Jacinda Ardern: One to watch

by Guyon Espiner / 21 July, 2012

Jacinda Ardern. Photo/David White

Can Labour’s fourth-ranked MP live up to all the hype about her prospects?

Could a 31-year-old single white woman renting an Auckland flat because she can’t afford to buy a house be a future New Zealand prime minister? Quite possibly. Jacinda Ardern is the fourth-ranked MP in the Labour Party, and even her opponents admit she has what it takes to get to the top. But she doesn’t have what it takes to buy a house where she wants to live. Ardern rents, and wants to buy, in Grey Lynn where a two-bedroom villa, little more than a doll’s house, recently sold at auction for $931,000. Even with her MP’s salary, her lengthy search has failed to find anything affordable.

Ardern realises that sitting in a cafe on Ponsonby Rd bemoaning the price of Grey Lynn villas is not going to engender either sympathy or left-wing street cred. And to be fair, she didn’t bring the subject up, and her concern is not a display of self-interest. “I am among the almost 50% of people in this area who rent, so in a sense, I guess I am representative of a lot of people who live in Auckland Central – especially in my age group.” There aren’t enough houses, the poor public transport system means living in distant suburbs is unattractive and Housing New Zealand is selling more homes than it is buying, she claims. “We’ve got the unfortunate outcome of the 1990s down in the CBD – absolutely unliveable apartments down there. They are not quality and they are not where people want to live, yet people are raising families in those apartments.” Slowly, politics has crept into the conversation, uninvited but inevitable, like moisture into the walls of the poorly clad apartments she blames on a deregulated market.

Ardern is cursed with attributes that many would count as blessings. She is marked out as a future leader – often the kiss of death in politics – and compared with most politicians, she is easy on the eye. At the last election, the contest between her and National MP Nikki Kaye for the Auckland Central electorate was billed as “The Battle of the Babes”. But she and Kaye have another thing in common: they are both campaigning to legalise adoption by gay couples – as well as other family configurations such as whangai adoptions and adoptions by heterosexual civil union partners. In fact, there’s cross-party support on the issue. Although Ardern has a member’s bill waiting to be drawn from the ballot, both Kaye and Green MP Kevin Hague have indicated they are keen to work with her on a new law that would make almost everyone happy.

Marching against TVNZ 7’s closure. Photo/David White

A recent Herald-DigiPoll showed 61.2% of those surveyed agreed the law should be changed. Ardern believes public support has grown significantly since the Civil Union Act was passed in 2005, partly because many people now know someone who is affected. “When you point out to people that you can currently adopt when you’re a single, gay individual but you can’t currently adopt if you’re a gay couple, then they see the inequity of the situation.” It goes without saying that she also supports gay marriage. Fixing that situation would not fix the adoption situation, she says, as the laws are quite separate. But she also makes it clear that she doesn’t believe that politicians should necessarily wait until public opinion catches up with their policies. “That’s one of the reasons I’m with the Labour Party, because historically we have been progressive and moved, sometimes, before there’s been a huge majority of support around where we’ve gone.”

Ardern’s CV reads as if she has spent a lot of time thinking about a political career, although she insists she hasn’t. She worked for Helen Clark and cites the former prime minister as a major inspiration. Their early lives do share similarities. Like Clark, Ardern grew up in a small town with conservative parents. Both discovered politics at a young age, immersed themselves in international affairs and entered a Parliament that, even now, is a male-dominated environment. Ardern was born in Hamilton in 1980, before the family moved to Murupara, then Morrinsville. Dad was a cop. Mum was a mum. Dad policed in neighbouring Hamilton. “It was only ever a problem if I was late for school and he would drop me off in the patrol car and put the siren on to teach me a lesson.” She still can’t say whether her folks were Labour or National voters. “They weren’t overtly political people.” But her aunt was, and got her involved as an organiser in a New Plymouth campaign while she was still in high school. Ardern studied political science at the University of Waikato and began to climb the political ladder: vice-president of Young Labour in 2003-04, international secretary for Young Labour in 2005 and political adviser to Clark that same year.

Then came a stint working in the Cabinet Office in London for the British Labour Government before her election here in 2008. That year, she became president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. The speeches are there, in wobbly video on YouTube. Ardern is seen punching the air and punctuating her speech with cries of “comrade” as she rails against neo-liberalism, climate change, defence spending and other evils. She’s proud of that job – but not too proud to realise how it might sound to some. “I accept that when you share the title with people it sounds very much like ‘Reds under the bed’, but it is a very historic organisation. “It has been around for over 100 years, is the largest international political youth organisation in the world and has consultative status with the United Nations.”

 At a Western Saharan refugee camp.

Ardern rates Labour’s chances of regaining power in 2014 as 10 out of 10. “Look at the coalition possibilities for Labour – if we had an election tomorrow a Green-Labour coalition is a very strong prospect. We have options in a way that National just doesn’t.” And what about adding NZ First into that mix? She seems a little fascinated by Winston Peters. “He is a true politician.” Is that a compliment or an insult? She’ll leave that to the reader, she says. But Winston knows his constituents, and knows how to push their buttons, she says. Why does the liberal Labour left – which preaches tolerance and objects to politicians playing the race card – treat Peters like some likeable, irascible uncle? “You can treat someone like an uncle in that way but it doesn’t mean that you want them to lead the family dinner, does it?” she replies.

Her political passions are welfare reform and child poverty, which she combines under the umbrella cause of “social justice” – a phrase that rolls off Labour tongues like soft, buttery chardonnay. Given that she is Labour’s social development spokeswoman, it’s far more interesting to ask her about economics. Labour’s opponents say the party is preoccupied by social justice but not so interested in how the country pays for it. “I find that a really frustrating position,” she says. “We agonise over ensuring every policy we present is credible, costed and robust.”

Does she accept Labour lost the last election partly because of a lack of fiscal credibility? She employs her habit – or tactic – of posing her own question in response. “Did we lose it last time or has it always been an issue in people’s minds?  For instance, we had nine consecutive Budget surpluses, the strongest continuous economic growth since World War II and then on day one Bill English comes in and starts saying that we had left the books in a dire state. We left the books ready for a rainy day.”

In a radio interview in Algeria.

So, why does Labour have an economic credibility problem? “I think it’s a historic thing,” she says. “You know: National good for business; Labour good for everyone. I think we are good for everyone but it’s not at the expense of lacking economic credibility.” What interests her about business? “I spent three years in the UK working in a unit called the Better Regulations Executive and spent a lot of time on the impact of regulation on small businesses from a local-government and an employment perspective.” If this was a televised interview and there was a worm on screen it would be burrowing deep about now. Clark once expressed her frustration with the inability of her Labour colleagues to fight Rogernomics in the 1980s by saying the problem was that most of them were economic lightweights. It was a weakness for Clark, too, but she recognised it and become interested, informed and highly competent in the area – without ever being a specialist.

Presumably Ardern will do that, too, if she wants to go all the way to the top. Blogger David Farrar believes that is possible. Yes, he’s a National supporter and National’s pollster, but he would “far rather have her leading the country than a lot of the others!” He has some words of caution, though. He believes her first-term record did not justify a No 4 placing – equivalent to Steven Joyce’s on the National benches. Farrar says if Ardern doesn’t get pushed too far too fast, she could be deputy prime minister or even prime minister one day. He chuckles at her leading the International Union of Socialist Youth because it’s so far removed from his politics. But he certainly doesn’t belittle the job. “You don’t get elected to a position like that if you are stupid – that is a seriously testing role with a lot of people involved.” Farrar says that given most of her experience has been in the state sector, she needs to broaden her horizons, be more pragmatic and learn that not all good ideas come from your own side. “If you don’t have it before you are an MP, you have to recognise your weaknesses and work hard to address that.”

There is every sign Ardern will one day do that. She has an honesty, a humanity and an engaging manner absent in most politicians. There is a freshness to her speech. Even when she’s grinding through the policy options on serious subjects like welfare reform or child poverty, the hint of a smile is there. This doesn’t undermine her credibility, but it lightens and lifts her above the hectoring bores who chew up time on digital recorders. It is late afternoon now. The cafe is preparing for the evening crowd and the quiet spot in the corner is under threat. It’s time to go.

Final question: how would she like to be remembered when her political career is over? “Can I say two things?” she says, not waiting for an answer. There’s a long list of policy goals. “I won’t bore you with all of them but broadly they are around wellbeing of kids and families. But ultimately I think I would just like to be remembered as someone who has integrity.” Wherever the journey takes her, it seems certain she will achieve that.

This article was first published in the July 21, 2012 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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