‘I have a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity now’

Since sud­denly be­com­ing Labour’s new leader, Jacinda Ardern has given her party a re­mark­able boost in the polls – and she’s de­ter­mined to keep in­creas­ing its share.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - By Clare de Lore

Since sud­denly be­com­ing Labour’s leader, Jacinda Ardern has given her party a re­mark­able boost in the polls – and she plans to keep in­creas­ing its share.

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

“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.”

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.

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 mod­ern­day 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?

What I was read­ing be­fore things got much, much busier was Diary of the Kirk Years. That book re­minded me that so much is ex­actly the same.

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.

Ardern at the 2012 Labour Party Con­fer­ence.

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