queenie’s maiden name? I had no idea and she said it was Ardern and there it was.”

Does he regret not being the Labour candidate, being part of all this? “Not really. I’m pretty happy.”

Not even a bit?

“If it is it’s a very small part because my political decisions were made around family. If there’s any regret it’s that I won’t be part of the next government, but that’s only small.”

There’s been talk of a youthquake, but one of the striking things about the crowd here – to be fair, it is the middle of a working day – is the number of older people. One elderly gentlemen approaches Ardern, clasping something into her palm and whispering in her ear.

The youngest person at the rally, seven-week-old Eva, and her mother, Labour’s candidate for Rangitikei, Heather Warren. Photo: Toby Manhire

What was that, I ask him, some kind of written note, a keepsake? Fred Rose – aka Tarzan – hands me his business card, and introduces his wife, Lorna (Jane). The couple, in their 80s, are confident of a victory under Ardern. Rose crosses her fingers. Ardern could make New Zealand appealing again, she reckons. “Cousins, children, they’ve all gone to Australia.”

Fred thinks the campaign messages could be better, and he scrawls a list on the back of the card. “They need to say New Zealand is a place to be proud of,” he says. That, and stressing the fact that public debt has increased under National. And something about Comalco that I failed to properly understand.

While the now familiar waves of Ardern-inspired energy are obvious here, there’s also something else in the air: a trepidation. So close, yet so far. Can she do it, I ask one woman leaning over a rail on the periphery as Ardern speaks on the bandstand. “Yeah. I think so. I think so. I think so,” she says, as if trying to persuade herself.

This is Ardern’s stump speech, regional edition: emphasising housing, pledging to match National’s funding for the local velodrome, as well as to put $3 million into rejuvenating the port. She speaks fluently and without notes, with a sprinkling of jokes and the obligatory Norman Kirk name checks.

“I commit now: when I am prime minister, I will work alongside local government, local people, to answer the problems that exist in our regions. And I can tell you it will be even easier here, because I’ll just be catching up with my cuz.”

That gets a laugh, and applause, out of which Ardern says, “So my final, final plea: we have five days. Five days till we can change the history of New Zealand. Five days for you to use your voice. Please, make sure you go out and vote early.” And Ardern has clearly resolved one issue she’s wavered on – which words in the catchcry to emphasise. Now it’s all three. “together we can do this, so let’s. Do. This.”

In the media stand-up on the bandstand stage, most of the questions are about another town, four and a half hours drive north. Farmers are protesting in Morrinsville. Is there an urban-rural divide? “No. No there’s not, and as I have been reiterating throughout this campaign I believe New Zealanders are united behind the issues that we need to tackled. United behind cleaning up our rivers. United around ending homelessness. United around having a better health system.”

OK, but what about the urban-rural divide? “My focus has been talking about my background, where I’ve grown up. I know that there are plenty of farmers who are environmentalists and want to see us cleaning up our rivers…

“Having grown up in Morrinsville, I’ve always known that there are people who take a different view when it comes to politics, and obviously that still continues. It doesn’t surprise me. But I also know I do have some home support, too. My ultimate goal is as prime minister to unite us behind the cause of making sure our rivers are clean.”

What does she make of the sign at the Morrinsville protest that reads ‘She’s a Pretty Communist’, asks the glint-eyed Lloyd Burr from Newshub. She responds with a laugh that morphs into a sigh. “Yeah, that’s what I make of that… I’m a pretty communist? Do they intend that to be a compliment or an insult? I’m not entirely sure.”

Lunch at the RSA is in the dining room out the front, with tables squeezed together surrounded by paintings of fallen heroes, tanks and poppies, temporarily joined by Labour signage. Ardern and King sit across from one another, deep in conversation.

Steph Lewis is chatting with a table of supporters about important local issues including the relative merit of the two kinds of fish pie in the buffet. (Lloyd Burr from Newshub strongly favours the smoked fish variety.) What difference has the Ardern effect had upon Lewis’s campaign? “There has been fresh energy. People were sad to see Andrew Little go – he was the buddy MP for this seat, but it’s been great.” Their latest internal poll, she says, showed the National candidate Harete Hipango with a lead of less than 1.5 percentage points. “It’s going to be close.” Her pitch, in part, is that she represents, together with the new leader, “generational change”

One supporter has brought along a poster of Labour’s Wonder Woman. Ardern and King both sign it. What is King’s role? She’s an indispensable useful organiser, and “she also knows a huge amount.”

Annette King and Jacinda Ardern and some fan art at the Whanganui RSA. Photo: Toby Manhire

Like a kind of policy hard drive? “Yeah, like a hard drive. A second hard drive.”

Ardern has been handed a tiny baby – Eva, born prematurely to Labour’s candidate for Rangitikei, Heather Warren, seven weeks ago. “Don’t go getting clucky,” admonishes one elderly-adjacent woman in a Labour T-shirt as she wanders past. “We need you.”

The last stop of the day is an important encounter with one of the staples of New Zealand election campaigns: boats. We’re off to Castlecliff, and Q-West Boat Builders. The manager leads Ardern and the trailing press pack into the workshop, where repairs are under way on a boat called “Outer Limits”.

“I can take you up into the boat if you like,” the manager suggests to Ardern. She does not go up into the boat.

Jacinda Ardern and a boat. Photo: Toby Manhire

Ardern heads to the staff room, where about 30 workers in blue overalls stare impassively at their visitor. As the siren to signal the end of smoko sounds, she says, “I’ll talk really slowly and go as long as I can.” They don’t appear very interested in the speech, which emphasises that “whatever some people might say, we are not, not going to increase income tax”, but when Ardern travels around the tables, there are a series of detailed policy conversations, ranging from tax and regional economic development to refugee policy.

I get chatting to one of the boat building team. It’s the best job he’s ever had, he says, though they’re about to go through a stint without any big contracts which will mean employment contracts get ended. Has he decided which way to vote? “Yeah. I think after nine years of National it’s time for a change. So I looked around and I’m voting Labour. I don’t know if she’s got the experience, but hopefully she’s got the people around her who have.”

Over at the sink, Lloyd Burr from Newshub is doing the dishes.

Jacinda Ardern and Steph Lewis at Placemakers. Photo: Toby Manhire

There’s one last, impromptu visit to Placemakers before returning to the airport. Steph Lewis’s younger sister had wanted to meet Ardern, but couldn’t get away from work. There are hugs and photos, but the media have mostly had enough. Lloyd Burr from Newshub rifles through the discount bin.

As we walk back to the car I ask Lewis about the urban-regional divide. Does what happened in Morrinsville today denote a wider sentiment – in a seat like Whanganui, even a hint of that could be enough to destroy her chances.

“It’s not an issue,” Lewis says. “It’s not been an issue. I’ve had people up in Hawera, which has traditionally been a quite blue part of the electorate, where Chester’s had quite a stronghold, because that’s his home turf. I go up there wearing a bright red ‘Steph for Whanganui’ T-shirt, and I get waves and people tooting. We haven’t had anyone take down our signs up there. We’ve had a really fantastic reception up there… I think it’s been a bit trumped up, for want of a better term.”

Ardern hugs Lewis goodbye, whispering something into her ear, and climbs back into the silver crown car, back to the airport and 1C and all the responsibilities of the emergency exit.

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