Jacinda Ardern: Running on instinct

by Mark Sainsbury / 17 September, 2017
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Labour leader Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Simon Young

Who knew Labour leader Jacinda Ardern was once her older sister’s protector? 

Is there anything we don’t know about Jacinda Ardern? The Labour Party leader, in the job since August 1, has bared almost all over the past few weeks. She professes to be an open book, or is that just part of a carefully contrived image?

That Ardern would be leader was never in doubt among those who have followed her rise through the party, first from a senior position in Young Labour to a job in the office of MP Phil Goff, now Auckland Mayor. Gordon Jon Thompson, chief of staff for former prime minister Helen Clark, in whose office Ardern next worked, says Ardern had star quality and was universally liked. “She had the basics down pat and was good in groups and off the cuff. She was doing stuff without pissing people off. And she connected with people.”

I arranged to meet Ardern at her electorate office on New North Rd in Mt Albert, Auckland. After initially being sent to an address kilometres away by my GPS, I knew when I was finally at my destination: how many shopfront offices are guarded by discreetly armed police?

Ardern promptly offered to make me a cuppa. If this was part of connecting with people, the fact that we both like our tea white and weak was helpful. There were just the two of us, her media minder and a diplomatic protection squad member in the office. As Ardern revealed, fate could have seen her in the police instead of politics.

“The longest serious consideration I gave to any career was becoming a policewoman. Even when I worked for Phil Goff, I was seriously considering joining the police.”

The force beckoned because Ardern thought it would satisfy her urge to help people. She would also be following in her father Ross’s footsteps. But it wasn’t to be. “The physical side of the exam was too hard. I can remember doing the running and then getting to the big test and the dream just fell by the wayside. I remember conversations with my father about how often you get assaulted, how tough it is, how rough. He always encouraged me, but I don’t think Mum was so keen.”

Ross and his wife, Laurell, are based in Niue, population fewer than 1500, where he served in the police and is now High Commissioner. In keeping with diplomatic service sensitivities, Ardern’s parents are largely staying quiet about their daughter’s standing for PM, although her mum told RNZ National on the day former Labour leader Andrew Little stepped aside that Jacinda was “pretty special” and a “very clever lady”.

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Reared in dairy country

Ardern grew up in Morrinsville, hardly a hotbed of leftie politics. “My friends teased me a bit for being political and being ‘that kind’ of political, but it was okay, it was good for me.”

It was a Labour-leaning household, with a clipping of Norm Kirk on display rather than the old-style picture of Michael Joseph Savage. “I remember moments, not politics; not left and right but debating issues with my mum. From time to time Dad would time us out because I was so argumentative I would drive my mum nuts. She found me very frustrating.

Ardern’s parents are Mormons and she was a believer until she broke away in her twenties from the church whose best-known politician member is US Republican Mitt Romney. “The church’s attitude to civil unions was the big crunch point. There were other things but that was the big one.”

It came as a surprise to the person closest to her, only sister Louise, who is 18 months older. “It was such a massive part of her life for so long, but I can understand the struggle she had. If you’re a person who has many gay friends and you believe in equality, it’s difficult to reconcile that with being in the church where you can’t be a member if you are gay. Even though she doesn’t go to church any more, she would still hold many of the values.”

Does that include belief in God? These days, Ardern declares herself to be agnostic. “Atheism seems so vehement to me. I respect people who have sets of values in any faith.”

The possible political impact of her religious background doesn’t worry her. “The stuff I sweat is whether I’m working hard enough, whether I did the best job I could in the last interview I gave.” She deals with policy decisions by reading the evidence and making a call.

She gives the impression that her whole life has been about doing the right thing. Was there any choice, though, growing up in a small town where your father is a cop? Was she a goody two-shoes? “I was earnest, yes, although my sister wasn’t.”

Louise, who admits to “a slight rebellious streak” as a teenager, would sometimes threaten to leave home. “Jacinda was a positive and peaceful influence in the family and she would write me little notes saying why I should stay.”

Has the policeman’s younger daughter ever broken the law? “Yes, although not consciously. I broke the law when I installed a toilet in our house with my partner. But if you are asking me have I got a rap sheet, no.”

Ardern says her father’s job never caused her any grief with the kids she grew up with in Murupara and Morrinsville. “He would use his ability to talk to people as his main tool, so he felt like a policeman/community worker to me, which gave me a very different view of policing.”

Louise’s recollections are more nuanced. “Dad was working in Hamilton, so a lot of the community weren’t even aware he was a policeman.” She remembers one occasion, however, when she was beaten up at school. “I don’t know whether it was due to Dad being a cop or just because I was the new kid. Mum tells me that Jacinda used to be my guardian at school and these boys would chase me quite a bit and she would fend them off. The incident happened when she was off sick. A bit embarrassing having your little sister protect you, but I guess I was quite a weedy, wimpy little kid.”

You go girl: former prime minister Helen Clark greets Ardern at Labour’s campaign launch. Photo/Getty Images

High-school hero

When it comes to high school, Ardern remembers one teacher ahead of the rest. From Gregor Fountain, who taught social studies, she learnt “to question the basis of all my opinions. Why do you think that? Where did it come from? I think you remember these moments in education when you transition from just finding out information to finding out how to think, and he was my teacher when I found out how to think. That was an incredibly important period.”

He also had a memorable approach to lessons. “When he taught about Gandhi, he came to class dressed as Gandhi, and when he taught politics, he divided the class into a parliament. Whenever I think about what we do in education, I think about putting the best possible teachers in front of kids.”

Fountain, now principal at Paraparaumu College, has no trouble remembering his ex-student. “Although it sounds like a cliché, it doesn’t surprise me to see where she is now. When I taught her, you would have these conversations about how you’re going to change the world, and she was.”

He describes her as having amazing gravitas and instincts. She stood for the school board, sat on the discipline committee and campaigned for girls to wear trousers, but what he remembers most was her involvement in the group Students Against Drunk Driving (Sadd).

“When the school ball came up, Jacinda took responsibility for it, especially getting everyone home safe. She organised buses and bus routes so everyone was safe. Her mother told me that when she got home at 2am, she went out again in her car driving around Morrinsville to make sure everyone was safely home.”

The thing that diverted her from conducting night patrols to politics came when she was 17. “If Harry Duynhoven hadn’t called me and asked if I wanted to come and work on his campaign, then everything could have been different.” The long-serving Labour MP was seeking re-election in New Plymouth.

Birthday surprise

That started a sequence of events that ended in leadership of the party. “It was the first time I met an MP and saw them at work. It was the first time I became properly involved with Labour.” That led to her meeting and getting a job with Goff, and eventually in Clark’s office, and the party asking her if she wanted to run for Parliament. “I just kept saying yes – that’s how it happened.” Along the way, she did a degree in communications studies at the University of Waikato and a stint in the office of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, though she never met him.

As Labour deputy leader, Ardern had said she didn’t want the top spot. That changed when her boss, Andrew Little, publicly admitted he had questioned his suitability for the job. “It was July 26, my birthday, when Andrew sat down with me and said, ‘I’m worried about the polls.’ He asked me if I thought his stepping down would make a difference.”

What did she say? “Stick with it.” Did she not think in her heart that it could be a game changer? “No. I said he should stay the course, because stability mattered.” Does the subsequent turnaround in the polls not imply that her judgment was flawed? “That’s a conversation we’ve had, but I don’t think we could have predicted that. Up to the moment he made his decision, I actually thought he would stick with the role. I had an hour and a half’s notice of him quitting.”

Ardern says she didn’t seek counsel from anyone before agreeing to take over. “I just knew I would if that’s what Andrew asked me to do.”

Labour insiders swear the narrative of the bloodless coup is true. As one explains it, “In the corner of the Labour caucus room is a locked box with a whole lot of sharpened knives. Little pretty much went and unlocked the box and said, ‘Pull out your weapons and stab me.’”

Does Ardern’s unwillingness to pick up a knife place a question mark over her self-belief as leader? “I never went into politics to sit in Opposition. I’ve always had a set of things that I want to do, particularly around child well-being, and that requires you to be in office. I believe in my instincts about the country we can be. I thought everyone operated like that, but I’ve come to realise they don’t. I feel lucky to have a strong sense of where we should go and the courage to go there. And now I believe we have the opportunity to do it as well.”

She doesn’t claim to have a monopoly on good ideas, however. “I’m collaborative and I think I’ve got the ability to bring people with me.” Is she prepared to be pushy? “I don’t like the word bossy, but it may come up.”

What of the cost of leadership? The question has been asked whether that might mean sacrificing having her own family. “I don’t know, to be honest. My view is I don’t want any regrets in life, and that includes taking up this opportunity.”

Getting to know her

What does the would-be PM make of her more recent predecessors? John Key, for instance? “I think he was underestimated by a lot of people. In politics now, everyone has the right to know the person they are voting for, how they are going to make decisions, and I don’t think we should trivialise that. Perhaps we were transitioning to that during Key’s time – we were suddenly focusing on personality. But that should never be a substitute for knowing the substance of a person and where they want to take the country.”

Ardern thinks we got the measure of Key better than of Clark, probably thanks to the rise of social media during his time in office. Although we knew Clark as leader, “I don’t think we appreciated her as much as we should have, but I think it was a slightly different era.”

The results of private polling and focus groups suggest many voters who had abandoned Labour like what they see of Ardern. Authenticity, charisma and decisiveness come through and, crucially for any politician, people know who she is.

“Anyone who spends even a short amount of time with me knows me, which could be a fault. I probably wear my heart on my sleeve. I probably overshare. I’m probably too easy to know. I don’t think in politics you can have these dual facades – one for family and one for the public. I think what you see is what you get.”

Shooting from the lip

Ardern quotes from the first two televised debates with Bill English.

  • Do we have a housing crisis? Because ultimately that is what this election is about.
  • Population growth … is not a plan for growing an economy. That’s what Bill has been relying on, us all selling houses to one another and immigration. That’s his plan around economic growth.
  • We are not increasing any tax on wage and salary earners – that is patently false. That is scaremongering.
  • We need to invest in our people. That’s exactly what our economy should be about.
  • I actually believe that it is possible to exist in politics without lying and by telling the truth. Yes, politicians make mistakes, but a true mark of leadership is whether you front those mistakes.
  • I have to say the GP announcement, around making doctor’s visits more accessible for community service card holders, when I saw the government announce it, I thought that’s a good idea.
  • I don’t accept that our teachers, our nurses, our police officers can’t get into their first home.
  • Our rivers are dying. Sixty per cent of our monitored waterways you can’t swim in any more.
  • We have a clean, green reputation. We have to start walking the talk, because our farmers trade on that, our country trades on it.
  • [Abortion] should be out of the Crimes Act. I’m very clear on that. People need to be able to make their own decision.
  • I want to see us dealing with [cannabis] as a health issue, rather than a justice issue. Locking someone up for smoking weed is a waste of money and doesn’t help fix an individual’s problem. Putting them into rehab does.
  • It’d be very clear to people that my values are very different to Donald Trump’s. I think what we all need now, particularly with North Korea, is for everyone to take a step back and be calm.
  • The response I would give Donald Trump [to a request for military support against North Korea] would be … [that] the UN needs to be brought in. China is a critical part in resolving the dispute we have now. Let’s resolve it before it escalates.
  • Resolving this [housing] issue is going to take a comprehensive approach. It means stopping foreign speculators from buying existing homes, it means closing tax loopholes, it means building more houses.
  • People feel like they’re going backwards.
  • Under our policies, 70% of families end up better off.
  • We should aspire for New Zealanders to earn far, far more than the minimum wage.
  • When we axe National’s tax cuts, we’re axing a tax cut for me; we’re axing a tax cut for Bill [English].
  • [The] Waterview [Tunnel] is not a vision and it’s not a plan.
  • If you know what drives [poverty], tell me why after nine years do we still have the same figures around inequality, the same figures around child poverty. You’ve tried your ideas, they haven’t worked. I have a positive vision for all children being lifted up in New Zealand.
  • We can restore our rivers within a generation.
  • We’re asking those who use water for commercial gain to contribute between 1c and 2c per 1000 litres.
  • We’ve said that we believe [immigration] needs to come down by at least 20,000-30,000.
  • Do I back myself to be leader? Do I back myself to win this election? Yes.

This article was first published in the September 16, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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