Labour leader Jacinda Ardern visited Māngere and Ōtara on Saturday. Simon Wilson went along to see how big the wind is really blowing.
What a storm in a shopping centre. Labour MP Aupito William Sio, who’s the big man in Māngere politics, introduced Jacinda Ardern in the Māngere Town Centre on Saturday morning. He said they’d had the Jacinda Effect in Wellington, Jacinda Mania in Dunedin and now it was… he paused, excited … the Jacinda Tsunami! The big crowd of people, who were every bit as excited as he was, cheered, again. Just to be clear, though, there was no sudden quiet, the tide did not suddenly rush out and there was no enormous roaring mass of energy pouring through the mall, drowning all in its path. A very excited and pretty large crowd, but it’s not like all the other people outside in the market rushed in to hear her speak. Not an actual tsunami, nor anything resembling one.
She did have David Tua, though, who stood centre stage behind the lectern in a full-length black leather coat, blond tuft on his chin. He didn’t make a speech. When she spoke, she said she had walked in with “David”, and she stroked his arm while she said it. She had thought the fans were cheering for him. Yeah, right.
Jacinda Ardern pulls a crowd, no mistake. There were hundreds of people packed into that mall to catch a glimpse, experience their moment in history, and old hands were all saying they’d seen nothing like it since David Lange in 1984. But Lange had nearly 18 months as leader before that election, so it was a slower build, and Robert Muldoon in 1975 also had about that long to forge a winning campaign. Jacinda Ardern is attempting to do it in eight weeks. Impossible? It might just be the perfect amount of time: long enough for people to talk about tsumanis, not long enough for people to get tired of all the rush.
Manukau ward councillor Alf Filipaina was MC for the occasion, calling out locals to dance before she arrived, keeping the energy up and then, as the brass band entered from the far end of the mall, abandoning all decorum and shouting into his microphone, “Here’s our leader! Here’s our leader! Hallelujah, here’s our leader!”
I asked him afterwards if he’d ever seen anything like it and he said, “Oh well, we did have Manu Samoa in here.”
The band and David Tua were not Ardern’s only escorts as she walked the length of the mall to the stage. A large bunch MPs in red t-shirts crushed in behind her, and up ahead four tattooed young men with glistening oiled bodies led the way, blowing conch shells. When she was seated they performed an exuberant ceremonial slap dance, direct to her, not to the crowd. Next up the Auckland Gospel Choir performed, also to her, also with their backs to the crowd. “This little light of mine,” they sang in gorgeous multipart harmony, “I’m gonna let it shine.”
Ardern was there to announce new health policy. Actually she was there to inspire people with the experience of being in her presence, but the policy helped. The poorer half the population will pay no more than $8 to visit the doctor, everyone else will get $10 off the cost of a visit. National’s campaign manager Steven Joyce was quick to put out a press release saying Labour had no new ideas, this was just piggybacking on National’s policy, but that completely missed the point. Yes indeed, Labour is taking National’s policy and making it better for everyone, but the problem with that is… what exactly?
This was Jacinda Ardern, speaking directly to the crowd, saying we’re going to make your lives better than the other lot. It was that simple.
Aupito William Sio introduced Ardern by getting everyone to chant “Party vote Labour!” and then listing her particular qualities, which he said were: “She’s young, she’s intelligent, she’s articulate and when it comes to the issues facing us Southside, she’s very staunch.”
Ardern herself talked about “a moment in history”. She wore a fawn knee-length coat, sleek black trousers, serious heeled boots and many lei, which is to say she dressed as herself, not in a floral shirt or dress. She said the support of the crowd meant so much. “Let’s do this together,” she said, toying radically with her own party slogan.
One observer told me he thinks she’s the first Labour politician in a long, long time to talk over the top of everything, directly to the public. What he meant was, like John Key and possibly no one else since Muldoon, she’s reduced all the political commentary and analysis to background babble. While all the official political noise this week was about the price of water and tax and the PREFU, Jacinda Ardern was talking to people about warm dry homes and health and hope – and they were listening.
Is it true? We don’t know yet. But there was plenty of evidence for it in Māngere on Saturday, and in Ōtara which she visited earlier in the day.
In that Māngere speech, she said New Zealand has the lowest rate of home ownership in 60 years and rents have risen four times faster than “your pay”. Labour, she said, would do three things to fix that: “ban foreign speculators” from buying homes, “close the tax loopholes” and “build a lot more houses”.
She talked about the thousands of young people who are not in education or training and called them “wasted lives”. About the policy to offer driving lessons in schools, because “70% of jobs need you to have a driving licence”. About how they will abolish fees for tertiary training: “it’s going to take us a little while but we can make education free”.
She said wages should be enough to live on, so “straight away” the minimum wage under a Labour government would rise to $16.50 and they would work toward a “liveable wage”, a higher benchmark, for all. She said homes should be insulated and heated, and “we’re going to require that”.
She introduced the new health policy. It wasn’t her fault that as she talked, the smell of fried chicken from a nearby shop in the mall filled the air.
After she finished there was another school group ready to perform, in costume, and another, and then when she got outside there was another. She never really did a walkabout, in the mall or outside in the market. She just stood there and got mobbed.
Jacinda moves in many worlds. Before it was her turn to speak in Māngere, this happened: Father Michael Endemann, who is the priest in charge of the 25 Samoan Catholic parishes in Auckland, took to the lectern. His purpose was to pull Jacinda Ardern into line. He offered a short prayer and told us we were all gathered in the name of God. He offered a reading, which was Psalm 127. He read the whole thing and it went like this:
Unless the Lord builds the house,
They labour in vain who build it;
Unless the Lord guards the city,
The watchman keeps awake in vain.
It is vain for you to rise up early,
To retire late,
To eat the bread of painful labours;
For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.
Behold, children are a gift of the Lord,
The fruit of the womb is a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior,
So are the children of one’s youth.
How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them;
They will not be ashamed
When they speak with their enemies in the gate.
Yes, it was odd. Jacinda Ardern, raised a Mormon but no longer practising, maintained her respect but did her best never even to look at Father Endemann. She bowed her head when called upon but then looked out and around. She wasn’t going to pick a fight with the Catholic priest but she wasn’t going to let him bully her or define her either.
But he sure did try. He said “we can interpret the reading in many different ways” and went on to explain that it means one thing: unless you accept the Lord, all your labours will be in vain. He didn’t talk about children being a blessing or God’s reward for faith. He said, “Whether you are a believer in Jesus Christ or not, let us remember that we do all have a Maker.”
Psalm 27 is a harsh lesson: you may build a great city but you are nothing unless you do it for God. He said, “Miss Jacinda, my good friend, although this is the second time we have met,” (she turned her relentlessly positive smile on him at that), “may God bless you. Miss Jacinda, you must lead, and you must look to God.”
Then Endemann went back to his seat, in the front row with Aupito William Sio and Ardern herself. It was her turn to speak next. She went through the niceties of thanking him but she did not respond to or even acknowledge what he had said.
Earlier at the Ōtara Market, she went through the same ritual, without the Catholic framing. Speech, adoration, endless selfies.
At both places, she quoted Sio: “Southside is where the people of the four Bs live. Brown, beautiful, brainy and bilingual.” Both times it got a very good laugh.
Doing a selfie with Jacinda means you get right inside her personal space. No one just stands next to her, they snuggle up. Even the men, and quite a few men take the opportunity. But it’s women she appeals to most. All ages, from the elderly right down to little girls, and all ethnicities. She connects, it cannot be denied. Remember that “missing million” who don’t vote but possibly just might if the right politician found a way to speak to them? Ardern is busily reminding us about something most commentators have barely considered: an awful lot of that missing million are women.
The Māori Party was at the Ōtara Market in force, as usual. This is their heartland too. TOP was there and so was NZ First, but few of the shoppers were interested in either. The National Party was represented by a group of about a dozen young men, mainly Indian, who marched noisily up and down the rows in their blue t-shirts, determinedly waving their blue flags.
I came to this market in January, to watch Labour’s then leader Andrew Little in action. He walked the rows with his entourage, and sometimes people came up to speak to him, and when they did a few others would join in. He talked to the men, rarely the women. I don’t think he was aware he was doing it. There wasn’t any fuss. Things kept petering out.
I came to the same market in 2008, when John Key was bidding to become prime minister. He was far more confident about talking to people, even though they were demonstrably not “his” people. He grinned at everyone and wandered up to stallholders. With one woman, he said to her, “What’s this vegetable?”
It’s spinach, she told him.
He wasn’t put off. “Ah yes,” he said, “but what kind of spinach?”
Ordinary spinach, she said.
There’s no doubt Jacinda Ardern knows her spinach, and everything else they sell in the market. She walked the aisles. One stallholder offered her a dumpling on a skewer, which she ate without mishap. Another quizzed her about kina. “Of course,” she said, “I’ve eaten kina.” She studied the pink contents of the stallholder’s pottles. “I don’t think I could eat that much, though.”
The last stall in the last row sold hāngi food, although it wasn’t set up and ready yet. Ardern eyed them, saw that the woman was looking back, and went over. This was Lydia Tokahere, who was thrilled to talk. Her mate Nick Puia hung around in the background but he was grinning too. Tokahere was a Labour voter, “Of course!” But she said her son wasn’t. He was 33 now and had never bothered with politics. “He deserves a good slapping,” she said with a laugh, knowing she shouldn’t say it at all. But just last week the son had posted a speech by Ardern on his Facebook page. She’s turned him.
They took a selfie. Ardern was warm with Tokahere, as she was warm with everyone. She made a point of talking to Puia.
Annette King, Ardern’s minder for the campaign, is one of those who says she’s seen nothing like it. “And I saw David Lange at his finest. Jacinda appeals to women, yes that’s true, but also to the men. Even the older men, I thought they’d be standoffish, but they love her too.”
So do the children. Ardern makes a special point with them, crouches down, finds something to love about a picture they’re drawn or the dress they’re wearing. Little kids instinctively like her. It sends a powerful message to parents and she knows it. This isn’t like Helen Clark, and it isn’t like David Lange either. Or Norman Kirk, whose breath came out in a whistle and who was a little bit scary.
National had a leader once who confounded all analysis, all attempts to get the better of him, because his connection to voters was deeper and more direct than rational explanation allowed. But John Key’s gone now and Labour has found one of its own. It’s not a tsunami, but it’s definitely a storm.
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