The New Zealand prime minister talks about her surprise pregnancy and why she won’t stay quiet on sexism
Mid-morning and Auckland is melting.
“Yesterday, I was trying to write a speech, and it was 31C in the house, and in the roof cavity it was 50. It was 50C,” says Jacinda Ardern. She is standing in her kitchen, barefoot, dipping a teabag into a mug.
“So I was instructed to climb into the roof in my underpants at midnight,” chips in her partner, Clarke Gayford – also in the kitchen, also barefoot – “to find … ”
Ardern: “The fan.”
“The old fan hidden in the back corner. Dusted it off. But worth it.”
“Yeah, worth it.”
“Oh, it was good.”
“It was worth it.”
If the New Zealand prime minister is feeling any strain at the start of the first big political week of the year, it is well disguised. After the regular Monday morning round of broadcast interviews, she has popped back to the home she shares with Gayford, fishing luminary and fellow expectant parent.
At lunchtime she has an appearance at the Laneway music festival before heading down to Wellington and a congested week that includes ticking off the last few items on her 100-day plan, the resumption of parliament and a State of the Nation speech. Correction: not a State of the Nation speech. “It’s only 10 minutes long!”
If the week looks like a blur, hasn’t it all? Twelve months ago, Ardern was also preparing for a visit to Laneway. In the year since, she has been promoted to deputy Labour party leader, elected party leader, and made prime minister. A thing or two has happened in her personal life, too. She lost a grandmother. She lost a cat. She told the country she was pregnant. And those are just the bits we’re privy to.
Has she had a chance to reflect on it all? “I always said I was going to do that over summer, and then I just decided, over summer, to not think about anything,” says Ardern. “So, no, not really.”
The prime minister is sitting on the sofa, flanked by frames containing a Dick Frizzell print and a chart of the Tāmaki Strait. On the sideboard stands a watercolour of Paddles, sent by a well-wisher after the celebrity cat perished under a car in November. A long, thin coffee table is laden with a bowl of little ornamental globes, a plate of blueberry muffins and piles of books and magazines. Sample titles: Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect, and Communicate with Your Baby (“we’ve been given all of these books; I just haven’t done anything with them yet”) and The Best of Shed Magazine. Gayford has disappeared to another part of the house.
“I did think about her quite a bit when we announced that I was pregnant.” Ardern is referring to her grandmother, who died in the final days of the election campaign. “I called my grandfather, and I think it’s fair to say he was quite speechless. He just said: ‘Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.’ Over and over. And then he said: ‘Poor you!’
“‘Poor you!’ He kept saying that and I said, ‘look, grandad’ – because obviously he was just completely thrown by the news – I said, ‘look, grandad, just don’t listen to talkback [radio] for two weeks. I’ll give you a call back.’”
Ardern’s grandmother has been brought up a number of times since the pregnancy was revealed, implicitly sending an olive branch to those who have misgivings about the announcement. “I did think about how my grandma would have reacted. She probably would have questioned me juggling both things, a little bit. My grandma was a very traditional woman. But at the same time would want me to have kids. So a bit torn, probably.”
The first ever press conference to discuss a New Zealand prime minister’s pregnancy had come after a lot of planning. Winston Peters (the deputy prime minister and leader of New Zealand First, Labour’s coalition partner in government) was to babysit the PM’s seat for six weeks. Gayford would be a stay-at-home dad. The pregnancy itself was “a complete surprise” for a couple that had already begun seeking fertility advice – a note sounded to forestall criticisms that the nation should have been given louder warning of the first couple’s procreational ambitions.
“I definitely tried to look at it really dispassionately,” she says. “To think: what would someone who doesn’t know me at all, who may have a slightly different view towards my leadership, how are they going to take this news? I really tried to think about it from that perspective. I think probably they’re looking for certainty. And the best way I can provide that is by providing a plan. And so that’s what I really thought through: how can I really demonstrate that, yes, amid all this happy news, I have a plan.
“Also because I wanted people to know, given how soon it was after being elected, that I took this job really seriously. I felt like the best way to convey that was to show that I’d thought it all through, surprise or not.”
Six months ago, Andrew Little quit the NZ Labour leadership and endorsed Ardern as his successor. Her first public task as leader, with less than seven weeks to the general election, was before the parliamentary press gallery. It could hardly have gone better – assured, confident, witty. Did some kind of switch flick?
“No, I don’t think so. Unless you take the view that you’ve never seen it since,” she deadpans. “I’d say it was always in me – it’s just what’s required of you is very different in the moment that you become leader. When you’re part of a team you defer and you’re there to support your leader.”
And there was no time to overthink it. “That was probably a good thing … I thought: the one thing people just need to get a sense of from me in this moment is that I can do this. And I’m not going to leave any room for doubt that I can do this.
“There was no time to be anything else, or anyone else, other than just who I was … So it meant that, if nothing else, people at least got authenticity.”
Ardern’s arrival detonated every prediction of a pedestrian campaign. Labour surged, overtaking the incumbent National party in successive polls. Ardern erred tactically, however, in reversing a pledge that any changes stemming from a tax working group would be held until after the 2020 election. That was a gift for National, which targeted Labour with ads that refashioned its “Let’s do this” slogan into “Let’s tax this”. Ardern folded, reverting to the earlier position.
Did it feel as if the campaign might be slipping through their fingers? “No, I didn’t feel like it was slipping away. I just knew it was something that I needed to manage.”
Another reality Ardern had to manage was sexism. There was the sign held aloft at a Morrinsville rally opposing Labour’s water tax plans: “She’s a pretty communist.” There was the standoff with radio presenter Mark Richardson over whether it was acceptable to quiz a female employee about childbearing plans.
How bad was it? “It wasn’t Helen Clark circa 2005,” says Ardern of New Zealand’s second female prime minister and her own former boss and mentor. “I remember that campaign. There were some horrific moments in there. So I, you know, note the progress. And I don’t take that lightly because other people have gone through quite a bit in order to get you there.”
Like it or not, Ardern is seen as a torchbearer for women in New Zealand and beyond. “It took me a while to acknowledge that,” she says. “I remember there was this cartoon. It was just after David Cunliffe [NZ Labour leader from 2013-14] had taken over as leader. They portrayed me as a ring girl. I was in a bikini with stilettos and holding up ring cards, and it said: ‘The caucus won’t be happy unless I find a job for Jacinda.’
“I got a call from a journalist who wanted comment on it, and the said journalist was quietly enraged by the portrayal, and I had this huge hesitance. I thought, if I say anything particularly negative will I be portrayed as humourless? And that’s probably a little bit indicative of how I’ve sometimes treated those issues. If you say something do you further your cause or make it worse? And yet, over time I’ve decided there are enough young women watching that I just can’t choose to say nothing every time.”
In September 2017 Labour did fade, but it didn’t fall. The prospect of a Labour government with NZ First and the Greens in support looked shaky on election night, but after the tally of special votes – a great number of which came from first-time voters enrolling at the same time as they cast their ballots – Peters’ party had two clear options. Its decision saw Ardern complete her vertiginous rise to the premiership.
Anyone hoping for a lie-down was quickly disappointed, with the starter gun fired immediately on the 100-day plan. The last of those days arrives this Saturday, and the final items are being ticked off: the inquiry into mental health, the programme to tackle child poverty, and the inquiry into abuse in state care. Almost everything is a starting point – the government remains in its infancy. The test will come on day 101.
That challenge was a focus of the not-the-state-of-the-nation speech that Ardern delivered this week, during which she also laid out the ambition of halving child poverty within 10 years.
But back up a bit: why no State of the Nation address? “The State of the Nation feels really backward-facing to me,” says Ardern. “We spent the election campaign really canvassing where we were as a nation, deciding who had the mandate to change that up, going forward. But I think the challenge for us will be, as with any government, your actions demonstrate your legacy.
“That’s not just about what you do, but how you do it. So in amongst it is your relationship with Māori, the reputation you build on the international stage, the way that you choose to operate, your transparency, how transformative you try to be – all of that builds into the kind of government you are. So I think the next stage is scene-setting, a little bit, for the kind of government we want to be. Not leaving that to chance, being really deliberate about the things we want to achieve.”
The prime minister has been using the word transformative a lot. “Ultimately I do want us to be a transformative government,” she says. “I want, when we’ve left, for people to say we’re not just clean-green any more, we’re carbon neutral, or we’re striving to be. That we genuinely have got things in place now that could make us the best place in the world to be a child. And that we have our international reputation back.”
Ardern has been hailed and assailed as a harbinger of socialism – just as she has for being a voice of third-way orthodoxy. Which is it? Is she Jeremy Corbyn or Tony Blair?
“We’re just going to be ourselves,” Ardern says. “I get this constant need to compare and find a mould. Because that makes it easier to determine what kind of government this is going to be. But we will be our own government. And I’m not modelling myself after any political leader.”
At the end of the week Ardern heads to Waitangi and the annual commemorations of the signing of the 1840 treaty between the British Crown and Māori chiefs. The new prime minister will buck with recent tradition not just by attending, but by staying for five days.
“One of my frustrations, the entire time I’ve been a politician, and I’ve only missed a couple of Waitangi Days, is I just don’t feel like there’s a true sense of the celebrations up there being broadcast. Yes, sometimes there’s protest. There’s robust discussion. But by and large it’s a celebratory event with a really nice feel to it, where lots of people come and participate, lots of kids, and the longer I’m there perhaps the more people might see of that. Perhaps.”
How’s her reo (te reo, the Māori language)? “Poor. It’s poor. I’m working on my pronunciation. I’m just finding, in amongst everything else that I’m taking in the constant briefing phase, that my memory for the reo isn’t what I’d like it to be.
“I’m really mindful of it, because I’m right on the cusp of a generation that should be better, but isn’t. Right on the cusp. So I feel a weight of expectation.”
The more immediate demands of that generation are in the baking heat at the Laneway music festival. But anyone expecting a repeat of her 2014 appearance as a DJ will be disappointed. “No. No, no, no. No,” she says, just in case that’s not clear. “That was many years ago.”
I wonder whether she sighs every time that photograph of her DJing is rolled out. She’s unambiguous on this point, too. “I hate that. I really hate it! I really, really hate it. Not least because it’s, like, full bingo wings, from underneath my … ” she says, tailing off into a grim laugh.
At Glastonbury last year, the crowd chanted “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”. “That will not happen. That will not happen,” says Ardern. “Firstly, I’m not that presumptuous to ever assume that that would spontaneously happen.” You could start it? “I don’t think it works like that. Secondly, I’m there as the gates open. No one goes to Laneway right at the beginning – a few die-hard fans who really want to see the opening acts. And, thirdly, I’m not delivering some watershed speech. I’m literally welcoming everyone there, and acknowledging the artists and the audiences … I’ve been enough to know that it will be a passing moment in time.”
Which loops us back to the beginning: how to process everything, that blur of passing moments in time? “I think people have all sorts of things that happen in their lives, mine’s just particularly public,” says the prime minister.
“People see my life list writ large. And I think, if anything, you probably realise how most of us at some point just put things in compartments. Sometimes, whether rightly or wrongly, we just deal with it later. I just haven’t done any of that yet.”
This interview was first published by The Spinoff and has been edited with the author. Read the full interview here.