Jacinda Ardern on confidence, inspiration and what she’s reading

by Clare de Lore / 31 August, 2017
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Jacinda Ardern. Illustration/Weef

As part of a new series in the count-down to the election, Clare de Lore talks to political leaders about their literary influences.

If she’s in need of inspiration in coming weeks, Labour leader Jacinda Ardern could hardly do better than to study the writings of one of her heroes, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. When his ship the Endurance became trapped and then crushed in pack ice in Antarctica in 1915, Shackleton kept his team together in an incredible survival story.

Whatever the outcome of New Zealand’s general election, the Labour Party has finally awoken from its recurring nightmare of lacklustre leadership and is placing its survival in the hands of the “relentlessly positive” Hamilton-born 37-year-old.

Now Auckland-based, Ardern is the darling of the urban liberal left and, Labour hopes, of a potentially winning chunk of the centre. She and her partner, Clarke Gayford, live in her Mt Albert electorate. She’s close to her parents, Ross and Laurell, who live in Niue where Ross is New Zealand High Commissioner. Her sister Louise lives in England.

In the space of a few short weeks, Ardern has not only arrested Labour’s slide in the polls but added 10 points, at the expense of the haemorrhaging Greens.

I spoke to Ardern in the second week of her leadership, just a day after Metiria Turei’s resignation as a Greens co-leader.

You came out of the starting blocks with more confidence than any of your recent predecessors – where does that confidence and sure-footedness come from?

The team needed me. They asked me to take on a job and their faith in me has given me a massive boost. There is no room for doubt when you are seven weeks out from an election. You have just got to get on with it. That is what my team needed me to do and that is what I am doing.

Some people have remarked at your rapid rise, but to turn that on its head, why did you get the nod for this job only after so many men were chosen but failed to gel with the public?

That is really hard to answer because I have been right there in the thick of it, so I have been as responsible as anyone for the outcomes we have had. I can’t give a subjective view on that and I was part of the senior team with Andrew [Little] as well. I just don’t know, but I have a huge responsibility now which I am going to carry and use as a source of motivation until election day.

Authenticity is what we’re all supposedly looking for in our leaders, yet some succumb to image makeovers – what’s your take on that?

I can see how that happens. It is a tough game and no one wants to be responsible for letting anyone down. My focus in politics has been on being able to make a difference, so maybe that just means my focus has been different.

You’re wading through a lot of policy papers now – what else is in the reading pile?

I have a stack of books on my bedside table. I was ambitiously trying to read a couple of them, but they will have to wait a while now. I read a lot of non-fiction, and I have done that since I was young – real-life stories of people doing amazing things. When I was a kid, I used to read a lot of books about Antarctic explorers; it was a love I picked up from my father. Dad was, and is, a particularly avid reader and so is Mum. I remember reading books like Nancy Drew stories when I was a kid but also trashy things like The Baby-Sitters Club [by Ann M Martin]. When I was a teenager, I read [John Marsden’s] Tomorrow set of books, which were quite big, and Go Ask Alice.

The things that really left a mark on me were the books we read at school on Hiroshima, books that I think about to this day in politics because of their influence. If I had to pick a favourite author or set of books, it would be Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, which draws on a period of history to give a sense of what life was like in that time. I’ve always been really drawn to that, and perhaps that is why I like books about Antarctic exploration. My favourite book would be Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing.

Ardern at the 2012 Labour Party Conference. Photo/Getty Images

And what about political books or biography?

What I was reading before things got much, much busier was Diary of the Kirk Years by Margaret Hayward. I had only just started it, but right from the beginning, what struck me is we have conversations now about how much politics has changed and that book reminded me that so much is exactly the same, even though it was the 1970s. Issues we are trying to work on – they’re cyclical, they persist. There’s a section where Hayward talks about Kirk struggling with people getting a sense of who he is through the medium of television. She sees him as being a bit misunderstood. He spends so much time trying to keep his emotions under control in the debating chamber that his emotions aren’t coming through when he is communicating with voters through the TV. I found that fascinating, because we think that is an issue that only modern-day politicians face, but it’s been around for a while.

Any lessons from the Metiria Turei episode about the perils of oversharing emotions and personal stories in politics?

Speaking to that generally, voters increasingly want to have a sense of who you are, your values and your experiences, so there is a demand to share insights and stories. But there is also constant reflection on how much you do that versus how much you are talking about policies and ideas and trying to get that balance right.

There has been a big boost for Labour and for you in the polls in the wake of the collapse of the Green support and your appointment. In the long term, you need allies for support, so how concerned are you that the Greens might further implode?

All parties in an MMP environment are looking to form coalitions with others, so that is a concern for all. We can only control what we can control, and ultimately that is the party we play a role in. Of course, we cast our eye around the political environment and are much more focused on the things that happen on the left of the political spectrum. But ultimately, we remain observers of that. We can only control our own party, our own message with voters, and it is not within our sphere of influence to change anything for anyone else.

I am still absolutely convinced we have it in us to keep growing our vote in the lead-up to the election, and what MMP shows us is the stronger you have that core party that is in a position to negotiate, the better the outcome for that sector coalition.

Over the years, policies have been adopted, tested to see if they’re palatable to the public and then dropped if they don’t get a good response even if they’re consistent with the party’s philosophy. How do you get across what Labour actually stands for when you’re in that situation?

I think people need to have a sense of what political parties stand for, what their values are. We haven’t often talked enough about our destination. We talk about incremental bits of policy without articulating what we hope to achieve. So yes, we have a water policy, but what we want to do is make sure our rivers and lakes are swimmable within a generation. We can talk about riparian planting and fencing and conversion of land, but ultimately we are trying to convey that we have a duty to protect our environment, we have a duty to give the next generation something that is in better shape than when we found it. I hope people see a bit more of the destination, not just the detail.

Some of the people who will decide this election are the group of women who voted for John Key regardless of their political orientation because they found him an appealing candidate. They’re up for grabs presumably, so are you confident of picking them up?

I would hope we would be able to reach out much more broadly than we have been. I am not taking anything for granted – I don’t expect to gather votes from women because I am a woman. I need to earn those votes, they need to hear from us talking about issues that are on their minds. But I am hoping for the best.

What do you say to those who reckon your bubble will burst before the election, that you’re just enjoying a honeymoon?

Six weeks can be a long time in politics and I don’t think any political party should ever be complacent in an election. I’m inevitably going to make mistakes in my career. I have in the past and I will continue to do that, but the measure of leadership is how you bounce back and show people you are genuinely still focused on the things that matter no matter what you come up against along the way.

What do you do in the next few weeks when you need to recharge your batteries?

Probably doing things like writing speeches and getting ready for the next thing. I haven’t seen Clarke since all of this happened, so it will be really good to spend time with him. He is still in Australia; he left just before this all kicked off and I haven’t seen him.

How tough has that been personally?

It has been tough. A bit disappointing not having him around, but you just have to get on with it. He has sent me lots of messages of support, so he doesn’t feel too far away.

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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