‘I’ve got what it takes,’ says the charis­matic Labour leader tak­ing New Zealand by storm

‘She’s ac­tu­ally got the X-fac­tor, in a way I haven’t seen in a politi­cian for a very long time’

The Guardian - - INTERNATIONAL - Eleanor Ainge Roy Nel­son

‘Jacinda ef­fect’ sees sup­port for would-be PM surge ahead of next week’s vote

It is a week be­fore the New Zealand elec­tion and Labour leader Jacinda Ardern is rais­ing her voice above the ca­coph­ony at the Tahu­nanui com­mu­nity cen­tre in the coastal town of Nel­son, where a crowd has come to meet the 37-year-old woman hailed as the lat­est saviour of the left.

Just weeks ago her promi­nence on the gen­eral elec­tion cam­paign trail would have been un­think­able. Ardern, then deputy leader, had de­clared that ev­ery col­league would have to be hit by a bus be­fore she would step up as the “des­ig­nated sur­vivor”.

Yet here she is, fol­low­ing the sur­prise res­ig­na­tion of her pre­de­ces­sor, promis­ing to end child poverty to a room full of moth­ers, who, along with young peo­ple, are her great­est cham­pi­ons.

“I thought it was an awe­some op­por­tu­nity to come down and see a fab­u­lous, vi­brant young leader,” says Kerry Cooper, who spends her evenings phon­ing ev­ery­one she knows, talk­ing them into vot­ing for Ardern. “I thought it was an op­por­tu­nity to see his­tory in the mak­ing.”

Em­pa­thy and ap­proach­a­bil­ity are Ardern’s stock-in-trade and they are on full dis­play as she cam­paigns along the work­ing-class west coast, en­cour­ag­ing ju­ve­nile of­fend­ers to pur­sue their Plan A and laugh­ing with lo­cals at the Black­ball Hil­ton pub, where ev­ery­one wants to buy her a whisky. Her fa­mous smile drops as she speaks with the be­reaved fam­i­lies of the Pike River mine dis­as­ter. It is back the next day for a rally of 400 in Grey­mouth.

It is an im­pres­sive per­for­mance from a politi­cian who said for years that she was not in­ter­ested in lead­ing the Labour party, let alone the coun­try. She has given mul­ti­ple rea­sons, in­clud­ing a de­sire to have a fam­ily; a con­cern that her anx­i­ety would pre­clude her from the top job, hav­ing al­ready “bal­looned” as deputy; and a wari­ness about the de­mands of the job, some­thing she ob­served work­ing un­der the then prime min­is­ter, He­len Clark, in 2005.

But when she talks – un­wa­ver­ingly meet­ing your eye, her body bent for­ward in earnest con­cen­tra­tion – a steely am­bi­tion is ev­i­dent.

Yes, she says, she misses hang­ing out with her res­cue cat and part­ner Clarke Gay­ford, who is ren­o­vat­ing their Auck­land home, but the for­mer Mor­mon who once as­pired to be a po­lice of­fi­cer has de­cided she wants the top job and is work­ing re­lent­lessly to claim it.

“You can’t ask other peo­ple to be­lieve you and vote for you if you don’t back your­self,” says Ardern, sit­ting in the Black­ball pub, sip­ping water and swat­ting away a hov­er­ing me­dia man­ager who keeps tap­ping his watch.

“Ev­ery day is the proof point that I’ve got what it takes to do this. And I did be­lieve that when I said yes [to be leader], I did be­lieve that.”

Ardern has fre­quently spo­ken of the anx­i­ety she has ex­pe­ri­enced. As re­cently as June, she said: “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.”

So how is she man­ag­ing now? “I am a thinker and I do muse over things a lot and am con­stantly as­sess­ing whether I am do­ing enough or what I should be do­ing more of to make sure I am not let­ting any­one down,” Ardern tells the Guardian. She has stopped read­ing me­dia cov­er­age of her­self, she says.

“I set quite high ex­pec­ta­tions. So do a lot of peo­ple. Is the ex­pe­ri­ence that I have [of anx­i­ety] nor­mal? Prob­a­bly. Prob­a­bly.

“But as with ev­ery stage of this job that I’ve been in, I’ve sim­ply thrown my­self into it and ev­ery time just had the be­lief that I’ve got what it takes and just pow­ered through, and that will take me right through to the top job.”

It is hard to dis­miss Ardern as “star­dust”, as Na­tional party leader and in­cum­bent prime min­is­ter Bill English did. Her per­sona is that of a se­ri­ous politi­cian: in­tense, de­voted and with “no per­sonal life”. But her po­lit­i­cal nous is leav­ened by a gen­er­ous dol­lop of un­cul­ti­vated charm and hu­mour. In New Zealand pol­i­tics, this is a rare com­bi­na­tion, and one that has spawned “the Jacinda ef­fect” , which has seen Labour surge 19 points in the polls since she took over. For the first time in nine years it seems pos­si­ble that the op­po­si­tion could un­seat the Na­tional party next Satur­day.

This is a woman whose favourite film is The Dark Horse, a gritty drama about a bipo­lar chess player try­ing to es­cape gang life – an “ac­cept­able nerd” whose bed­side table is stacked with po­lit­i­cal bi­ogra­phies and whose in­ter­ests include Antarc­tic ex­plor­ers and DIY plumb­ing.

She man­ages her own so­cial me­dia ac­counts (“That’s been quite im­por­tant to me”), and told an au­di­ence in Nel­son that her mum had slipped snacks and a note of en­cour­age­ment into her bag that morn­ing – some­thing she hadn’t done since Ardern was 10.

In Nel­son, a man heck­led Ardern for fail­ing to an­swer the “real ques­tions”, but she re­mained fo­cused on the woman in front of her, clasp­ing her hands and telling her that grand­par­ents who are pri­mary car­ers for their grand­chil­dren would be treated as foster par­ents un­der a Labour gov­ern­ment and re­ceive fi­nan­cial aid. Ardern pulled the cry­ing woman into a hug. “Thank you,” said the woman. “I be­lieve you when you say you’ll help me.”

Since the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump and Brexit, the global com­mu­nity has lurched from one up­heaval to an­other, com­bined with the resur­gence of the far right, a po­lit­i­cal cli­mate Ardern sees ev­i­dence of in New Zealand. “What Brexit and the Trump out­come re­ally said to me is we do have a sense of fi­nan­cial in­se­cu­rity that re­ally ex­ists in a num­ber of coun­tries, and politi­cians have the choice: to re­spond to that fi­nan­cial in­se­cu­rity with mes­sages of hope and a plan around how we are go­ing to – in the face of on­go­ing glob­al­i­sa­tion and au­to­ma­tion – make sure that there is a fu­ture for our work­force and our young peo­ple. Or we can re­spond to the fear that ex­ists.

“And I think that fear has le­git­i­mately come through in those elec­tions and that re­ally was a mes­sage to me about what we need to be talk­ing about to al­lay those fears.”

On 21 Jan­uary, the day af­ter Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, Ardern joined thou­sands in Auck­land as part of the global women’s march. So how would she rec­on­cile her public op­po­si­tion to Trump with deal­ing with him as the po­ten­tial new prime min­is­ter? “I will be a diplo­mat,” says Ardern, with a broad smile. “De­spite us com­ing from dif­fer­ent parts of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, that is not new for world lead­ers and I have to re­spect democ­racy and the peo­ple who’ve cho­sen their leader in the United States.”

Labour’s for­mer deputy leader An­nette King first met Ardern when she was work­ing for Tony Blair’s of­fice in Lon­don in 2006 – a job Ardern says she took out of fi­nan­cial des­per­a­tion, never meet­ing Blair in her time there. “Many of us recog­nised a long time ago she’s ac­tu­ally got the X-fac­tor,” says King. “She’s in­cred­i­bly in­tel­li­gent, com­pas­sion­ate and you can see how she can em­pathise with peo­ple in a way that I haven’t seen in a politi­cian for a very long time.”

Hours af­ter be­ing elected Labour leader, Ardern faced a bar­rage of ques­tions about whether she in­tended to have chil­dren. She bit back fiercely, call­ing the ques­tions “un­ac­cept­able”.

But, she tells the Guardian, she has grown used to sex­ism dur­ing her nine years in par­lia­ment, in which she was twice voted New Zealand’s sex­i­est politi­cian and faced end­less queries about the sta­tus of her womb, her diet, and how she feels about her body (for the record: she’s fine with it).

“I def­i­nitely try not to get too caught up in putting too much of a gen­der or age as­sess­ment on ev­ery­thing – I’ve just got to get on with it,” says Ardern. “It is tricky. All I can say is the way I’ve al­ways tried to han­dle it is just prove them wrong ev­ery time – and that means play­ing the long game some­times.” It would be wrong to give the im­pres­sion Ardern is uni­ver­sally loved. Her crit­ics say she is in­ex­pe­ri­enced and vague on pol­icy de­tails – a politi­cian who ap­peals be­cause of her youth­ful glam­our.

She has also been criticised from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum for plans to cut im­mi­gra­tion by 20,000 to 30,000, ar­gu­ing record lev­els un­der the Na­tional party gov­ern­ment have put pres­sure on hous­ing, hos­pi­tals and schools.

But pos­si­bly her great­est as­set – and the most se­ri­ous threat to English’s cam­paign – is that peo­ple seem to trust her. “Jacinda has reached out and touched ev­ery age group and ev­ery com­mu­nity,” says Lorna Crane, who trav­elled to the Black­ball Hil­ton to meet Ardern.

But although it is her face on bill­boards, nailed to fences be­side Auck­land mo­tor­ways and ham­mered into muddy pad­docks in Can­ter­bury, “Jacin­da­ma­nia” has largely been ig­nored by Ardern her­self; she in­sists she has her eye squarely on win­ning the elec­tion.

“Do it for all of us,” Jeremy Cor­byn re­cently urged her, re­flect­ing the hopes of many Labour vot­ers in­side and out­side New Zealand.

“I am cer­tainly go­ing to try to keep pos­i­tive mo­men­tum for the pro­gres­sive move­ments from around the world,” says Ardern, when asked if she has been passed the torch from Bernie San­ders and Britain’s Labour leader. “But I can only be my­self. I am never go­ing to repli­cate any other leader. They’ve done amaz­ing things in and of their own right, but I’m Jacinda Ardern, and I hope that I can bring it home this elec­tion.”

Jacinda Ardern talk­ing to the me­dia in Auck­land this week and, be­low, tak­ing a selfie with pri­mary school pupils in Christchurch Main pho­to­graph: Fiona Goodall/ Getty Im­ages New Zealand’s PM and Na­tional party leader, Bill English, dis­missed Ardern as ‘star­dust’, but Labour sup­port has surged in polls

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.