ON THE COVER Labour’s deputy leader Jacinda Ardern on pol­i­tics, anx­i­ety and pub­lic life

Nine years in op­po­si­tion has taught Jacinda Ardern a lot about her­self. In a very can­did con­ver­sa­tion, she tells Emma Clifton why pol­i­tics feels so per­sonal – and why she’s tired of wait­ing on the side­lines

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Jacinda Ardern has picked the wrong mug to make a cup of tea in. En­sconced in her small and lovely Auck­land villa, which she owns with long-term boyfriend Clarke Gay­ford, we’re here to talk about the break­neck speed of her ca­reer since the year ticked over to 2017, and she took on her high­est-rank­ing role yet as deputy leader for the Labour party. But in mak­ing a cup of tea for us both, Jacinda, 36, has se­lected a non­de­script mug for me, and an in­ad­ver­tently re­veal­ing mug for her­self. It has a woman’s cheer­ful face on it, and the same sen­tence re­peated three times: “I will not ob­sess. I will not ob­sess. I will not ob­sess.”

So… what’s with the mug?

It was a gift from her Lon­don flat­mate. “It’s a le­git­i­mate tease. I do ob­sess.”

Later on, Clarke will emerge from his of­fice, im­me­di­ately spot Jacinda’s mug and tell me that he ac­tu­ally broke the orig­i­nal but tracked an­other one down on­line so she wouldn’t be without it. This is, as he calls it, “mug ver­sion 2.0”.

Jacinda sighs. “I’ve picked a re­ally un­for­tu­nate mug.”

RISK NOT, WANT NOT

Nine years as an MP has taught Jacinda a lot about her­self. This past Jan­uary, she wrote a piece for NEXT called ‘Am I Afraid?’, where she talked about lack of self-be­lief, how her pen­chant for over­analysing gets in her way: “the ap­praisal of how much loss of face hav­ing a go and not suc­ceed­ing would mean,” she wrote.

When I ask her if fear has been a run­ning theme in her life, she says yes. “I am a very risk-averse per­son, I al­ways have been. Which is why pol­i­tics is such a ter­ri­ble place for me to be! I’m con­stantly anx­ious about mak­ing mis­takes. Ev­ery­thing in pol­i­tics feels so frag­ile; just like that [clicks fin­gers] you could stum­ble and that’s for­ever what you’ll be known for. So yes, I do live in this con­stant fear of what might be. Clarke re­ally tries to pull me back from the precipice of anx­i­ety a lot, but it’s just who I am. And in some ways it’s been good for me, in the sense that it makes me very care­ful and in­tu­itive. But it also means I haven’t been as spon­ta­neous as I’d like to be.”

At the time, it was easy to draw par­al­lels be­tween ‘Am I Afraid?’ and Jacinda’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer: al­ways viewed as a fas­tris­ing star within Labour, al­ways high on the like­abil­ity polls, al­ways seem­ingly re­luc­tant to show the kind of open am­bi­tion we ex­pect from politi­cians. Her most dis­liked ques­tion was – and still is – ‘do you want to be prime min­is­ter one day?’ But then two things hap­pened in quick suc­ces­sion: Jacinda won her seat in the Mt Al­bert by-elec­tion by an over­whelm­ing mar­gin, and she was named the new deputy leader for Labour after An­nette King stepped down.

It was a move well-re­ceived by those both in po­lit­i­cal cir­cles and the me­dia, cre­at­ing a mo­men­tum around Labour that has been miss­ing in ac­tion for a while. That mo­men­tum is still go­ing well – in the most re­cent Col­mar Brun­ton poll for Pre­ferred Prime Min­is­ter, Jacinda came in sec­ond equal with Win­ston Peters at 9% – higher than her boss, Labour leader An­drew Lit­tle, sit­ting at third place with 7%.

It’s hard to imag­ine beat­ing your boss in a pop­u­lar­ity con­test is an easy po­si­tion to be in – par­tic­u­larly when elec­tions are ba­si­cally a pop­u­lar­ity con­test in them­selves – but nev­er­the­less, it’s good news for Labour to have such a well-liked can­di­date sit­ting in the sec­ond-most im­por­tant seat.

You could imag­ine that such a pos­i­tive na­tional re­ac­tion – as op­posed to a pos­i­tive Na­tional re­ac­tion – would have helped make Jacinda feel more com­fort­able about the pos­si­bil­ity of aim­ing for the big job one day. But you would be wrong.

“Nope,” she shakes her head fer­vently. “I just feel like there’s more peo­ple to let down now. I do feel an enor­mous amount of pres­sure. Be­cause I know there are lots of peo­ple who don’t want me to screw up, and there are just as many who would re­ally love it if I did.”

When I float the the­ory of the ‘con­fi­dence gap’, the re­search-backed the­ory where men will go for a job if they have 60% of the job re­quire­ments, whereas women will only go for it if they have 100%, Jacinda agrees it’s def­i­nitely a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in her hes­i­ta­tion. But it’s not the big­gest one.

“It’s me know­ing my­self and know­ing that ac­tu­ally, when you’re a bit of an anx­ious per­son, and you con­stantly worry about things, there comes a point where cer­tain jobs are just re­ally bad for you. I hate let­ting peo­ple down. I hate feel­ing like I’m not do­ing the job as well as I should. I’ve got a pretty big weight of re­spon­si­bil­ity right now; I can’t imag­ine do­ing much more than that.”

HURRY UP AND WAIT

In one of the many, many think-pieces that came out after her pro­mo­tion to deputy leader, one re­ferred to Jacinda as be­ing ‘gen­uinely am­biva­lent’ about be­com­ing prime min­is­ter. She didn’t read the

‘EV­ERY­THING IN POL­I­TICS FEELS SO FRAG­ILE; JUST LIKE THAT YOU COULD STUM­BLE’

ar­ti­cle – she reads hardly any about her­self, a form of “self-preser­va­tion” she learned early on – but agrees with the sen­ti­ment.

“All of the things I want to achieve, I can achieve by be­ing Min­is­ter. And I’d be happy with that.”

The is­sue is, of course, what if she doesn’t get the chance to be a min­is­ter this time around? Or the next time? If Labour loses the elec­tion in Septem­ber, it’s an­other three years – at least – of be­ing in op­po­si­tion. When I last in­ter­viewed Jacinda in May 2015, she was com­ing off the back of Labour’s poor elec­tion re­sult the pre­vi­ous year, but her mood was up­beat none­the­less. This time, how­ever, her frus­tra­tion with a ca­reer spent in op­po­si­tion is pal­pa­ble. She just wants to get started.

“It’s like be­ing in a su­per­mar­ket and try­ing to pick which queue to go into, and not know­ing if you should jump out of that queue, be­cause sud­denly you’re go­ing to be next at the counter, or you’re not. That’s what op­po­si­tion feels like. Ex­cept it’s a line that’s been go­ing for nine years.”

She won’t be drawn on whether she would stand as leader after the next elec­tion, should Labour lose and An­drew step aside. She re­jects these hy­po­thet­i­cals; for her it’s al­ways been about the pos­si­bil­i­ties that come with be­ing in gov­ern­ment.

“I’m just so des­per­ate for us to be in a po­si­tion where we can make a dif­fer­ence. And I know when I say that it’s very easy for it to seem like ‘Oh, they just want to win be­cause they’ve been wait­ing for a re­ally long time’, but it’s so much more than that,” she says, her tired tone shift­ing to one of ur­gency.

“I’ve got sev­eral con­stituency cases at the mo­ment of peo­ple who are liv­ing in cir­cum­stances so hor­rific you feel com­pelled as an in­di­vid­ual just to help. So as much as we go on about want­ing to win in Septem­ber, that doesn’t ac­tu­ally con­vey our mo­ti­va­tion prop­erly. It makes it sound like it’s just sport, like try­ing to win a tro­phy at the end of the race.”

This is where you see the true level of Jacinda’s am­bi­tion; not for her­self, but for her cause. It’s the same for the whole team, she says. “Ev­ery sin­gle per­son I work with in par­lia­ment is driven by this real sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity that we need to do more. So that’s what I see. The idea of any­thing other than hav­ing An­drew in the job just isn’t some­thing I want to think about. That’s the hon­est an­swer.”

Her new sched­ule as deputy leader sounds be­yond daunt­ing; the past three months “haven’t been great for work/life bal­ance” – an un­der­state­ment, when you con­sider this week alone she’s had 12 speak­ing en­gage­ments, one of which was her ad­dress to Congress where she an­nounced Labour’s men­tal health strat­egy in schools. She strug­gles to switch off from work, she says, be­cause as a politi­cian “you never feel like you have a right to.” Does it feel like her time doesn’t be­long to her? “Yes – but when you get elected by other peo­ple, that’s just the way it goes. As my dad al­ways says – in that dad tone, that only a dad can do – ‘Well, you chose it.’”

Con­sid­er­ing her to-do list in­cludes such plans as ‘end child poverty’ and ‘im­prove men­tal health in New Zealand’, the work is never done. How does she avoid burn­ing out?

“Be­cause you’re in a pub­lic role, peo­ple will start to tell you when you look ap­palling,” she laughs drily. “But it’s an elec­tion year, so you have to cut your­self some slack; you can end up spend­ing more time wor­ry­ing about the fact you’re wor­ry­ing that you’re not get­ting enough rest. It is what it is.”

SIS­TER­HOOD IN POL­I­TICS

It hit home for Jacinda just how high the health stakes can be when Na­tional MP Nikki Kaye was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer in 2016. Jacinda and Nikki rose through the ranks at the same time, both go­ing for the Auck­land Cen­tral seat in 2011, which Nikki won. Close in age, if not in pol­icy, the pair have re­mained on friendly-ish terms since. So when Nikki was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer last Septem­ber, it to­tally threw Jacinda.

“I was stand­ing in the kitchen with Clarke’s mum when I found out. We ex­changed quite a few mes­sages. Be­cause so much of our path has been sim­i­lar – we’re sim­i­lar ages, she’s ob­vi­ously much fit­ter than I am. It did make me think ‘This is a tough, stress­ful job’. I’m so glad to see her out the other side of that and back in par­lia­ment.”

But this sce­nario also high­lights how strange the dy­namic be­tween op­pos­ing teams can be. Soon after Nikki’s re­turn to par­lia­ment, she made head­lines for launch­ing a sting­ing at­tack… on Jacinda. Hot on the heels of her ap­point­ment as Labour’s deputy leader, both Nikki and Na­tional MP Mag­gie Barry got per­sonal; claim­ing Jacinda was style over sub­stance. Jacinda wasn’t in par­lia­ment to hear Nikki state she had ‘failed her gen­er­a­tion’ from her first day in the job; she’d popped out to get a snack and next to the Bee­hive café was one of many screens show­ing a live feed from in­side the cham­bers, com­plete with sub­ti­tles. The twists kept on com­ing – later that day, both Nikki and Jacinda ap­peared on a panel to de­bate the topic ‘Sis­ter­hood and Pol­i­tics: is it pos­si­ble?’. Awk­ward tim­ing, you might imag­ine.

Mak­ing small talk across the great di­vide is a strange beast, Jacinda says.

“It’s hard to re­ally know some­one prop­erly, when you’re in such an ad­ver­sar­ial en­vi­ron­ment. Be­cause there are cer­tain things you don’t want to talk about… it changes the dy­namic of any nor­mal hu­man in­ter­ac­tion. So you end up talk­ing about ran­dom things.”

Take the wa­ter­cooler chat Jacinda has with Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Paula Ben­nett, for ex­am­ple. The pair are of­ten pit­ted against each other on TV, rep­re­sent­ing their sides, and as a re­sult there’s a lot of idle chat­ter that hap­pens in green rooms around the coun­try.

So what do you speak about when you can’t re­ally speak about any­thing? Just some clas­sic ‘only in New Zealand ban­ter’, ap­par­ently. “She’s got a pos­sum prob­lem, so I was giv­ing her tips on what we used in our pos­sum traps back home.”

You’ll be glad to know they worked, and Paula’s pos­sum prob­lem is no more. “She showed me – she man­aged to suc­cess­fully trap one the other day.”

MOV­ING FOR­WARD

The pos­sum tips come from Jacinda’s up­bring­ing in Waikato – and the coun­try girl still comes out from time to time. The

‘YOU’RE IN A PUB­LIC ROLE, PEO­PLE START

TO TELL YOU WHEN YOU LOOK AP­PALLING’

‘I’M DES­PER­ATE FOR US TO BE IN A PO­SI­TION

WHERE WE CAN MAKE A DIF­FER­ENCE’

TV show of choice for both Jacinda and Clarke on a rare night off is Coun­try

Cal­en­dar. But when it comes to qual­ity time, more of­ten than not, the ra­dio DJ/TV pre­sen­ter will end up com­ing along to what­ever work event Jacinda has on that night, just so they can spend some time to­gether. The slow blur­ring of her per­sonal and pro­fes­sional world is mostly fine by Jacinda, she be­lieves peo­ple de­serve to know their politi­cians re­ally well. There’s one small ex­cep­tion: Clarke doesn’t ap­pear on her so­cial me­dia feed, a de­lib­er­ate choice by her as “he didn’t choose pol­i­tics, I did”.

“I don’t mind giv­ing quite a bit of my­self away. I prob­a­bly wear my heart on my sleeve a bit too much, I prob­a­bly overshare,” she says. “Clarke is su­per-sup­port­ive of me, but I’m still aware he doesn’t need to be drawn into ev­ery part of my po­lit­i­cal life.”

When we last spoke, their re­la­tion­ship was still fairly re­cent and there was more hes­i­ta­tion in men­tion­ing him. But now they own a home to­gether, so things are clearly se­ri­ous. “Look, we’ve told the bank it’s go­ing well,” she dead­pans. “And we own a six-toed cat, to add to the mix.” Pad­dles – the six-toed cat – spends most of our con­ver­sa­tion curled up asleep on Jacinda’s lap; a cosy com­pan­ion on a chilly Auck­land win­ter’s day.

The im­por­tance of build­ing a life, and a home, out­side of pol­i­tics is some­thing Jacinda has be­come in­creas­ingly aware of. She was in her early 20s when she spent a year work­ing un­der He­len Clark in 2004, quickly learn­ing how all-en­com­pass­ing the po­lit­i­cal world could be (not to men­tion how ex­cit­ing it is to be on the win­ning side). She de­cided to take three years off – “an en­tire elec­tion cy­cle, be­cause that’s how peo­ple like me break up my life” – and do an OE. She headed to New York first, where she stayed for six months with a friend, volunteering in an as­sort­ment of jobs: a union’s cam­paign for home­care work­ers, and then a may­oral cam­paign, be­fore she ended up work­ing in a soup kitchen. But hav­ing so lit­tle to do – and next to no money – started get­ting to her.

“It made me re­alise so much of my sense of self comes from do­ing things that are use­ful. I just felt like I wasn’t help­ing any­one for this long pe­riod,” she says. “I started feel­ing re­ally down. Prob­a­bly lis­ten­ing to too much James Blunt, truth be known.”

She shifted to Lon­don and en­joyed two years there, work­ing in the Cabi­net Of­fice un­der Tony Blair and then Gor­don Brown. One day, while she was wait­ing on a train plat­form, Phil Goff rang her and asked her to run for par­lia­ment. The first time, she said no. The sec­ond time, she said yes.

‘I WEAR MY HEART ON MY SLEEVE A BIT

TOO MUCH, I PROB­A­BLY OVERSHARE’

She was elected to par­lia­ment in 2008, the same elec­tion where Na­tional took power and He­len Clark stepped down.

“In a way, I’m just in this pe­riod where I’m be­ing paid to do the job of be­ing in­volved in pol­i­tics in New Zealand,” she says. “I’ve al­ways be­lieved that when I stop be­ing a mem­ber of par­lia­ment, that’s when I’ll re­vert back to be­ing the ver­sion of my­self that I was be­fore. I was a vol­un­teer. I knocked on doors, I de­liv­ered pam­phlets. I’ll al­ways be in­volved in some form.”

“Build­ing a life out­side of pol­i­tics though… I mean, so much of my iden­tity is wrapped up in be­ing a politi­cian that some­times I won­der how I’d feel if I wasn’t that any­more. I felt the same way when I left the church; so much of my iden­tity was about be­ing a Mor­mon, and all my friends knew me that way. But it didn’t take me long to re­alise I was still the same per­son and it wouldn’t re­ally change any­thing. I don’t know if it’ll be the same when I leave pol­i­tics.”

HON­EST IN­TEN­TIONS

In her mid-30s, in a long-term re­la­tion­ship, there is an­other topic that dances around the dis­cus­sion of Jacinda’s fu­ture: chil­dren. How does she feel about peo­ple ask­ing her if she’s go­ing to have kids?

“I re­spond a bit bet­ter to the ques­tion than the in­struc­tion; some­one at a pub­lic meet­ing the other day came up to me and started lec­tur­ing me about it,” she says. She doesn’t mind the topic. “I’ve al­ways been hon­est, so I can hardly ex­pect peo­ple aren’t go­ing to talk to me about it.”

It came up again re­cently at a panel; some­one asked her about hav­ing a fam­ily of her own and she paused mo­men­tar­ily, caught be­tween ei­ther trot­ting out a generic an­swer, or speak­ing the truth.

“I re­mem­ber think­ing: ‘Why wouldn’t I just be hon­est? What is there to lose?’ Women in a va­ri­ety of ca­reers face re­ally tough dilem­mas and maybe we should be more hon­est about that.”

She told the crowd she did want a fam­ily, that she didn’t want to leave pol­i­tics feel­ing like she’d given ev­ery­thing up for it. But what will be, will be, she says.

“I don’t know whether or not it’s go­ing to work out for me like that.”

ON THE GO

The ex­haus­tion from the past few weeks is start­ing to sneak in around the cor­ners, Jacinda’s voice be­com­ing hoarser as we talk. Elec­tion years are a marathon for all in­volved and Jacinda has the kind of tem­per­a­ment where the lists of things she wants to get started on are lit­er­ally keep­ing her up at night. Ac­tu­ally, not just her. Clarke comes in to say hello to Pad­dles and I ask him about Jacinda’s best and worst char­ac­ter­is­tics. Put on the spot, he jokes that it’s like ask­ing him to pick be­tween chil­dren, as “each of her re­deem­ing fea­tures is so glow­ing and scream­ing out for at­ten­tion”. Jacinda – rolling her eyes at this – says: “Just pick one! And stop look­ing at my teeth!?!”

Her thought­ful­ness, her in­abil­ity to leave the job be­hind, is a dou­ble-edged sword, ac­cord­ing to Clarke.

“She wor­ries about ev­ery­thing and ev­ery­one, far too much. It must be ex­haust­ing... ”

“It is ex­haust­ing,” she in­ter­jects.

“There are some things that can wait un­til to­mor­row,” he says. “That don’t need be talked about two min­utes be­fore turn­ing the light out.”

Jacinda, faux out­raged, jokes she doesn’t know what those things are; ev­ery­thing needs to be talked about two min­utes be­fore the lights go out.

“We’re out of sync, in the sense that Clarke likes to talk about ev­ery­thing in the morn­ing. I need just a lit­tle bit of time to wake up be­fore we talk about the United States im­plod­ing, whereas Clarke can get straight into it. I tend to muse about things at night time.”

The lounge has grown steadily darker through­out our chat; it’s past 5pm and

‘WOMEN FACE TOUGH DILEM­MAS AND

MAYBE WE SHOULD BE HON­EST ABOUT THAT’

Jacinda’s day is nowhere near done. She’s due at two dif­fer­ent events that night: a meet­ing at a school, and a Labour catchup. To­mor­row morn­ing she’ll be up at 5am, as she is ev­ery Tues­day, to catch a plane to Welling­ton to go to par­lia­ment. In an elec­tion year, politi­cians have to be ev­ery-where. But in a year like this, where the re­sult is more un­pre­dictable than pre­vi­ously, the level of hus­tle gets turned up yet an­other notch. While she won’t be drawn on hy­po­thet­i­cals, there’s a high chance that come Septem­ber, things will be dif­fer­ent for Jacinda again.

Let’s just watch this space.

Clock­wise from right: Tak­ing part in the Women’s March ear­lier this year next to singer Lizzie Marvelly; at­tend­ing the 2016 ASB Rugby Awards with Labour MP Trevor Mal­lard (left) and An­drew Lit­tle; Jacinda ad­dresses the crowd dur­ing the March for Moko, to bring aware­ness to child abuse and fam­ily vi­o­lence; Jacinda, pic­tured with An­drew Lit­tle, at her con­fir­ma­tion as Labour’s

deputy leader at Par­lia­ment.

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