On a cool grey morning in Wellington, in the doorway of her office on the ninth floor of parliament, the 25th prime minister of New Zealand is looking about as worried as anyone with her famously enormous smile is capable of. “I‘m so sorry, I’ve given you nectarine hand,” says Jacinda Ardern, a moment after shaking hands. “I was just eating one, and you know how the juice goes everywhere. But anyhow, welcome!”
Wiggling her fingers, she leads the way into her office, a big room with a curving wall of windows.
She takes a seat at a large wooden desk and begins detangling a pair of headphones while examining a pink Tshirt with the words “Rt Hon Spore” written on it. Adern has attended annual music festival Splore several times. “I better not strip and put this on,” she says reluctantly. Did her partner, fishing show presenter Clarke Gayford, get a Tshirt, too, asks her social media editor, setting up camera gear. ”Yes,” says Ardern. ”Something to do with fishing I can’t remember. But mine is better.”
I’m not supposed to be bothering Ardern, I have permission to shadow her for two days, with an interview only at the end and at this point, my assigned media person begins to usher me out of the room.
Ardern turns. “You can stay longer while I do my boring rattle-off thing, if you like,” she smiles.
She spends the next 10 minutes doing a series of unscripted, perfect-first-time clips for social media. Then, obviously changing her mind, she pulls her dark floral shift dress off.
She’s wearing a modest black slip underneath, but still, I’m glad I’m not Charles Wooley. She puts on the pink Tshirt, then records a welcome to Splore. Smiling into the camera, she apologises that she can’t be present in person, and says she’s looking forward to seeing someone dressing up “in a brown wig, Labour rosette and pregnancy gut”.
So, fruitjuice, partial strip, self-parody. We’ve seen and heard a great deal about Ardern since she became prime minister last October, but clearly, there’s more to the world’s youngest elected head of government (until she was pipped by the new 31-year-old Austrian chancellor in December) than meets the eye.
Let’s not forget that Ardern performed a political miracle last October. Amid an international climate of disastrous defeats for social democratic politics, the US, UK, France, and Italy have all rejected their centre-left parties in the past 18 months alone, this 37-year-old woman led the Labour party to victory after almost a decade in the political wilderness, having taken over the leadership less than eight weeks earlier.
Ardern had been an MP for nine years but had no ministerial experience. Yet after a 54-day campaign ”Let’s Do This” she did it. She got Labour to within 10 seats of the National party, which had been in power for three three year terms (almost all of them under John Key). Then she conducted weeks of coalition negotiations that against all expectations snatched electoral victory.
“She was meeting with the Greens in one room, and New Zealand First in the other, and she kept both partners in the tent, talking,” recalls Annette King, former Labour deputy leader and 30-year political veteran, who was on the negotiating team. “And don‘t forget, they were talking to the National Party as well. She was moving from room to room, morning and afternoon, day after day. She had to hold in her mind exactly what she was negotiating, you can’t make a promise to one party and then renege on it with the other. It was a massive feat, and she led it all.”
Along with negotiating skill, Ardern had charisma on her side: she’s one of those intensely likeable people that almost everybody, well, likes. As David Farrar, a right-wing pollster, blogger and ex National Party staffer (so theoretically not a Jacinda fan) puts it: “Jacinda herself is very warm, very genuine, very comfortable in her own skin.”
Certainly, every time I go somewhere with Ardern, whom the entire country seems to call by her first name, there’s a feeling that can only be described as giddy. Grown men and women smile and laugh when they see her; they rush up for selfies; they clutch their hearts with excitement; they hug her often and hold her hand. At the first event I attend, the opening of a building at Victoria University in Wellington, someone gifts her a grey onesie for the baby she’s having in June. Someone else helps her hold a tuatara. “He may bite,” I can see the worried handler mouthing. Predictably, the lizard relaxes in Ardern’s hands, legs dangling.
Jacinda Kate Laurell Ardern was born on July 26, 1980. She has one older sister, Louise, and just before she started school, her family moved to the Bay of Plenty town of Murupara, infamous during the 1980s for gang violence. Her father Ross was the local police sergeant, her mother Laurell worked in the school canteen.
It sounds like a dramatic place to be a little kid: their house was pelted with bottles, the man who lived next door committed suicide , and the family babysitter turned yellow from hepatitis C. Ardern once recalled sneaking barefoot out through the back fence and coming upon her dad being confronted by several scary-looking men. ”Keep walking, Jacinda. Keep walking,” he told her.
Reading between the lines, one suspects she was one of those super-bright, super-nice kids you sometimes come across: a star debater, a school defender of the vulnerable (aged 5, she stood up to kids bullying her older sister), and the underprivileged those who had “no lunch and no shoes”.
At home: ”I was always trying to fix everything,” she explains. “I was the peacemaker. I remember hearing my sister packing her bags once to run away, and slipping a note under her door begging her not to go. I would have been so irritating.”
She studied politics and communications at Waikato University, and was employed as a staffer in Helen Clark’s government in the mid-2000s after a stint in London, where she headed the International Union of Socialist Youth and worked for Tony Blair’s Labour machine. When she returned, she entered politics in 2008 as a list MP.
She was 27, the youngest sitting member of parliament. One of her former teachers, Gregor Fountain whom she invited to her swearing-in as PM recalled her “amazing ability and curiosity. I remember her staying behind in class to talk about issues, because she really wanted to grapple with them.” At the end of high school, her year book contained various “Who’s most likely…‘I descriptions. Ardern’s category? “Most likely to be prime minister.”
Her mother and father were major influences and the family are close, though her scientist sister lives in London and her parents live in Niue, where Ross Ardern has been High Commissioner since 2014.
Ardern was raised a mormon: her nanna was converted via the classic Mormon doorknock and the rest of the family followed. And even though she left the church many years ago (mostly over its rejection of homosexuality), there’s no breach with her family.
“I can’t separate out who I am from the things that I was raised with,” says Ardern. “I took a departure from the theology, but otherwise I have only positive things to say about it.” She’s retained certain Mormon characteristics: the positivity, the surprising openness, the at times almost painful sincerity.
“I’m really earnest,” she agrees. “I think it annoys people! I asked a reporter about it once. ‘I She laughs. “And she said, ‘Um, look, yes, maybe.”‘
But if she’s earnest, she’s also ballsy: and perhaps that’s a Mormon legacy, too. “I’ve never had any hesitancy in talking to people,” she says. “If I’ve got a purpose and I need to go and speak to people, or knock on doors, I will. I don’t mind doorknocking for politics.” She grins. “Because nothing is as hard as doorknocking for God!”
The morning after we meet, I travel to Christchurch with Ardern’s entourage. Or rather, in front of it. Ardern, who uses commercial domestic flights, boards last, at the very back of the plane, and I’m not even sure she’s present until I see her after we land: a tall, black-clad figure striding across the tarmac pulling her wheelie bag, nodding (earnestly) as an elated-looking air steward talks beside her.
Her first meeting is to commit $10 million to the restoration of earthquake damaged Christ Church Cathedral. Various officials stand around awkwardly until she arrives and gathers them up with a big embracing motion. “This isn’t staged at all, is it?” she jokes cheerfully, as everyone shuffles towards the cameras. She gives a little speech, explaining that “the people behind me here have actually done all of the work”.
She performs this praise deflecting manoeuvre repeatedly.
At Canterbury University later in the day, when an official recalls that she was “mobbed” by students during her last visit, she immediately corrects him. “I don’t think I was mobbed,” she says with a smile. “It was raining, and I had an umbrella.” The next day, when US Vogue publishes a profile piece including a photograph of her looking like a supermodel, she responds by posting a picture on social media of her as a little kid with a “full ’80s mullet”.
It’s as if it’s impossible for her to take a compliment, I say. ”That’s actually true,” admits Ardern, sounding surprised. “No one’s ever said that to me before.”
After the cathedral, Ardern’s entourage heads 500 metres down the road for the launch of an electric car share company.
Off to one side, a small knot of protesters have gathered holding placards about their seven-year fight over earthquake insurance claims. Megan Woods, the local MP, wades in.
After a minute, I realise that Ardern, last seen being ushered towards the red carpet, is standing beside her. The protesters seem surprised. Someone called Gary begins to ask a very long question about obstruction and incompetence and the loss of his life savings. “OK, Gary, that’s enough,” says someone else, and Gary subsides. Ardern, who has been listening and nodding, says: “What’s the best way for us to communicate with you?” Several big trucks roar past, and she pauses. “Because there’s a long list of stuff we’re doing, and we want to make sure you hear about it every step of the way.” She shakes hands with several protesters, who look thrilled, then sets off back to the launch, holding a bag containing another onesie white, this time.
Ardern’s next function is with families of the 115 people who died when the Christchurch Television (CTV) building collapsed during the earthquake. Late last year, after six years, four investigations and millions of dollars, New Zealand Police announced it would not prosecute the building’s engineers for negligent manslaughter due to inconclusive and contradictory evidence.
The meeting takes place in a church and is closed to journalists, so a big group of us wait in a stiflingly hot anteroom. Someone is playing an organ at high volume close by, a long dirge which seems appropriate to Ardern’s words when she emerges.
“I felt not only a duty of care to come and speak to the families today,” she says, “but also just from a human perspective I felt it was important, being in the position I’m in, that we do everything in our power to prevent such a tragedy from happening in the future.”
She goes on to explain that many of the families are taking comfort from the idea of future legislation to allow for prosecution in similar scenarios. But the families’ representative Professor Maans Alkaisi, who lost his wife, GP Dr Maysoon Abbas, in the collapse looks entirely uncomforted when he appears. He wants a judicial review into the police decision and money from the government to support the families in a civil case.
“Ardern is a wonderful person,” he says, “very sincere. But she is considered to be one of the most influential female politicians in the world. We feel that if she asks for something, she can get it.”
The CTV case, which one commentator describes to me as ”a deep, painful open wound”, has the potential to become a problem for Ardern, as does the complex rebuilding of Christchurch as a whole. She campaigned on empathy and fairness, but empathy, however sincere, does not heal all wounds. If it leads to false hope, in fact, it can actually make things worse.
During parliamentary sitting weeks, Ardern typically spends Monday to Wednesday in Wellington, and Thursday visiting a regional area. On Fridays, she heads home to Auckland. The day following her return from Christchurch, I arrive at her home for our interview.
Ardern currently lives in Point Chevalier in Auckland (though a few days after we meet it is announced she and Gayford have bought a four-bedroom home 10 minutes down the road in Sandringham).
This is a startlingly normal-looking suburb, and her house is a modest, single-storey brick and tile building. It’s indistinguishable from others on the street; except, that is, for the two security guards, one old and one young, who travel everywhere with her.
They are standing against a dark fence that looks mostly like a fence you’d buy at Bunnings, and slightly like a fence that could repel a tank attack.
Ardern is inside, wearing another shift dress and tights, but no shoes. She pours me a lemonade (“homemade, but not by me”) and sits on her low grey couch in her bright living room, opposite a TV and a large heap of shoes notionally piled into a basket. Outside, there’s a little patch of grass, some hopeful jasmine and lots of small weeds beside the window the garden of someone who’s rarely home.
You must be exhausted, I say: all those events, all that hand-holding and hugging. “I like it!” she exclaims. “Partly it’s probably me: I always put my arm around them.
During the election campaign, people would say every day, ‘Can I hug you?’ and I’d say, ‘Of course you can!’ I think it’s wonderful if people think I’m accessible enough that I can do that’ I take it only as a compliment.”
She pauses for a moment. “Of course, I do get angry, and upset,” she says. “Not with the hugging but I am a normal human.”
This is slightly surprising: one of Ardern’s favourite words is “robust”, and she often seems to brush off political criticism not to mention obsessive interest in her personal life with phrases like “it was a robust debate” or “I’m pretty robust”. So what’s her technique for managing stress? “Well, if something’s bothering me, in order to really work it through, I talk it out a lot. That’s my way of processing stuff.” She smiles. “Sometimes that means people around me have to put up with a lot of chat”
These things, she goes on, are part and parcel of political life: a life she chose a long time ago. She was handing out Labour leaflets at 17; three years earlier she interviewed Marilyn Waring former National Party MP, now a noted feminist and academic, for a school project.
“I thought her courage was phenomenal,” Ardern recalls. “So I went down to the school canteen where my mum worked, and found her phone number. And of course she didn’t pick up, and I left this long garbled message, as only a 14-year-old could do.”
A few weeks later, Waring called her back. “What I really remember about Jacinda was that she had specific issues she wanted me to address,” recalls Waring, now a professor of public policy at the Auckland University of Technology. “‘What do you think are the key issues facing my generation? What do you think about a nuclear-free New Zealand?”‘
Today, Waring feels hopeful about Ardern’s election, and also very relieved. “I can’t tell you: my generation [Waring was born in 1952] has cruelly stuffed it up, whether it’s the free market bullshit, the environmental devastation, or the incredible gap between rich and poor.
”Political transitions have to be dynamic like this, maybe like Canada, too because if you’ve just got the old boys hanging on, they make sure you never get to prove that they did anything wrong, and so you can never get anywhere.”
Now that this country has chosen Ardern, ”let’s just hope she can keep being herself, and having this lovely candour, and enabling us to trust. Politics is a terrible trap: you can’t transform it all on your own because the structures all work in such patriarchal Victorian ways.”
Even for those such as Waring, who have faith in Ardern personally, this is a worrying issue. As pollster David Farrar says: “Labour has so few really good ministers, they’ve had to load all the really important stuff on to just a few people, and they’re struggling.”
The composition of Ardern’s government won’t help. Any coalition is inherently unstable, points out Farrar: the more actors, the greater the potential for disunity. “The history of small parties in government in New Zealand is that they’ve all lost votes in the next election,” he explains.
”The problem is that if you, as a voter, think the government is doing a good job, why wouldn’t you choose Labour next time?”
This is, theoretically, good for Ardern, but small parties can become disruptive and hostile in a bid to avoid destruction, which can make government difficult. In this case, head of New Zealand First and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has fallen out with just about everyone, in every party, during his long political career. And though the Greens co-leader James Shaw is a personal friend of Ardern’s, his party’s vote has already dropped to 5 per cent the cut-off for presence in parliament. “In 18 months,” says Farrar, “the pressure could really be on.”
Speaking of pressure, by June, Ardern will not only be PM, but also a mother. She discovered she was pregnant soon after coalition negotiations; and as is her way, she’s already announced lots of plans about what’s going to happen and when. She’ll take six weeks of maternity leave, during which Winston Peters will be acting PM, then she’ll return full-time, and Gayford will become the primary carer.
Gayford and Ardern met four years ago, when he (belying his knockabout radio DJ-cum-TV fisherman image) contacted her with his concerns about privacy legislation.
In his retelling, they met for a coffee and he discovered, to his amazement, that she liked Concord Dawn “a fantastically awesome heavy drum’n’ bass outfit”. He took her fishing, she caught a 51/2 kilogram snapper, dolphins and whales frolicked on cue. The rest, as they say, is history.
Gayford has previously described his main role as the PM’s partner as, “Just to make sure that she’s OK and be in the background going, ‘Have you eaten your lunch? Have you slept properly? You’ve got lipstick on your teeth.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he seems unfazed about fatherhood. “It’s not like we haven’t been through a few changes in the past year,” he points out genially, speaking on the phone from Wellington. “Although I’m lucky, because I get to clip in and out of her world. I still get to bugger off and go fishing, where everything’s exactly the same. But then I come home and put on a suit and go to an awards dinner where they announce your name as you come into the room.”
What has her being PM done to their home life? “Well, I have been making jokes recently that there’s three of us in the relationship now,” he laughs. “Me, her and the cabinet papers. And the cabinet papers appear just in time to ruin every weekend. They come in this big, security-coded briefcase, and it’s my job to go out and get it from the gate on Friday. And I gauge the severity of my weekend based on the weight of that bag.
So I walk in, and I stand there, and she looks at me and goes, ‘OK, so what do you think? I And then I go, ‘Not a good weekend, darling.’”
Early parenthood doesn’t lend itself to good weekends either, of course, but one of the unexpected details about Ardern’s impending motherhood is that, in fact, her work scenario is surprisingly baby friendly at least on parliamentary sitting days.
“We’ve got several newly elected members of parliament who have babies” explains Annette King. “And the Speaker of the House, Trevor Mallard, is called the Baby Whisperer: whenever there’s a baby around, Trevor’s got it.”
It is not unusual to see Mallard, in the Speaker’s chair, holding a baby while overseeing debates (he also apparently has a cot in his office), or members breastfeeding in chamber.
Ardern explains that Gayford will bring the baby and travel with her if need be, and that they’re open to ”friends and family” helping out: basically, her plan seems to be to keep doing the job as she does it now. “I don’t have many choices work-wise,” she explains. ”No one’s saying, ‘How would you like your work and home arrangements to be?‘ It just is what it is. So there’s no guilt, because if I want to do this job, there’s no choice.”
For all the initial reluctance, and the less than ideal preparation and timing, there’s no doubt Ardern does want to do this job. “I do enioy it enormously.” she says, almost sheepishly, tucking her legs underneath her. “It’s a job about spending time with people, advocating on their behalf, and making decisions for New Zealand. That’s what drove me into politics in the first place.”
A few days after our interview, Ardern makes a lightning trip to Australia, where I see her at a business lunch with PM Malcolm Turnbull. An unusually ebullient Turnbull starts his speech by telling everyone that Ardern came to his house the previous night for dinner, like a schoolkid boasting that the popular girl went to his party.
Ardern, in turn, is enthusiastic and charming.
She avoids (on this occasion) mention of tensions over university fees and criminal deportations, and makes much of Australia’s position as New Zealand’s valued trading partner (second only to China). while saying the historic trans-Tasman bond is as strong as ever. She also mentions a new domestic policy: a standard-of-living framework she plans to build in to the 2019 budget, measuring not only economic but social success.
“Yes, balancing the books matters,” is how she puts it to me. “But so does making sure that your people aren’t sleeping in cars, and your children aren’t living in poverty.”
She wants environmental and social measures, as well as economic ones, put in place so that we “can understand where our investment and spend is going and the impact of what we’re doing”.
If she pulls it off, Ardern‘s will be the first government in the OECD to implement “wellbeing economics” in a meaningful way.
Who knows if she’ll achieve this scheme or any other, for that matter. Her story, so far, reads like a political fairytale, but other wildly popular leaders Tony Blair, Barack Obama all lost support as the realities of power set in.
However beloved you are, once you are faced with tough decisions, which have winners and losers, you will inevitably disappoint people. Canada’s Justin Trudeau, another charismatic, liberal leader, saw his disapproval rating jump above 50 per cent this month for the first time since his 2015 election. If things don’t work out in this bold political experiment, it won’t be Labour or the government that takes the blame, it will be Jacinda Ardern.
Time will tell whether she has the political intelligence, endurance and luck to navigate this; if she has the ability to lead the nation safely through the shoal waters of 21st century politics.
Still, in a world in which we’re increasingly expected to accept alternative facts, and indefinite strongman rule, and threatening, isolationist policies from world leaders, it’s nice to be offered something and someone different to believe in. As Ardern puts it, barefoot in her modest house: “I don’t think too much about the magnitude of the job. I just immediately skip to, ‘Let’s get the plan going.”
Jacinda Ardern on life as a leader, Trump and selfies in the lingerie department
Eleanor Ainge Roy
In a Guardian interview New Zealand’s prime minister reveals how her life has changed and her ambition for a can do country.
It’s just gone lunchtime in New Zealand’s largest city and Jacinda Ardern arrives at her two bedroom suburban home after a primary school meet and greet.
The 37 year old prime minister of New Zealand and poster woman of progressive politics is sitting in the passenger seat of a blue Subaru, craving a muesli bar and wearing woollen shoes that look like slippers.
She has the movers in and will shortly relocate to a bigger, family-friendly home a few suburbs away, but apologises that the old house is mid packing and “a bit of a mess” (it’s not).
This time last year Ardern was known as a young opposition MP with a passion for eradicating child poverty, in fact she could rather bang on about it. She had a well stocked whisky cabinet, frequently popped up at music gigs, and would return journalists’ phone calls within minutes, at pretty much any hour of the day or night.
Fast forward and Ardern is now the leader of the country, six months pregnant and seeking advice on how to juggle milk bottles and briefings for Barack Obama.
Obama had two young daughters when he entered the White House in 2009, and instigated a domestic regime that allowed him to spend regular time with his family including nightly dinners.
“I did ask him [Barack Obama] how he dealt with guilt,” says Ardern, who first met the former US president last week.
She is in the throes of figuring out how she will balance parenting and the prime rninistership. Her baby is due on 15 June and she plans to be back at work six weeks later.
“He just talked about the things you can do. Just to do your best, and that there will always be elements of that [guilt] in the roles that we do, and probably to a certain degree just accepting that; but we are still doing our best.”
The challenges of buying milk
Ardern has a good natured disposition and genuine, megawatt smile but she is also a prime minister who rebels somewhat against her police minders by popping down to the corner shop. She believes New Zealand’s “unique perspective” has been undersold on the world stage. She never questions if she can juggle her many hats but simply sets her mind to the logistics of how.
“It [pregnancy] certainly can feel like an illness for a really long period of time,” says Ardern. “And I had 16 weeks of morning sickness. And no one knew about it. I think a lot of people struggle with things in their day to day lives that their workmates will never know about and I just happen to be one of them.”
The last year has been a rollercoaster for Ardern and her partner Clarke Gayford, but retaining some degree of normality despite their very changed circumstances is a priority as they embark on becoming parents. They hope to bring up their child with some of the freedoms they experienced as country kids living amid orchards.
“Certainly life has changed. It is just incredibly busy. But I really value being able to do normal things,” says Ardern, sitting in a retro armchair in her small, simple living room.
“So yes, I do still drive from time to time. The wonderful police officers who spend time with me I don’t think appreciate that, but I do still drive. I do still cook, not often, but just last week, I really felt like making one of my mum’s old recipes so I did. I do still go to our local department store to buy things like maternity jeans that no one else can really do for me.
“Getting stopped in the middle of the lingerie section when you’re trying to stock up on a few things by an older man who wants a selfie is a little bit awkward but I don’t let that get in the way of me trying to do normal things, because that is when I get to interact with people as well. Preferably not amongst the underwear though.
“Even going out to get milk becomes a little bit challenging. Just because there is a whole entourage that then travels with me for this simple thing. So I tend to try and find ways not to inconvenience a whole raft of other people, so it changes my mindset a little bit.
“The challenging thing from a work perspective is just the range of things on any given day that you’re dealing with, and making sure you have the head space to really be giving them the thought and consideration you’d like to.”
On Trump and women
A lot has been made of Ardern’s “niceness” and she is reliably warm, inclusive and fun. But underlying the down to earth charm is a determined feminist and canny career politician, who now uses eye rolls and smiles to express what her position as head of a “five eyes” nation no longer allows her to say.
For instance, on Trump’s treatment of women she says: “It is often easy to forget that people draw from the way that you behave. But all I know is that is something I can control and feel responsible for. And I know what I feel comfortable with, so when that comes to the way we portray women for me it’s just how I like to be treated, how would I like to be talked about, how would I like my mother to be treated and talked about, and that is the lens that I apply
“Can’t change the way that anyone else behaves though,” she says with a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes.
During the 2017 election campaign, Ardern was portrayed as the saviour of the beleaguered left; a panacea after Trump and Brexit; a do gooder who wanted to decriminalise abortion, increase paid parental leave, save the penguins and plant 10m trees.
“Do it for all of us,” said the British Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in a video of support.
When asked what keeps her up at night now, Ardern, in her characteristically earnest way, nominates child poverty, climate change and a prison population that is increasing despite a static crime rate.
But is anything really changing under her leadership?
In her first six months Ardern has faced criticism that she lacks control of some of her forceful coalition cabinet ministers, that she is having afternoon tea with pop stars rather than the poor, and that she is prone to undiplomatic disclosures (after the Apec summit, Ardern told a friend Trump had mistaken her for Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s wife within days the world had heard the remarks).
But despite a few small stumbles Ardern remains forcefully sanguine and has no trouble sleeping.
“It [being PM] is actually just an amplification of the thing I experienced as an MP and that’s the diversity of the people that you get to meet,” she says.
“And as much as you do get a whole host of sometimes really awful communication, you get some amazing things as well. The number of schoolchildren who write to me and say ‘I want to be prime minister too, PS can you do something about plastic bags?’ I love that.”
Why growing up Mormon matters
Ardern grew up in small, rural New Zealand towns, went to state schools and worked in the local fish and chip shop as a teenager. She and partner Gayford want their child to have similar upbringings, similar community minded values.
Ardern’s parents brought her up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, a background that sowed strong seeds, and despite renouncing the Mormon church in her early 20s, she says its teachings continue to have an impact on her today.
“I am very service minded, I often think about what I can do for others, did that come from my mother, or did it come from the church I was raised in? I can’t really say, but I know it is something that I feel quite strongly about. So I have no doubt it had an impact on me.”
The day after a glamorous Vogue image of her posing in designer clothes on a windswept beach went viral, Ardern posted a grainy shot of her as a child with a mullet haircut, standing in the back of a truck with her schoolmates in the deprived town of Murupara; an infamous gang stronghold where her dad worked as the local police officer.
I’m just like you, the picture said. And you’re just like me.
“Since being pregnant it becomes, quite a welcome distraction, is not quite the word but reminder of life beyond the thing that you’re in. Because as with any job, that moment that you’re really tackling a big issue, or something is really causing you stress, that becomes the big focus and it is easy to think that is the most important thing in the world that you’re dealing with and of course everyone else should be concerned with too,” says Ardern, laughing.
“But I think the beauty of children, at least I know this to be true of my family, is that they draw you away from that thing, and just make you have that wider perspective. There have been a couple of meetings where I have been working away, very focused on an issue, and I’ll get a sharp kick in the ribcage and it is this little reminder that there is something else going on in my life, too.”
Ardern has worked under some of the most politically successful leaders of the past decades, including the former New Zealand leader Helen Clark and Tony Blair, the former British PM.
“I was one small cog in a very large machine,” she says of working for Blair in the Cabinet Office. “I was there at the time the leadership was transitioning from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown.
“I had this view, perhaps overly simplistically, that when a government creates [policy] overall, then that is what is then rolled out and applied across the board.
“What I saw was actually those rules can be misinterpreted. They can be capitalised on by consultants, they can lead to fear unless they are well understood.”
Ardern still follows news from Britain with interest and says she can’t deny “holding opinions” on Brexit, but says her government will continue to engage with a post EU Britain that democratically chose to leave, and has “our hand up and are ready and waiting” as a starting point for the UK to determine future bilateral free trade agreements.
Speaking up on a global stage
With the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) just two weeks away in London, Ardern is preparing to make New Zealand’s voice heard on the global stage and not let the country’s tiny size and remote location get in the way. She would also like to advocate on behalf of smaller Pacific nations such as Kiribati and Tuvalu.
“Our other unique perspective is we are isolated, but we are isolated in a particular part of the world. Within the Pacific obviously there are challenges we are facing, we are not immune to the challenges of climate change, and even though our emissions profile might be small, we see ourselves as having a responsibility to amplify those places that will ultimately be as affected as we will be,” says Ardern.
Ardern has prepared a playlist of eclectic songs for the 24 hour flight to London, where she hopes to have breakfast with Corbyn, and meet her fellow Commonwealth leaders at a time when the Queen’s succession is becoming an increasingly open question.
Ardern says “no one really wants to discuss” succession plans, and it is ultimately “something that sits as a question for the royal family”.
The royals have longstanding ties and connections to New Zealand, Ardern says. She can’t remember the last time a voter asked her about the country becoming a republic it “is not top of mind for New Zealanders”.
However, she says: “When I have been asked for an opinion, I think within my lifetime I think it is a likelihood we will transition. It is not something this government is prioritising at all though.”
Ardern appears to envision an increasingly independent country contemplating a possible break from the motherland, seeking a louder voice on the world stage, and embracing New Zealand’s unique Pacific history and identity.
“On major issues, on things like climate change, or even nuclear issues, our view has been, and should be important,” she says. “I’ve never felt that diminished New Zealand’s view just because we are small and geographically isolated.
“I think our approach to life is the same approach in politics. We’re a very pragmatic people, perhaps because of our isolation, we tend to be pretty inventive as well. We’re not ones to say something is too hard, so when we’re confronted with challenges, be they big or small, we tend to tackle them head on, and without much question we just get on with it.”