On the road with ARDERN
Sticky site visits, magnetic attraction and venturing into enemy territory
New Zealand is trying to feed Labour leader Jacinda Ardern up. Wherever she goes, she has food shoved in her hands. At Pic’s Peanut Butter factory in Nelson, it is a massive 2kg jar of peanut butter.
The owner, Pic, is a Labour supporter. He wears the T- shirt to prove it.
On the day Ardern visits, they are selling peanuts back to the Australians.
A sign announces that day’s order is being made to go to Australia, which is whence most of the peanuts came in the first place.
Pic’s shows Ardern its peanut butter factory tours. The walls have handy hints for peanut butter painted on them: use it to remove gum or other sticky substances, cover a pill with it to fool a dog into eating it.
One person tells her it i s the “Disney World of food tourism”.
That is something of a stretch, but it does offer something of a small world exhibition on Ardern’s visit.
Ardern runs into Scott Elmiger, who tells Ardern he used to babysit her when her family lived in Murupara.
She was about 7- years- old at the time, and he has not seen her since, “just on the television”.
Was she naughty? “Absolutely not.”
Is he voting for her? “Absolutely.” The site visit is a staple of Ardern’s campaign. The large public rallies and speeches are Ardern’s forte, but it is a campaign tool she has largely eschewed this campaign. There will be one of two in the last week of the campaign, including in Wellington on Sunday.
She tells the Herald that because she was travelling in and out of Auckland so much, she had decided to follow her own advice and take her level with her by not holding large gatherings elsewhere.
As a result, she declined the traditional address to Nelson Grey Power.
National Party leader Judith Collins had delivered a rollicking speech there the week before, and in 2017, the Nelson Grey Power was one of Ardern’s first public speaking events as Labour leader.
She was new and exciting enough to attract about 450 people — far more than went to see National’s Bill English, although the seat is held by National MP Nick Smith.
Back in 2017, Ardern was a novelty. A breath of fresh air. The “stardust”, as English himself put it.
She pitched herself as “change”, a new generation, as “youth- adjacent”.
In 2020, the young ones call her “Aunty”.
I point this out to her, and ask if the “Aunty” means she is no longer youth- adjacent.
“I’m willing to accept that,” Ardern says.
In the three years since, she has dealt with a lot — some would say too much — and it has inevitably changed her and how people see her.
She i s campaigning on her own record rather than just promises.
That record does not include some of the promises she made in 2017 — areas on which Labour fell woefully short of the “change” promised, such as KiwiBuild.
But not a single person raises failed promises with her over the five days I follow her.
The overwhelming attitude towards her — even from those who admit they will not vote for her — is respect.
The Prime Minister who roared: the walkabout
Outside the Swedish Bakery and Cafe in Nelson, a woman i s waving a baguette in the air as Ardern heads her way.
It is Bronwyn Eriksson, the owner. She presents Ardern with the baguette and a pastry: and votes. “You’ve got all our votes here.”
Her bakery managed to keep on its two staff over the lockdown thanks to the wage subsidy.
Eriksson is in awe at what Ardern has done. She talks about the terrorist attack, Whakaari/ White Island, and Covid- 19.
“She’s a mother, and she’s had to deal with these huge issues. She got five million people through a pandemic. I didn’t think we’d do it as a country together, because we’re too naughty. She did it.”
Then she says: “Who knows? She might not even want to do it for another term. She might want to be a stay- at- home mum and relax.”
I tell Ardern about that a few days later, and ask if any part of her wonders what that would be like. She thinks for a while, and then says she does not dwell on that too much.
“I think I am in the right place for me, and for our family right now. There are moments, of course, when I think I should be trying to spend more time with Neve. But every single parent feels like that at some point.
“So I have those moments, but I never think about not doing what I’m doing now.”
There is a large crowd waiting for her in Hardie St where the Labour faithful gathered and had spread the news. They include Emma Helleur and her friend Amy, who stand at the edge of the crush, watching and strategising.
“She’s only doing kids,” one concludes with disappointment.
“It’s not going to happen.” They settle for Grant Robertson. “I like to think he’s carrying all of New Zealand’s money in his briefcase,” Emma says.
A bit later, they do manage to get Ardern, and Robertson and his briefcase are forgotten.
But she i s indeed a magnet for young children, notching up an impressive daily tally of squats as she crouches down to talk to them.
She has noticed it herself, raising it when asked how people respond to her this time compared to in 2017. She puts it down to the Covid- 19 lockdown period.
There were so many children, she barely spoke to an eligible voter on her walkabout.
One boy is wearing a top with lions on it. She asks him what sound lions make, and then roars at him by way of answering her own question.
Not many people could say they have been roared at by a prime minister.
Otherwise the conversations can be a tad repetitive.
Suffice it to say Ardern now well and truly knows she is beautiful, that a lot of people love her, and that she is inspirational. Some people get so overwhelmed they cannot say anything at all.
The children also give her gifts. As well as food, rocks are a common presentation. “Painted rocks, rocks from riverbeds, carved rocks. But they’re not run- of- the- mill rocks, they’re all special rocks.”
She takes them all home. “When I come home, Neve barely makes eye contact with me, she just goes for my bag because it is a treasure trove of rocks.”
Few engage Ardern in a serious discussion.
The vast majority simply want to see her, to have met her, to have photographic evidence of it.
In Nelson, many also raise the Newshub debate of the night before.
When she is asked what feedback they gave her afterwards, Ardern says she did not assume the throngs were giving her an unbiased view. “I noted a lot of them were wearing Labour Party T- shirts.”
Many people thank her. It is the most common response she gets.
Thanks for Covid- 19, thanks for her
We cannot afford to risk changing course.
Jacinda Ardern, as she appeared in Spitting Image
handling of the mosque attacks.
Of this, she says she struggles to know what to say in response. “I say it’s just my job.”
Anything that required more than a smile and an elbow bump was delegated to one of her other MPs.
Damien O’Connor got the job of testing the cycle- powered peanut grinder at Pic’s.
She watched on, egged him on, and then declined O’Connor’s offer of a taste of the nuts of his labours.
Her rule of thumb is that anything John Key would have done for the cameras, she will not do.
Key embraced absurd opportunities and did not mind looking like a bit of a goose. Ardern does not.
But there are parallels to a Key campaign. Watching Ardern in this campaign is akin to watching Key in 2011 and 2014.
Then Labour was all at sea, and Key was making the most of it — pointing to his side’s stability compared to the dysfunction and disunity on the other team.
Now it is Ardern pointing to her side’s stability compared to the ructions on the other side — and Ardern is not even beating round the bush about it.
She has even adopted Key’s 2008 and first- term mantra of focusing on “the issues that matter”.
In short, she has the luxury of running a popular Prime Minister’s campaign.
It is like National’s rowing boat ad of 2011 all over again, but in reverse — with the blue bibs now in the dinghy of discombobulation and the red bibs in the sleek rowing boat.
Off- Brand Friday
Ardern’s is the lowest- risk campaign we have seen in some time, so it came as something of a relief when one day was not as perfectly pitched.
We headed out to an address at Birkenhead Point to hear Ardern set out Labour’s housing announcement.
It was a building site overlooking the Harbour Bridge.
The home was being built for US tech venture capitalist and multimillionaire Matt Ocko. Ocko was a founding investor in Rocket Lab and resident of New Zealand who hoped to become a citizen.
Ocko was back in the US, involved in Covid- 19- related technology, but planned to return.
It would have been on- brand for National — but it could not have been further off for a Labour housing announcement.
Ardern, Megan Woods and David Parker stood on the spot which will one day be a car turntable for garaging.
The Ardern announcement was a shrunken version of KiwiBuild, more state housing, affordable housing and progressive ownership schemes, as well as Resource Management Act changes.
The only on- brand elements were the building apprentices there — the visit was organised by the BCITO for building and construction apprentices.
The site “concrete- ologist” is Ross Bannan, who featured on Grand Designs in 2016. Ardern remembers the episode, and the accident in which concrete blew up in his face.
He introduces Ardern to his son Troy, who i s also one of his apprentices. Bannan talks to her about resource consents and the impact Covid- 19 had on his industry compared to the global financial crisis.
Bannan is a decent bloke who has clearly done well in his trade. I later ask Bannan if he supports Labour. He smiles sheepishly. “Umm. I think she’s done a great job, but . . . ”
I mentioned the visit to a friend who knows Bannan. He replies with a photo of the hoarding on Bannan’s fence- line.
It was for Ardern’s rival in Mt Albert, National Party candidate Melissa Lee.
I laugh and laugh.
Into enemy territory: a visit to the Epsom electorate
Item two on the off- brand day schedule was a walkabout in Newmarket.
Newmarket is in the heart of the Epsom electorate — the seat symbolic of the National- Act combo Ardern is up against.
One of New Zealand’s historic political events happened right here: former Green MP Keith Locke walked down Broadway wearing body paint and a G- string after pledging to run down Broadway naked if Hide won Epsom in 2005. It was a lesson in betting on the unexpected.
Auckland i s still in level 2 and Broadway i s something of a ghost town compared to the olden days.
After an initial flurry of photos outside 277, Ardern walks for almost a block without being stopped.
Then she hears the hubbub from behind her and turns around.
A long string of people are now trailing in her wake. It is like a scene from the Pied Piper, although Ardern leads them down Teed St instead of into a cave.
There she stops.
The best place to stand is at the back of the scrum around her, the spot where people first register she is there.
It is where you hear people talk about her, rather than to her. It i s where you watch them emerge after their brief encounter, all squeals and fist pumps, and show off their new photo.
Two teenage boys are standing at the back of the crowd trying to work up the courage to go up for a photo.
“Go on, just go up there,” one says. “No, I get really awkward,” the other replies.
They stand there for a long time, watching. The first guy has another go. “This is your only chance!”
“Shut up,” the second guy says. Eventually they wander off with photos of her, but not with her.
A couple of Irish men stop to look. “She’s just a fecking legend isn’t she?” one says as they move on.
Another Irish man comes along soon after. It i s Oisin Flynn from Dublin, but who now lives in New Zealand.
He sees Ardern, grins with delight and ploughs in.
He says his father, who still lives in Dublin, is a great admirer of Ardern. “So am I. If other countries had a prime minister like her, we’d be doing really well.”
Not everybody stops. A few people walk by, look and see who it is and move on quickly — possibly the National voters who hold sway in this electorate.
A couple of older women ask a policeman what is going on.
“The Prime Minister is just there,” he says. “So get in there!”
“No thanks,” they say and walk on across the road. At the very end of the walkabout Ardern comes across two other teenage boys who are much less shy than the first pairing.
“How many TikTok likes for a date, Aunty Cinda?” they call out. “A lot,” she replies. “Ah come on, how many?” “A lot.” “Ratshit!” and they walk off.
I tell Ardern later this will be chronicled as her “off- brand” day.
She laughs when I tell her she was standing where the revolving car pad would be, and says, “Don’t forget about the apprentices.
“Those were very on- brand.” On the decision to visit Newmarket, something most Labour leaders would not bother with, she refers to Labour’s Epsom candidate Camilla Belich, who was with her.
“We don’t abandon any of our candidates.”
Later that same day came the news US President Donald Trump had tested positive for Covid- 19.
On- brand Saturday: South Auckland The next day Ardern is back to Labour heartland: South Auckland.
The South Auckland rally is a traditional election event for Labour — loud, crowded and proudly red.
Tradition was trumped by Covid19 and this year it did not happen.
Instead Ardern is at Edmund Hillary Collegiate tara watching party volunteers call supporters to encourage them to vote early.
It is the first day of early voting and Ardern had cast her own vote earlier in the day. She had driven herself to the Mt Eden War Memorial Hall with partner Clarke Gayford in their Hyundai Iconic, turning up like any other ordinary citizen — albeit trailed by security.
Gayford’s vote took a bit longer than Ardern’s, leaving her waiting for him at the back of the hall. She quips he is clearly having to think quite hard about who to vote for.
Ardern spoke to the Herald afterwards, and said the absence of the rally, and other events like it were noticeable.
“It does feel like a piece of the campaign has been missing. I have noticed the absence of rallies and the energy everyone brings when they’re at those events.”
I ask her to rank her favourite campaign element out of walkabouts, public meetings and the debates against Judith Collins.
She picks walkabouts. “But it depends where you are. They can be . . . spontaneous.”
Ardern was back in South Auckland again on the Sunday, visiting
Habitat for Humanity’s curtain bank for an announcement of funding for the organisation, and extra staff to police compliance by landlords with the new Healthy Homes requirements.
After she leaves, I get a text from her staff: “PM says very on- brand day!”
The day of the Prime Minister’s hat. Christchurch
On Monday, the Labour leader hat was swapped for the Prime Minister’s hat.
Ardern held the final Cabinet meeting and was doing a press conference in the Christchurch Art Gallery to announce Auckland would be moving down to level 1.
The Prime Minister is not meant to use the post- Cabinet pulpit to campaign. At first Ardern was semicareful about the boundary.
She ran through her usual preamble, referring to the “team of five million” acknowledging they were “a little more battle- weary this time”.
But towards the end, a little bit of the Labour leader sneaked through.
She noted New Zealand was in a better situation than other countries with second outbreaks, and the sacrifices were worth it.
The subtext was clear: do not take the risk of changing to someone else who might not do things the same.
Lest the subtlety was missed Ardern spelled it out in black and white once the time came for media questions, where the boundaries between campaigning and governing were more flexible.
“We cannot afford to risk changing course, particularly when the two Opposition parties have $ 8 billion holes in their plans that they cannot account for.”
It took very little time for Collins to object on Twitter.
There are two sides to campaigning: promoting one own’s wares and shooting down the rival’s.
The closer the election, the more Ardern has tilted toward the latter.
She has shown an appetite for a political uppercut which was not as apparent in 2017 when she was operating under the “relentlessly positive” creed.
By way of skewering the reverie, a Spitting Image skit taking the mickey out of Ardern landed that day, with Ardern as Mary Poppins and the chorus “super- Kiwi- socialistic- extranice Jacinda”.
That too had a clear subtext: that Ardern was being a bit smug about her achievements.
Ardern grinned when it was raised and observed she was just glad she’d whipped Neve out of the room before it played.
The Press debate on Tuesday night showed what Ardern had been rehearsing for the day before.
She taunted Collins about the breakout of disunity within National’s ranks. She ribbed her about the fiscal holes.
She claimed that each of National’s three recent leaders had a different position on Covid- 19 “and they’re all wrong”.
After it was over, the majority of commentators declared Ardern the “winner” of the debate — a crown that had been held by Collins for the previous two debates.
Back in Nelson, the walkabout is nearly done and Ardern has gone into a cafe for a bathroom stop.
Two women are looking in from the street through a cafe window, providing the running commentary.
“Here she is! Oh, she’s having a water!”
“She probably just wants to sit down and have a coffee on her own,” someone else says.
“Not as much as she wants a second term,” I point out.