Jacinda Ardern on being prime minister: 'You can be empathetic and have steel'

by Finlay Macdonald / 09 November, 2017
Photography by Todd Eyre

Now we are here

What just happened? After a headspinning election campaign, New Zealand’s new Prime Minister is a 37-year-old woman who calls Auckland home. Jacinda Ardern dropped by Paperboy HQ to talk about her hectic first few weeks in office, her teenage music favourites, and her hopes for the city she loves.

Nine months is an eternity in politics. When I last interviewed Jacinda Ardern she was preparing for the Mount Albert by-election, pottering about her new electorate office with a couple of volunteer helpers for company. We retired to a nearby wine bar to chat. When we next meet she is Prime Minister. Her schedule is nailed down to the minute. The Diplomatic Protection Service shadows her every movement, and her mind is already on that weekend’s flying visit to Sydney and the first meeting with her Australian counterpart Malcolm Turnbull, followed in quick succession by the opening of parliament and the speech from the throne. Already a fortnight into her government’s first 100 days, she has had no time to pause, reflect or ruminate on this remarkable trajectory. She reapplies her lipstick, and suggests the photographer check for stray poppy seeds from the bagel she grabbed on the way in. When I suggest the year has been quite a ride for her, she laughs: “2017, oh boy.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on her visit to our City Works Depot offices.

Read the full interview below

Finlay Macdonald: The question on the nation’s lips, of course, is was the Labour caucus really applauding Family Feud while you were waiting for Winston Peters to announce his decision, or did you have secret advance knowledge of which way he had gone?

Jacinda Ardern: Yes, that was the theory:  I can confirm that the secret knowledge is that there is apparently much hilarity in Family Feud. But no, it was absolutely true, they were watching Family Feud. Clarke [Gayford, her partner] actually, for our own purposes, filmed that evening. And if anyone ever sees that footage they’ll know that I learned the outcome at exactly the same time as the rest of New Zealand.

Were you mentally preparing for the other decision – for disappointment? 

Yes. I think in some ways it would have been hard to fully mentally prepare for either, because there’s such huge weight behind both decisions. But to a certain degree, when you’ve been in opposition for nine years and you’ve lost a few elections, probably what you’re most prepared for is loss.

Looking back on the campaign, from the moment Andrew Little stepped down, things changed dramatically. But it was still the same party, the same policies – what made the difference, what’s your secret sauce? You must have thought about the “Jacinda effect”.

You know, to be honest, I haven’t thought about it… there’s been no time to sit back and think about what happened in that campaign, or even what’s happened in the last two weeks. Because three years isn’t a long time and I don’t want to waste a moment in an exercise that doesn’t really get us anywhere now. Probably at Christmas I’ll sit and have a little think about the last couple of months. But for now there’s just – I know it sounds trite – but there’s just so much to do.

I get that. But there wouldn’t be so much to do if you hadn’t made the difference that got Labour to a place where it could form a government. So you’d have to think there’s something emotionally intangible about the way people vote.

I’ve certainly observed that in other countries’ politics, and I’ve viewed it with an equal measure of interest and concern. I’ve always been of the view that, yes, knowing who your leaders are and understanding their attributes and character traits is incredibly important. Because there will always be a time when they make a decision that they didn’t campaign for, that you don’t know their position on, and you do want to have a sense of their values and what drives them. But that should never be at the expense of understanding their policy platform. So, yes, personality matters, but it is not everything, and I would be loath for that to be the case.

Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford on election night.

How would you describe the weeks since you learned you could form a government? Have your feet touched the ground?

Yes. You know, probably those moments when I had enough time to pull my chair into the desk and start methodically working through briefing papers, that was the moment I was anchored in a moment in time. I was at a desk, I had enough time to calmly start processing some of the things I needed to process. So it might seem unglamorous, but that was the moment when I was, “okay, now we’re here”.

Has anything about being a prime minister surprised you so far?

No, I think I always had a sense of the scale, but also the sensitivity. And there is sensitivity in the job, as people would expect. So it’s very different to confront the reality of that. But I haven’t been surprised. It probably has helped having worked even on the periphery of that environment, working for Helen Clark. I was the tender age of 24 or 25. But when I came back up to the ninth floor there was still a familiarity for me. I can walk through and see the place where I sat and where I played my tiny little role, and actually that has helped me hit the ground running.

Some people have said you haven’t had the honeymoon you were owed, that previous prime ministers or governments might have enjoyed. Do you see it that way?

I don’t think anyone has an entitlement to be treated as anything other than a person who has power and should utilise it properly. So should anyone really get a honeymoon period when they have an obligation to fulfil all the things they said they were going to do, and be competent and confident and just get on with the job? So I had no expectation of that.

I wonder if MMP negates that old way of thinking, too. The transition of power is, in a funny way, gentler.

Yes, because the transition of power didn’t happen on election night. It happened over a gradual period. Which does make it a very different experience probably for voters, but also for us as politicians. The only time I felt we could really say, “okay now here we are”, wasn’t election night, it wasn’t even the night Winston Peters made the decision. Probably there was a brief glimpse of it the afternoon we were sworn in. But actually, no time to waste.

There was also, of course, the carping about coups and an illegitimate result – malice or ignorance?

No, I think probably disappointment. And we know, of course, with any election there will be people who are unhappy with the outcome. Instead of being unhappy with what democracy decided, they channelled that in another way and called out the process. I think that’s unfair. We by default could not have formed a government unless we had the majority. The two go hand in hand.

You’ve never voted under any system other than MMP. Do you think your generation might have a subtler, or better understanding of the system?

I like to think so. And this will probably be one of the most pure examples of an MMP government. We formed a government using a coalition but also a confidence and supply agreement. We have ministers from three parties. Of course there’s a lot to prove. But it’s a robust system, and I’ve seen what it takes to make it work. And I know that we’ve got the relationships to make it work too. 

Ardern at Fowlds Park during a rugby league match between Mt Albert Rugby League Premieres and Te Atatu in August.

The ascendancy of someone born in 1980 to the job of Prime Minister feels like a genuine generational shift. Ardern sits on the cusp of Generation X and the Millennials. At 37, she is easily the youngest New Zealand prime minister of the modern era. She is also undeniably the only one ever to have played a 45-minute DJ set at Auckland’s Laneway festival.

Do you put much store in generational labels? Do you think there’s some truth in them?

I do think there are generational differences… the kids who grew up in the 1990s grew up understanding and being acclimatised to notions of user pays, and it has probably shaped the way they view the world and politics, and view their expectations of their government and society. Millennials have grown up in a relentless bombarding of information. I think I’d describe them as being in an almost overwhelming environment, and we have these expectations of them to be able to filter through everything that surrounds them, or manoeuvre through, that we just didn’t have to.

When you talk about kids growing up in the 1990s, that’s you. What are your memories of growing up and coming of age, culturally speaking – what were your touchstones?

Smashing Pumpkins. Portishead. Nirvana. Metallica. Keeping in mind of course I was raised in Morrinsville, so I had a bit of an alternative bent. Alice in Chains.

You had a bit of a goth phase?

Yeah, well, my friends did. I probably didn’t fall into that. And over here my friends were listening to Pantera, Sepultura and Metallica. And over there, being culturally Mormon, K-Ci & JoJo and Boyz II Men. So a very eclectic world. I’m very grateful for that, because I think it’s built a level of empathy. When I say empathy, not just for people in hardship, but empathy for people’s perspective, be it rural or urban. Be it alternative or bogan.

What about your political awakenings? You could grow up in the 1990s and simply absorb market orthodoxies as the norm, so where do your political instincts come from?

Initially I wouldn’t call them political instincts. I would just call them a real social awareness. And so even though I wouldn’t call my immediate family overtly political when I was growing up, they were very socially minded. My mum was always looking out for ways to help other people in the community, she’s just that kind of person. My dad was a community-based police officer – nothing was ever black and white. So that probably came first. Then when I started to become the angsty teen who wanted to change the world, I just remember seeing politics as an avenue for that. And it was my aunty who saw that in me and connected me to the Labour Party.

Did you stand out at that age, as politically motivated – did you feel like a freak?

Well, I was already Mormon… I was a Mormon who openly affiliated with the Labour Party, and I was a teenager, so put all those things together.

A mixed-up kid. I was other. But my friends were always fantastic about it – probably because I was their sober driver. But they also by default identified me as the political kid. They always saw me in that way. And that was fine, it was part of my identity, it was who I was.

Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy joins Ardern and her team at the swearing-in ceremony at Government House in October.

Ardern has lived in Auckland since 2009. She says most of her friends rent, and those who don’t, don’t live in Auckland. In that sense, she connects better with the reality of life in our biggest city than her predecessors. But there have been Auckland prime ministers before, and the vexed relationship between the city and central government has rarely improved. Right now, Auckland’s logo should be an orange road cone, so intense is the work required to cope with a rapidly growing population and compensate for decades of neglect. Dealing with that, while not ignoring priorities elsewhere, will be a major challenge for the new government. Housing and homelessness, immigration and employment, overcrowded hospitals and chronic health crises, congestion and transport failure – all of these issues find acute expression in Auckland. And even a crown limousine must travel the same roads as the rest of us.

Do you think you might bring an Auckland sensibility to your national role?

What I hope to bring is an understanding of the problems and opportunities. You know, this is my home. I love living in Auckland.

I also, having grown up outside of Auckland, know that there is a sensitivity around making sure we don’t neglect other parts of the country. So for me it will always be around making sure Auckland thrives, but that never being at the expense of anywhere else. And nor should it be, nor does it have to be. But that is something that has to be really carefully managed. At the same time, I met with Phil Goff yesterday and we sat down and had a conversation about how both of us list the same top priorities – affordable housing, people having a roof over their heads, being able to move around their city, and having clean water. So even just having those as shared priorities takes us a long way.

Ardern poses for photos at the Sandringham Street Festival in October.

What kind of Auckland would you like to see or live in in 10 or 20 years?

If I was going to capture it in just a sentiment, I want people to feel proud of their city, and I want New Zealanders to feel proud of this city as well.

What does that mean?

Well, actually, just some of the basic things that when you travel to other cities you have an expectation around – decent public transport, a massive missing piece of our puzzle. And that will solve so many of our other productivity problems.

At its most basic, just being able to get a sparky who is willing to travel to your home without having to give up half a day’s labour just because they’re in a van. So transport matters. But actually I want people to be able to walk around these streets and not see homelessness. I can remember living in New York and reflecting on how lucky we were as a nation not to have the homelessness we saw in this district I worked in, in Brooklyn. And coming back and noticing this massive escalation. So I hope we’ll have a city we’re proud of because we’re world-class in our facilities, but we’re world-class in our treatment of people as well.

Which echoes something you said during our last interview – that you’d like to be remembered for being kind. You’ve also said you’d like this to be a kinder government. How kind will politics be to you, though? It can be brutalising. How do you propose to guard against that?

What I’m really firm on is that you can be empathetic and have steel. I think that’s probably the combination required for government. In fact, you want empathy with a bit of steel behind it, because sometimes you’re going to come up against the real detractors from what you’re trying to achieve. But as long as you always feel confident that you’re doing the right thing, I feel you’ll be surprised what it can carry you through. So that’s a big part of what gives me my foundation. But otherwise, basic things like, actually, I don’t spend a lot of time on social media. I post and I engage as much as I can, but I don’t spend a lot of time getting too drawn into the super-personal stuff, because it can really weigh you down. And so just giving yourself a little bit of mental space to rise above and focus on the big stuff. And that’s hopefully a lesson I’ll take well beyond politics. 

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