Labour's Jacinda Ardern reveals why politics feels so personalby Emma Clifton
But in making a cup of tea for us both, Jacinda, 36, has selected a nondescript mug for me, and an inadvertently revealing mug for herself. It has a woman’s cheerful face on it, and the same sentence repeated three times: “I will not obsess. I will not obsess. I will not obsess.”
So… what’s with the mug? It was a gift from her London flatmate. “It’s a legitimate tease. I do obsess.”
Later on, Clarke will emerge from his office, immediately spot Jacinda’s mug and tell me that he actually broke the original but tracked another one down online so she wouldn’t be without it. This is, as he calls it, “mug version 2.0”.
Jacinda sighs. “I’ve picked a really unfortunate mug.”
Nine years as an MP has taught Jacinda a lot about herself.
This past January, she wrote a piece for NEXT called ‘Am I Afraid?’, where she talked about lack of self-belief, how her penchant for over-analysing gets in her way: “the appraisal of how much loss of face having a go and not succeeding would mean,” she wrote.
When I ask her if fear has been a running theme in her life, she says yes.
“I am a very risk-averse person, I always have been. Which is why politics is such a terrible place for me to be! I’m constantly anxious about making mistakes. Everything in politics feels so fragile; just like that [clicks fingers] you could stumble and that’s forever what you’ll be known for. So yes, I do live in this constant fear of what might be. Clarke really tries to pull me back from the precipice of anxiety a lot, but it’s just who I am. And in some ways it’s been good for me, in the sense that it makes me very careful and intuitive. But it also means I haven’t been as spontaneous as I’d like to be.”
At the time, it was easy to draw parallels between ‘Am I Afraid?’ and Jacinda’s political career: always viewed as a fast-rising star within Labour, always high on the likeability polls, always seemingly reluctant to show the kind of open ambition we expect from politicians.
Her most disliked question was – and still is – ‘do you want to be prime minister one day?’ But then two things happened in quick succession: Jacinda won her seat in the Mt Albert by-election by an overwhelming margin, and she was named the new deputy leader for Labour after Annette King stepped down.
It was a move well-received by those both in political circles and the media, creating a momentum around Labour that has been missing in action for a while. That momentum is still going well – in the most recent Colmar Brunton poll for Preferred Prime Minister, Jacinda came in second equal with Winston Peters at 9 per cent – higher than her boss, Labour leader Andrew Little, sitting at third place with 7 per cent.
It’s hard to imagine beating your boss in a popularity contest is an easy position to be in – particularly when elections are basically a popularity contest in themselves – but nevertheless, it’s good news for Labour to have such a well-liked candidate sitting in the second-most important seat.
You could imagine that such a positive national reaction – as opposed to a positive National reaction – would have helped make Jacinda feel more comfortable about the possibility of aiming for the big job one day. But you would be wrong.
“Nope,” she shakes her head fervently. “I just feel like there’s more people to let down now. I do feel an enormous amount of pressure. Because I know there are lots of people who don’t want me to screw up, and there are just as many who would really love it if I did.”
When I float the theory of the ‘confidence gap’, the research-backed theory where men will go for a job if they have 60 per cent of the job requirements, whereas women will only go for it if they have 100 per cent, Jacinda agrees it’s definitely a contributing factor in her hesitation. But it’s not the biggest one.
“It’s me knowing myself and knowing that actually, when you’re a bit of an anxious person, and you constantly worry about things, there comes a point where certain jobs are just really bad for you. I hate letting people down. I hate feeling like I’m not doing the job as well as I should. I’ve got a pretty big weight of responsibility right now; I can’t imagine doing much more than that.”
In one of the many, many think-pieces that came out after her promotion to deputy leader, one referred to Jacinda as being ‘genuinely ambivalent’ about becoming prime minister. She didn’t read the article – she reads hardly any about herself, a form of “self-preservation” she learned early on – but agrees with the sentiment.
“All of the things I want to achieve, I can achieve by being Minister. And I’d be happy with that.”
The issue is, of course, what if she doesn’t get the chance to be a minister this time around? Or the next time? If Labour loses the election in September, it’s another three years – at least – of being in opposition.
When I last interviewed Jacinda in May 2015, she was coming off the back of Labour’s poor election result the previous year, but her mood was upbeat nonetheless. This time, however, her frustration with a career spent in opposition is palpable. She just wants to get started.
“It’s like being in a supermarket and trying to pick which queue to go into, and not knowing if you should jump out of that queue, because suddenly you’re going to be next at the counter, or you’re not. That’s what opposition feels like. Except it’s a line that’s been going for nine years.”
She won’t be drawn on whether she would stand as leader after the next election, should Labour lose and Andrew step aside. She rejects these hypotheticals; for her it’s always been about the possibilities that come with being in government.
“I’m just so desperate for us to be in a position where we can make a difference. And I know when I say that it’s very easy for it to seem like ‘Oh, they just want to win because they’ve been waiting for a really long time’, but it’s so much more than that,” she says, her tired tone shifting to one of urgency.
“I’ve got several constituency cases at the moment of people who are living in circumstances so horrific you feel compelled as an individual just to help. So as much as we go on about wanting to win in September, that doesn’t actually convey our motivation properly. It makes it sound like it’s just sport, like trying to win a trophy at the end of the race.”
This is where you see the true level of Jacinda’s ambition; not for herself, but for her cause. It’s the same for the whole team, she says.
“Every single person I work with in parliament is driven by this real sense of responsibility that we need to do more. So that’s what I see. The idea of anything other than having Andrew in the job just isn’t something I want to think about. That’s the honest answer.”
Her new schedule as deputy leader sounds beyond daunting; the past three months “haven’t been great for work/life balance” – an understatement, when you consider this week alone she’s had 12 speaking engagements, one of which was her address to Congress where she announced Labour’s mental health strategy in schools.
She struggles to switch off from work, she says, because as a politician “you never feel like you have a right to.”
Does it feel like her time doesn’t belong to her? “Yes – but when you get elected by other people, that’s just the way it goes. As my dad always says – in that dad tone, that only a dad can do – ‘Well, you chose it.’”
Considering her to-do list includes such plans as ‘end child poverty’ and ‘improve mental health in New Zealand’, the work is never done. How does she avoid burning out?
“Because you’re in a public role, people will start to tell you when you look appalling,” she laughs drily. “But it’s an election year, so you have to cut yourself some slack; you can end up spending more time worrying about the fact you’re worrying that you’re not getting enough rest. It is what it is.”
It hit home for Jacinda just how high the health stakes can be when National MP Nikki Kaye was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016. Jacinda and Nikki rose through the ranks at the same time, both going for the Auckland Central seat in 2011, which Nikki won. Close in age, if not in policy, the pair have remained on friendly-ish terms since. So when Nikki was diagnosed with breast cancer last September, it totally threw Jacinda.
“I was standing in the kitchen with Clarke’s mum when I found out. We exchanged quite a few messages. Because so much of our path has been similar – we’re similar ages, she’s obviously much fitter than I am. It did make me think ‘This is a tough, stressful job’. I’m so glad to see her out the other side of that and back in parliament.”
But this scenario also highlights how strange the dynamic between opposing teams can be. Soon after Nikki’s return to parliament, she made headlines for launching a stinging attack… on Jacinda. Hot on the heels of her appointment as Labour’s deputy leader, both Nikki and National MP Maggie Barry got personal; claiming Jacinda was style over substance.
Jacinda wasn’t in parliament to hear Nikki state she had ‘failed her generation’ from her first day in the job; she’d popped out to get a snack and next to the Beehive café was one of many screens showing a live feed from inside the chambers, complete with subtitles.
The twists kept on coming – later that day, both Nikki and Jacinda appeared on a panel to debate the topic ‘Sisterhood and Politics: is it possible?’. Awkward timing, you might imagine.
Making small talk across the great divide is a strange beast, Jacinda says.
“It’s hard to really know someone properly, when you’re in such an adversarial environment. Because there are certain things you don’t want to talk about… it changes the dynamic of any normal human interaction. So you end up talking about random things.”
Take the watercooler chat Jacinda has with Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, for example. The pair are often pitted against each other on TV, representing their sides, and as a result there’s a lot of idle chatter that happens in green rooms around the country.
So what do you speak about when you can’t really speak about anything? Just some classic ‘only in New Zealand banter’, apparently.
“She’s got a possum problem, so I was giving her tips on what we used in our possum traps back home.”
You’ll be glad to know they worked, and Paula’s possum problem is no more.
“She showed me – she managed to successfully trap one the other day.”
The possum tips come from Jacinda’s upbringing in Waikato – and the country girl still comes out from time to time. The TV show of choice for both Jacinda and Clarke on a rare night off is Country Calendar. But when it comes to quality time, more often than not, the radio DJ/TV presenter will end up coming along to whatever work event Jacinda has on that night, just so they can spend some time together.
The slow blurring of her personal and professional world is mostly fine by Jacinda, she believes people deserve to know their politicians really well. There’s one small exception: Clarke doesn’t appear on her social media feed, a deliberate choice by her as “he didn’t choose politics, I did”.
“I don’t mind giving quite a bit of myself away. I probably wear my heart on my sleeve a bit too much, I probably overshare,” she says. “Clarke is super-supportive of me, but I’m still aware he doesn’t need to be drawn into every part of my political life.”
When we last spoke, their relationship was still fairly recent and there was more hesitation in mentioning him. But now they own a home together, so things are clearly serious.
“Look, we’ve told the bank it’s going well,” she deadpans. “And we own a six-toed cat, to add to the mix.”
Paddles – the six-toed cat – spends most of our conversation curled up asleep on Jacinda’s lap; a cosy companion on a chilly Auckland winter’s day.
The importance of building a life, and a home, outside of politics is something Jacinda has become increasingly aware of. She was in her early 20s when she spent a year working under Helen Clark in 2004, quickly learning how all-encompassing the political world could be (not to mention how exciting it is to be on the winning side).
She decided to take three years off – “an entire election cycle, because that’s how people like me break up my life” – and do an OE.
She headed to New York first, where she stayed for six months with a friend, volunteering in an assortment of jobs: a union’s campaign for homecare workers, and then a mayoral campaign, before she ended up working in a soup kitchen. But having so little to do – and next to no money – started getting to her.
“It made me realise so much of my sense of self comes from doing things that are useful. I just felt like I wasn’t helping anyone for this long period,” she says. “I started feeling really down. Probably listening to too much James Blunt, truth be known.
She shifted to London and enjoyed two years there, working in the Cabinet Office under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown. One day, while she was waiting on a train platform, Phil Goff rang her and asked her to run for parliament. The first time, she said no. The second time, she said yes.
She was elected to parliament in 2008, the same election where National took power and Helen Clark stepped down.
“In a way, I’m just in this period where I’m being paid to do the job of being involved in politics in New Zealand,” she says. “I’ve always believed that when I stop being a member of parliament, that’s when I’ll revert back to being the version of myself that I was before. I was a volunteer. I knocked on doors, I delivered pamphlets. I’ll always be involved in some form.”
“Building a life outside of politics though… I mean, so much of my identity is wrapped up in being a politician that sometimes I wonder how I’d feel if I wasn’t that anymore. I felt the same way when I left the church; so much of my identity was about being a Mormon, and all my friends knew me that way. But it didn’t take me long to realise I was still the same person and it wouldn’t really change anything. I don’t know if it’ll be the same when I leave politics.”
In her mid-30s, in a long-term relationship, there is another topic that dances around the discussion of Jacinda’s future: children. How does she feel about people asking her if she’s going to have kids?
“I respond a bit better to the question than the instruction; someone at a public meeting the other day came up to me and started lecturing me about it,” she says. She doesn’t mind the topic. “I’ve always been honest, so I can hardly expect people aren’t going to talk to me about it.”
It came up again recently at a panel; someone asked her about having a family of her own and she paused momentarily, caught between either trotting out a generic answer, or speaking the truth.
“I remember thinking: ‘Why wouldn’t I just be honest? What is there to lose?’ Women in a variety of careers face really tough dilemmas and maybe we should be more honest about that.”
She told the crowd she did want a family, that she didn’t want to leave politics feeling like she’d given everything up for it. But what will be, will be, she says.
“I don’t know whether or not it’s going to work out for me like that.”
The exhaustion from the past few weeks is starting to sneak in around the corners, Jacinda’s voice becoming hoarser as we talk. Election years are a marathon for all involved and Jacinda has the kind of temperament where the lists of things she wants to get started on are literally keeping her up at night.
Actually, not just her. Clarke comes in to say hello to Paddles and I ask him about Jacinda’s best and worst characteristics. Put on the spot, he jokes that it’s like asking him to pick between children, as “each of her redeeming features is so glowing and screaming out for attention”.
Jacinda – rolling her eyes at this – says: “Just pick one! And stop looking at my teeth!?!”
Her thoughtfulness, her inability to leave the job behind, is a double-edged sword, according to Clarke.
“She worries about everything and everyone, far too much. It must be exhausting... ”
“It is exhausting,” she interjects.
“There are some things that can wait until tomorrow,” he says. “That don’t need be talked about two minutes before turning the light out.”
Jacinda, faux outraged, jokes she doesn’t know what those things are; everything needs to be talked about two minutes before the lights go out.
“We’re out of sync, in the sense that Clarke likes to talk about everything in the morning. I need just a little bit of time to wake up before we talk about the United States imploding, whereas Clarke can get straight into it. I tend to muse about things at night time.”
The lounge has grown steadily darker throughout our chat; it’s past 5pm and Jacinda’s day is nowhere near done. She’s due at two different events that night: a meeting at a school, and a Labour catch-up. Tomorrow morning she’ll be up at 5am, as she is every Tuesday, to catch a plane to Wellington to go to parliament. In an election year, politicians have to be every-where.
But in a year like this, where the result is more unpredictable than previously, the level of hustle gets turned up yet another notch. While she won’t be drawn on hypotheticals, there’s a high chance that come September, things will be different for Jacinda again.
Let’s just watch this space.
This story was first published in the June issue of NEXT magazine.
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