More of a mandate: Labour’s Jacinda Ardern on the Mt Albert by-election

by Finlay Macdonald / 01 February, 2017
Photography/ Simon Young

Seeking success in the upcoming Mt Albert by-election, Labour’s Jacinda Ardern mulls Trump, trade-offs and the Left’s future.

It’s a hot afternoon on busy New North Road, and Jacinda Ardern has just returned to her new Mount Albert electorate office. With a by-election due on 25 February, her pearly smile is everywhere: on hoardings, pamphlets and posters, and most of all on her own face. She suggests we retire to a cafe nearby, which turns out to be a bar. I order a chardonnay – “so we can discuss socialism” – but she opts for a pinot gris and jokes it might spoil the effect. We’re interrupted twice during our conversation by well-wishers who, it has to be said, treat her a little like a celebrity. “It’s my first by-election,” one young woman tells her. “It’s my first by-election, too,” Ardern replies.

FINLAY MACDONALD You’ve been out door-knocking, how is that going?

JACINDA ARDERN I was hoping most people would know about the by-election, and so far most people do, which is a great start.

You’re safe on the list, why do you want an electorate seat?

It is important for me to have a local base. I’ve really strived to build that, because I know that half the joy that I get from my job is from helping individual people. And you do have a bit more of a mandate. You can stand up and say, ‘I represent this group of people.’ That’s something that I want to be able to do.

Have you detected common themes out there on the doorsteps?

Yes – housing. Given that Mount Albert is the seventh least affordable area in the country, that’s not surprising. It’s not just house prices, it’s rents as well.

So Mount Albert is going the way of your previous stomping ground, Auckland Central, which turned from red to blue as it got wealthier. Do you see the same thing happening here?

Well, I don’t think I’d say what happened in Auckland Central was a straight switch from being red to blue…

What would you say?

Well, I guess when you look at the numbers the party vote of Labour and Green is a significant chunk, and it’s also the most marginal seat in the country at a time when the National candidates across the country were doing very well. Labour halved the margin of the incumbent National MP, so I would say it will be a swing seat. So I’m always loath to just look at the demographic of a seat and say, ‘Well that’s blue and that’s red’ – yes, it’s been an indicator in the past, but that can change. My approach is simply to say, every seat can be won with hard work. Now that’s not always going to be true, but if you take that approach, I think that shapes the way you campaign.

You said recently, “One thing that will make a big difference to Labour is people no longer tolerating National.” That’s taking an awful long time to happen, though, isn’t it?

Well, reflecting on international politics at the moment, I think we’re seeing a stark example of what a strident, adversarial, divisive personality in politics looks like, and what it can do to a voter and a society. So here, I think what we had an example of was some really good political strategy: policies that, while in opposition, the National Party said they didn’t want to continue or support, [but] they tolerated because they saw them as being popular. For us, they were about values, making education accessible, making sure that families were well supported – they were values policies for us. For National they were trade-offs, but it was a clever thing to do.

The danger then is that you start playing the same game of trade-offs and calculated popularity.

We’re in an age of personality politics. The number of times I hear a judgement based on whether someone likes a person or not, before I hear a discussion around the ideas they’re proposing, is high. What do you think?

I think people really do vote from emotion and tribal instinct more than reason and fact-based argument. So in some ways having detailed policies and manifestos is analogous to the tree falling in a forest – if no one hears it, did it make a sound? It could be disheartening.

Absolutely. You have to have developed evidence-based policies. And that takes a lot of time. I know that’s not necessarily going to sway someone, it is more how you make them feel about it. So trying to bring the two together, having done the work and communicated its importance, that’s the challenge of modern politics, I think.

You touched on Donald Trump just then; arguably he has answered that challenge in the opposite way – lies, bluster, emotion, speaking past the media to his base.

The thing that frightens me about Trump is not so much his decision to bypass media. It’s his decision to bypass facts. That he would blatantly give up on even trying to improve the credibility of politicians in that regard, I find really – I can’t tell you how upsetting so many elements of his presidency are for me.

He’s a symptom, perhaps, less than a cause; a fragmented and ineffectual Left, Brexit, ultra-nationalism, isolationism, all on the rise – do you ever wonder what side of history you’re on, beyond your control?

Yes. I think you never feel just like an observer when you’re in politics. Things beyond your border are always relevant because you wonder if those trends are indicative of what might happen elsewhere. I think we should always be mindful of that. It stops complacency.

So what do you see as those trends?

The research I feel is coming through quite strongly internationally is that there is a loss of dignity among some voters – either as a result of losing key industries that they thrived on, their wages not being sufficient, not having financial security, or growing inequality. I think what people are looking for are answers to problems that they feel politicians are a part of… So the message for someone in politics now is that you can either respond to that challenge by speaking directly to them with ideas that are positive, or you can channel their rage. And the rage gets a lot more attention. But any politician who knowingly manipulates that emotion among voters, I have no time for.

Nor can you just make comforting noises – what did you make of John Minto’s recent criticism of you, that “Jacinda has perfected the political art of sounding good while saying nothing of substance”?

I do want to put on record that he mentioned I went to hear Tony Blair speak. But I was the only one in that room that asked him a question about Iraq. In amongst all the light banter, no one was getting to the guts of it. Anyway, I find that a little bit unfair. I have had this thrown at me a couple of times – what have you managed to achieve? Well, in opposition, yes, that’s tough. But there is a list of things that I feel proud of. I don’t go around printing them on the back of flyers and I don’t have a checklist that I pop into people’s letterboxes, because for me what I’ve done isn’t enough yet.

I’m not going to ask you about leadership ambition, because you’ll just avoid it. But if not leadership, what is your ambition?

I’ve always bristled at the word “ambition” because it seems so personalised and individualistic. And, for me, I want to be in a position to do good. So, yeah, I want to be a minister. It’s very specific – I want to be the minister for children, and I have some things that I want to achieve. Other than that my relative position doesn’t matter to me.

What about children of your own? Sorry to put my women’s magazine hat on, but childless women in politics can get a rough time. Have you?

Do you know what? No. I find this really fascinating, and perhaps this speaks to where we are now. I haven’t. The only person I’ve noted who’s done that to me was Maggie Barry in parliament. And the immediate response she got seemed to me said the public has determined whether or not it’s acceptable to do that to a politician. And I think they determined it’s not.

Has your definition of success changed since you began in politics?

My definition of success? From the moment I came in I thought, I don’t want to implode in that place. I don’t want to leave under a cloud. I want to leave with people thinking, even if they disagreed with me, that I had integrity and I was kind. And if I can leave with people just thinking that I was kind, then actually I’d be happy with that.

 

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