Jacinda Ardern: I didn't want to work for Tony Blair
Jacinda Ardern's all-time favourite election?
Well, Obama's 2008 victory will always feel special. But closer to home? It would have to be 2005, when the contest between race-baiting National leader Don Brash and two-term Labour prime minister Helen Clark went down to the wire.
Ardern, then a 25-year-old staffer for Clark, was beside herself as early results seemed to show Brash had denied Clark her third term.
"I remember my dad calling me and saying, 'Don't worry, you'll be able to find another job' – because he could hear how upset I was. And I remember saying in this broken voice, 'It's not about my job. What about all the people who'll have to pay market rents in their state houses?'"
Really? That's what you said?
You really are a do-gooder, aren't you?
Ardern smiles (she always smiles).
Her angst on behalf of oppressed tenants was premature. Clark squeaked in, which is why the election is Ardern's favourite: "The joy of winning was even more marked because it had felt so tough." And that was the last time the New Zealand Labour Party won a general election.
But nine years on, after an extended, multi-leader doldrums, Labour's looking healthier than in ages.
On August 1 Ardern fielded a Hail Mary pass from low-polling Andrew Little to become the new, last-minute Labour leader. Pollsters soon discovered that whatever it was Little had been banging on about, people liked it much more now Ardern was saying it – we could call it Jacindamania. Meanwhile, the Greens were careening off-course, and Peter Dunne added to the general sense of chaos by throwing in the towel.
Which takes us to last Tuesday. The most recent UMR poll had Labour's support at 37 percent to National's 40 percent – enough to cobble together a left-leaning coalition at a pinch – and Ardern was in full media-blitz mode in Auckland and online.
Her day started with interviews with The AM Show, Breakfast, Morning Report and a couple of other radio stations, then an 11am livestreamed launch of a newly-Jacindafied Labour TV ad, a video-interview thing with NZME at 2pm, and an interview with Fairfax at 4pm – this one.
Muted Jacindamania was in play at the cafe near the Mt Albert electorate office. As Ardern ordered, the cashier blinked with delight and said "Jacinda!" A female customer crept up close and whispered "Good luck with everything" and another woman blurted that she was "very excited to see you're running. It's awesome. We love it."
Ardern has been endlessly interviewed ever since entering parliament, so there's a surfeit of data already available. You probably already know that she's 37; grew up in Morrinsville and Murupara where her dad was a cop; was a Mormon till the homophobia did her head in and is now agnostic; did a communications degree at Waikato, joined Labour at a young age, worked for UK PM Tony Blair's Cabinet Office and was briefly president of the International Union of Socialist Youth; and that eventually, in the 2008 election that Helen Clark lost to John Key, Ardern got a Labour list seat to call her own. In February she won a barely-contested byelection to become Mt Albert MP.
If you've read a little more widely, you'll also know that she lives in Pt Chevalier, Auckland, with broadcaster Clarke Gayford. She had buck teeth as a kid; her favourite school subjects were metalwork and history; she drinks whiskey; she likes drum'n'bass; her cat Paddles has polydactylism (extra toes); she owns an extensive collection of 16th-century chamber pots; and her favourite colours are "all of them, all at once" (actually, one of the above isn't true).
To these highly relatable facts we can add a new, much less relatable one: as Leader of the Opposition during campaign time, Ardern must accept the protection of beefy, Holden-driving men in suits from the Diplomatic Protection Service (one of whom has a cool beard, though he isn't about on Tuesday). On the short stroll from office to cafe, one walks ahead pressing the zebra-crossing buttons and checking for trains at the level crossing. When we arrive, there's another officer already inside.
"It's a rigmarole. I understand in big crowds, but I'm still coming to terms with the idea that it's necessary when going to get milk. The contrast of being someone who grew up in small-town New Zealand, now having this automatic posse of people who move around with me is very … odd."
LABOUR LEADERS PAST
At the campaign launch at Auckland Town Hall last Sunday, Ardern invoked the names of Labour leaders past. She and her old mentor Helen Clark hugged. The book at her bedside is about the Norm Kirk years.
Who though, are her heroes from the wider world of left-ish political thought? Does she have time for Marx or Trotsky, Mill or Keynes, Bevan or Blair? Maybe some important Scandinavian political philosopher we've never heard of?
Ardern doesn't want to play ball.
"I always look to New Zealand examples. Looking at the theoretical end isn't something that fits with our political environment."
Really? Surely a little theory doesn't hurt. And we're subject to international trends even way down here, whether it's the 1930s welfare state or 1980s neoliberalism.
"Yeah," says Ardern, "I guess we talk about third-way-ism. But actually how relevant does that feel to people in New Zealand? When people ask if you're a socialist, are you a democratic socialist, are you a social democrat – it's not language we use.
"We can solve gnarly issues that others might struggle with, and in a way that's unique because of our size and our way of approaching politics and life."
In her Union of Socialist Youth (USY) days, Ardern used to say "comrade" a lot, and celebrate internationalism. But there's no clash, she says, between that ethos and the imperative to put New Zealand's interests first. Consider the debate around refugees.
"That's where I hear it the most. How can you double the quota and still look after people in poverty in New Zealand? But these are not mutually exclusive. I'd say the same around international environmental issues – we can do our part and also make sure we secure our economic future."
Also, says Ardern, the great thing about being active in USY was that a decade on, "some of my friends are ministers around the world. I've got friends in Italy, in Denmark, in South Africa, who are now in office."
The job in Blair's Cabinet Office was in 2006, shortly before he handed over the UK prime-ministership to Gordon Brown.
So is Blair one of Ardern's chums too? Because as activist John Minto has pointed out, Blair took Britain into George W Bush's catastrophic Iraq war on a lie, and many consider him a war criminal. How did working for Blair jibe with Ardern's enthusiasm for peace and justice and so on?
Actually, says Ardern, she never met Blair in person at that time – " the Cabinet Office is massive". But the issue of whether she was bothered about working for a war criminal? "That's a fair question".
The answer though, is complicated.
In early 2006 she was living in New York – volunteering at a soup kitchen and for a workers' rights campaign because she didn't have a work visa. Six months in, she realised she was skint, and applied for the Cabinet Office job, doing the interview by phone.
She had very low expectations, so when the job offer came, "I was absolutely gutted. I felt this real dilemma, which was absolutely about Blair."
She still took the job though.
"It was totally pragmatic. I wanted to live overseas. I wanted to have that time and experience abroad. I was doing amazing voluntary work that I loved, but I needed to live so I took the job."
She didn't realise till she got to London what a tiny cog she would be – "we were in a unit of 80, and we were one of many units" – and that the connection to Blair was zilch.
"I was working alongside small businesses, trying to make their lives easier. Once I got over myself I just got into the work."
Minto also had a crack at Ardern for attending a Tony Blair event in New Zealand in 2011, but Ardern feels she acquitted herself well. The MC that night was very soft on Blair, "asking a line of questions about lucky shoes, and stuff like that" and no one was addressing the elephant in the room.
"I remember thinking, if I ask a question will I embarrass anyone? But I really wanted to ask about Iraq. So I did. I said, 'Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently?' Basically implying, would you not have gone to war?"
"And he said, 'I would have prepared to be there longer.' Totally unapologetic."
What really struck Ardern about Blair when she was in the UK, though, was observing how fast political power dissipates.
In Blair's final parliament speech he finished by saying "... and that is that, the end."
"I still remember that moment,' says Ardern. "You can have that enormous career in politics, that period, and then suddenly, pouff. That's that. It's done, and you're gone."
If she wins the September 23 election, how many terms would she like before – pouff – she's gone?
"Oh gosh! Before I hand over the baton to Kelvin? At least a couple. Three seems to be a good figure, doesn't it?"
Clark made three. What tips did Ardern pick up during her time working for her (or rather, for Clark's chief of staff Heather Simpson)?
"It was always about 'sweat the small stuff'. Be all over the detail."
It was impossible to miss the symbolism of the Clark-Ardern mutual shoulder-grab-and-grin on Sunday. Does Ardern think Clark would have made the effort to come along if Little had been on the podium?
"I actually hadn't thought about that," says Ardern.
"Do you realise how traumatic the past three weeks have been?"
Traumatic maybe, but obviously pretty exciting too. Pundits have swooned. A cottage industry of neologism-coinage has sprung up: Jacindamania. The Jacinda Effect. Jacinderella. Jacinda-Nick-of-Time.
She gets "Jacinta" a lot too, though that could be simply because smartphones autocorrect the D to a T.
The other day someone sent Ardern a photo of a group of women who'd donned identical wigs and lipstick and dressed as Ardern for a 10-pin bowling match. Their team name was "10-pinder Ardern", and the message included the hashtag #leaderwithballs.
The Jacindamaniacs are decided, but her critics says she's a lightweight, the opposition minister who didn't land many hits on government, all empathy but no substance, good at smiling but vague on detail. How does she react to that stuff?
"I've been doing it since I was 28. So that question of whether I've got the strength to do it? Y'know you can't be a delicate flower and be in politics.
"So 'bring it on' is my reaction. There's nothing I can say that's going to change someone's mind if they want to take that approach. All I can do is prove it every single day."
*Comments on this article have been closed
- Sunday Star Times