Nicola Kaye vs Jacinda Ardern

by Jonathan Milne / 24 September, 2011

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The battle for Auckland Central has been dubbed the Battle of the Babes.


All short skirts and long legs, Jacinda Ardern and Labour Party volunteer Robin Wilson-Whiting put their shoulders to the small red and white campaign caravan, straining to push it into a parking space on central Auckland’s Hobson St. A passerby rushes to the aid of the two young women. For his trouble, Wilson-Whiting presents the man with an electoral enrolment pamphlet.

But his chivalry isn’t about enhanced participation in the 2011 general election. Let’s be honest: there’s one reason that bloke rushed to help. And there’s one reason we’re running this article, studio photos and all. And if you’re honest, there’s probably one overriding reason that you’re reading this article. It’s because commentators and political strategists have dubbed the Auckland Central race the “Battle of the Babes”.

Nicola Laura Kaye, 31, in the blue corner; Jacinda Kate Laurell Ardern, 31, in the red corner. Poor old Denise Roche from the Greens doesn’t fit in the metaphorical wrestling ring. “If this is the Battle of the Babes, I’ll be the auntie,” laughs Roche, 48. “I don’t want to be in the ring.” It probably reflects badly on the rest of us that we’re more interested in the political equivalent of jelly-wrestling than in debating the ins and outs of the candidates’ policies.

(Kaye sighs: “Jelly-wrestling? That must be the hundredth time I’ve heard that joke.”)

Yet, for all the wrong reasons, this electoral contest is enhancing political participation. Both candidates report increased interest from young people. With all the budget and resources afforded MPs, and none of the responsibility of Parliament’s frontbenchers, Kaye and Ardern have been able to wholeheartedly throw themselves at local politics.

The two MPs have much in common. You wouldn’t guess it, seeing their awkward body language together as they pose for photos. But both discovered politics as school-leavers; both worked as young policy advisers in Parliament, before travelling overseas in their mid-twenties. In London, Kaye was working as a project manager for Transport for London, liaising with Mayor Ken Livingstone’s office. At the same time, Ardern was working across town in the Cabinet Office, wading through reams of health and safety employment regulations.

Kaye returned to Auckland at the end of 2007 to seek selection and election in her old hometown. Ardern was named on Labour’s list the following year, and returned to her hometown of Morrinsville to contest the Waikato seat. They were both aged 28 when elected to Parliament – Nikki Kaye in Auckland Central, Ardern on the Labour list – the country’s two youngest MPs. Three years later, they can claim to have earned the respect of their parties and have been elevated to good list positions that guarantee their return to Parliament, regardless of who wins the Auckland race.

Yet, perhaps surprising to those unfamiliar with the arcane workings of Wellington party politics, the two barely know each other after years working in the same building, first as advisers and then as MPs. They attend some of the same functions: both were at Eden Park for the Rugby World Cup opening ceremony; both were at Auckland Zoo the following day for the opening of the new Te Wao Nui native wildlife reserve. Two days later they meet up for the Listener photo shoot. Plans to shoot them in blue and red go awry – at the rugby, someone spilt wine over Kaye’s short blue chiffon frock.

Instead, Kaye arrives in an emerald-green dress, belted at the waist; Ardern in a sleek orange and grey number. Both women would prefer to be judged on their performance in the job, but both have made damn sure they look fantastic for the photo. Let there be no doubt: this is a contest.

The two don’t shake hands when they arrive. But when Kaye finds herself to the side of the pavement, she gently elbows Ardern, jostling her way back into the shot. Is the National MP claiming the centre ground and forcing the Labour MP to the left? Yes, retorts Ardern, but “I’m pushing her into the gutter”. They have offices just two doors apart on College Hill, the wide road that leads from the CBD to Ponsonby’s cafe strip.

They share some key policies: both opposed mining in the Hauraki Gulf; both support Auckland’s CBD rail link; both would like to see New Zealanders elect their own head of state instead of deferring to the Queen in Britain. Yet for all they have in common, for all these public encounters, they are political adversaries; they have little cause to speak to each other.

Outside Ardern’s caravan the other day, a passing constituent had asked: “So you’re the new Aunty Helen?” She laughed off the comparison – but she has certainly been out soliciting support from those in the arts world who were once so devoted to Clark. Down on the city fringes in Morningside, she’s paying a visit to the new offices shared by CRS Music Management, Brent Eccles Entertainment and the Mushroom record label. This is the hub of commercial pop: from Brooke Fraser, the Runga sisters and the Naked & Famous, to the Finns and Dave Dobbyn – many of New Zealand’s biggest export acts are run from this building.

As builders and signwriters fit out the offices around them, the music industry bosses sit Ardern down in a sunny art deco boardroom and spell out what they want from Labour. Most of it involves hammering internet service providers like Telecom and Vodafone to ensure they punish illegal music downloaders – and that means winning the ear of politicians.

“We’re making slow progress,” explains Mushroom Music’s Melbourne-based managing director, Ian James, who is in Auckland for the Apra Silver Scroll music awards. “The trouble is, the Labor Party is in such chaos.” Ardern leaps to her party’s defence: “We were discussing it in caucus just last week,” she replies, politely. Silence. Confusion. Laughter – and James clarifies: “The Australian Labor Party, I mean.”

It’s fair to say, though, the New Zealand Labour Party could also do with some good news. The party’s polling is pushing record lows. Contenders to replace Phil Goff as leader are lurking in the shadows. Labour needs a win – and the party is keen to claim back Auckland Central. Goff explains: “It’s a seat that has traditionally been Labour’s. It’s also a very marginal seat. We think we’ve got a great candidate there and we’d love to see Auckland Central back in the Labour fold.” He rejects any characterisation of Ardern as a carpetbagger, a johnny-come-lately dropped into unfamiliar territory by the Labour hierarchy because she is young, female and attractive to voters. Goff insists this is not an orchestrated Battle of the Babes.

“You’re not voting for your MP on the basis of their looks,” he says. “It’s not a beauty contest.” Goff says Ardern was selected by local Labour members, not imposed by head office. “There’s no more cosmopolitan seat in the country than Auckland Central. People move there from around the country and around the world … I think she’ll be welcomed by people there.”

Prime Minister John Key says he’s confident Auckland voters will recognise the effort Kaye has put in. “I’ve been impressed with her capacity for hard work and her ability to be a strong voice within government for the constituents of central Auckland.” Kaye discovered the rigours of an electorate MP’s workload early on. First, door-knocking to win party members and selection, then door-knocking to win the election, then dealing with 8000 constituent enquiries in three years – all fitted around Parliament and speeches and ribbon-cutting.

In her electorate office, no two meetings are the same. She ushers out light-rail campaigner Geoff Houtman, after putting together a strategy to table his 1000-­signature petition for a tram loop around central Auckland. Then she sits down with a young Malaysian student who has lost her visa and been told to leave the country, her degree incomplete, despite having paid thousands in university fees.

The MP says she has learnt to not over-promise. She’ll write to the Immigration Minister, but the Malaysian student is an overstayer and may just have to go. She hugs the tearful student as she stands to leave, and her sympathy seems genuine. But the young MP also gained public credence for toughing it out against her own Government’s policy to allow mining on Schedule 4 conservation land in the Hauraki Gulf. “That was definitely the hardest moment of my political career,” she says, “and I think my political career could have actually ended right there if the party had made a decision to proceed with mining of Great Barrier Island.”

The work, the hours, have also been harder than Kaye ever expected or imagined, and she sometimes looks wan and weary. Like Ardern, she is single. And the single status is not some campaign strategy to boost her “Babe” cred: Kaye and her longtime partner broke up when she entered Parliament. Her life is one meeting after another, all through the day, always trying to present a strong, confident face. She ducks into her St Marys Bay apartment for less than two minutes to pick up her suitcase while the taxi meter runs … and it’s off to the airport and Wellington.

Sitting in the corporate cab, she acknow­ledges it can be difficult to juggle family life and politics. “Not everyone wants to be the partner or spouse of an MP, and I understand that.” Is it easier to just stay single? “I’d prefer to have a boyfriend,” she says. But no one ever said politics would be easy for Kaye and Ardern, least of all when men still outnumber women two to one in Parliament.

Both Ardern and Kaye describe themselves as feminists – albeit a “modern-day feminist” in the latter case. The question, then, is this: how can these two women blithely laugh off the portrayal – by the media, by party strategists, by the public – of this electoral race as a Battle of the Babes? Is it not demeaning? Are they not insulted? Surely their trailblazing political forebears, like Helen Clark and Marilyn Waring, would not have laughed so easily?

Kaye says: “Obviously I’d prefer it was the Battle of the Policy Wonks, or something. But one of the things I realise about politics is you don’t sweat the stuff you can’t control. While it was initially a superficial headline, it’s actually given us both greater profile around the work we’re doing in Parliament … It’s a talking point.”

And on this, too, Ardern agrees. She has worked hard on Labour’s $250 million youth employment policy package … and says the Battle of the Babes profile has allowed her to push issues like pay equity and flexible working. “I always joke that it’s a reference to us being youthful. It’s not something I get hung up on,” she says.

“People do tend to get focused on the fact that we’re both young women in a way that they never focus on the fact that we often run middle-aged men against each other. There does still seem to be a bit of novelty around the fact that we’re young women in politics. I hope, one day, we get to a place where that isn’t a novelty any more.”

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