Jacinda Ardern joined the Labour Party as a 17-year-old. And now, 20 years on — suddenly, surprisingly, and dramatically — she’s become not only the party leader, but a political force that threatens to help sweep National out of office.
There’s still a massive amount of work she’ll need to do leading up to the general election on September 23, but there’s no longer a sense that the Nats are in for a comfy cruise to victory.
One of her challenges is to dispel any notion that she may be too young and inexperienced for the job of prime minister.
She’s working on that. But, despite hogging the headlines and the limelight since she took over the Labour leadership from Andrew Little on August 1, Jacinda is still relatively unknown.
There’s still much to learn about how she’ll handle the cut and thrust of the election campaign — and how she’ll manage to remain “relentlessly positive” in an environment that can be ruthlessly negative.
There’s still any amount for the voters to discover about her, including her interests, her education — which includes a degree in communications at Waikato University — and her years in UK politics.
Here, in this conversation with Dale, we learn a little more about her background.
Kia ora, Jacinda. The life you’ve led so far has been pretty interesting — and the one you’re embarking on now doesn’t look like being all that dull either. But, first, let’s look at that Ardern name. Where does that come from?
I’ve been told it’s French. But that’s not really my lineage. I’m predominantly Irish-Scottish, although my great-great-grandfather migrated at the age of 17 from Denmark. He came out to New Zealand on his own and, according to family accounts, ended up in Northland.
He worked in flax mills and things like that — and, so we understand, he was adopted by kind-hearted Māori families up there and became a fluent te reo speaker. Sadly, although he passed the reo on to my great-grandmother, that fluency didn’t carry on any further down through the family.
And your mum’s side?
That’s mainly English-Irish. All with a farming background. The first of them, the Bakers, migrated with the early settlers to the Nelson area but then they came north and began farming around the Waihou river and Mt Te Aroha. So, that’s my maunga.
Ka pai — one of mine, too. I’m from near there. From Matai Whetū, just across the bridge in Kopu. Now, what about your dad, Ross Ardern? Is he still up in Niue?
Yes, he is. He was originally the Chief of Police there. He spent a bit of time being the New Zealand police liaison around the Pacific Islands. And now he’s New Zealand’s High Commissioner in Niue.
And how about Laurell, your mum?
She’s been over in Niue with him. But at the moment, she’s back in New Zealand to be closer during the election campaign.
Let’s turn now to your early years — and to your contact with Māori in those days.
Well, I was born in Hamilton when we were living in Dinsdale. But then we moved to Murupara where I and my little sister (Louise) started school. She got a bit of a hard time there because, when your dad is a policeman, that doesn’t go down so well.
I didn’t have a hard time at all because I was bigger. And it was a great community where I had good friends and still have really positive memories of that time.
But I also have some marked memories about what was happening in the town then because this was the 1980s. Keep in mind I was still very little. But I recall basic things, like some other kids not having shoes even in the cold.
Next stop for the Arderns, I understand, was Morrinsville. And I suppose you would’ve seen some of the realities there for the haves and the have-nots — and noticed how the lives of the Māori kids sometimes differed from the lives of the non-Māori.
Yes. That’s where I did much of my growing up — and where I noticed quite a lot. When you’re small, though, you don’t see things through a political lens. All you see when you’re a child is whether some things are fair or not. Like someone not having shoes. Or being really hungry. Or having hepatitis — as our babysitter did. Or learning that our neighbour’s son wasn’t around because he’d committed suicide.
Not all Pākehā New Zealanders have grown up in communities where they’ve been exposed to Māori life in the way that you have. Has that experience given you a valuable insight into some of the issues that you’re now dealing with?
I’d like to think so. And yet I’ll never pretend that I know what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. What I can supply, though, is empathy. I think that’s an essential trait for all politicians. If they’re to resolve the hard issues, first and foremost, they have to have a feeling for other people.
Already, through your studies and travels and pre-politics work, as well as your nine years of parliament, you’ve packed in a fair range of experiences. And, in that time, you’ve come across some strong and influential characters. I wonder who’s been the most influential.
Definitely my parents. Mum and Dad. They’ve both been great role models. Mum has always been looking out for other people. Really giving her time and making sacrifices for those around her. She’s an exceptionally good-hearted person.
Then there’s Dad who was a real community policeman. I saw that. As a police family, we were sometimes regarded negatively. But I had a good view of his work because we lived in front of the police station, and I saw how, over time, Dad just grafted away and built a relationship with people. And he did it so calmly.
I remember, as a little one, on the way to the shops and coming past Dad, in the middle of a pretty intense situation. He was surrounded by a bunch of guys. And I just froze. I didn’t know what to do. Then he spotted me out the corner of his eye. And he said: “Run along, Jacinda. It’s all right.”
And he kept talking to the guys around him. Just talking it through. Till it was over. That’s the way he approached his job, I guess. Understanding the situation — and not making a big deal of something that could be worked through.
In the past, you’ve sometimes described yourself as a social democrat and a feminist. And I assume they’re kaupapa you still have. But what do you see as the essence of the New Zealand way?
We’ve really carved our own path, to some extent. I think, ultimately, we’re very fair-minded. And we have a strong sense of justice. But the way I describe my approach to politics is that I’m a pragmatic-idealist. I strive to reach some pretty lofty goals. But I’m very pragmatic about what it takes to get there — and how long it might take.
Let’s turn to the Treaty. What does it mean to you, Jacinda?
It’s our foundation. It’s a living document. It’s not something that’s simply dictating a process that we’re going through and that will have an end. It’s a guide for our Māori-Crown relationship. And it’s also a guide for non-Māori in terms of some of our bigger challenges around guardianship — and the way we should be tackling some of our big issues. I have a broad view of the role that the Treaty needs to play in all of that.
And, as I’ve always said, in my view, we won’t have ever met our obligations under the Treaty, so long as there are Māori living in poverty, over-represented in our prisons system, and over-represented among the jobless. Until we address that, in my view, we’ve really failed.
Some say that a lot of the long-standing Labour Party support for Māori was sacrificed for middle New Zealand — particularly in the handling of the foreshore and seabed situation. Has the Labour Party changed its focus on Māori issues since then?
I think it has changed. I remember that time. It was a really ugly period in New Zealand politics. I watched how much National were whipping up fear through the statements by politicians like Nick Smith and Tony Ryall. I also remember that march on parliament. It was incredibly hard to watch. That that was in response to what a Labour government had done.
I know we’d certainly take a very different view around the position we had then. And for good reasons. Access to the courts — that should’ve been a right. And you can see our learning from that period in the way, for instance, we’ve approached what’s happened with the Kermadec Sanctuary. I think it demonstrates that we’ve learned from that period.
Is the Westminster system the only way for Aotearoa? Pre-European Māori had a pretty sophisticated political structure as well, but that hasn’t ever been given much consideration. So we moved into Wellington with our version of British pomp and ceremony. Do you sense there’ll be a day when there’s Māori and Pasifika thinking that blends with the Westminster system?
I think we’re incrementally carving our own path — but it’s slow. MMP has changed the political environment markedly. It’s really changed. It’s forced us to be more collaborative. As has the Select Committee process.
So there are elements in our system that are starting to reflect that way of working. I’d like to see more of that. And I’d like our political environment to be less combative. That combativeness comes from the Westminster system. But it flies in the face of the way New Zealanders like to operate.
You’ve got some pretty handy Māori allies within the party. Kelvin Davis, for instance. And I hear that Peeni Henare has been a part-time reo coach for you. But have there been other Māori, from outside the party, who’ve been helpful?
Well, there was Hare Puke who presided over my church in Morrinsville when I was young. I had a lot of contact with him. He had this great reverence and mana. And, at that time, I never knew the huge role he was playing in Tainui during the Treaty negotiations. He was an incredibly giving, community-minded man, so I feel very lucky to have known him.
Here we are touching on the Treaty again — which isn’t surprising because it’s relevant to all sorts of New Zealand issues, including how it fits in when immigration is bringing about such substantial demographic changes. The make-up of our population of nearly five million is undergoing significant changes.
One of the challenges for us, I think, will be finding a way to continue to grow New Zealand’s independence and strength as a nation while still honouring our relationship with the Crown as it was in 1840.
This is a big conversation particularly if New Zealand is to look at, for instance, becoming a republic. Māori sit at the heart of that, in my mind. That conversation really must begin with them. So that’ll be an interesting debate sometime in the future.
But as I say, when it comes to the Treaty, it has no endpoint. The politics around it has given the impression that there’s an endpoint when the historical Treaty claims are over. But, really, that’s just the beginning. As I’ve said, the Treaty is a living document.
When MPs are being touted as PM contenders, it’s common for them to say that’s not their goal at all. For instance, Winston used to take that line. But what about you? Was being the PM not ever in your plans? Surely everyone has their eye on the top job.
No. Not necessarily. I definitely had an eye on us being in government so I’d have a chance to make a difference. But, no, it was never, to me, about position. It never has been. But there was a pre-set of extraordinary circumstances for us. That’s how I came to be here. All those things I talked about wanting to achieve, particularly around things like child wellbeing and making a difference to that next generation — none of that we can do from opposition benches. So I’m happy to now be in contention for that PM role.
You’re a very polite operator. I don’t hear you bagging your opponents. But perhaps you’re tempted to when you reflect on Aotearoa’s nine-year lurch to the right, and on what, from a Māori perspective, has been a time when so many of the social indicators have been poor.
You could point to health, education, housing, the justice system. The list goes on. Environmental degradation too. This is all under National’s watch over the past nine years. Do you find it deplorable that so many New Zealanders have been supporting a government that continues to push so many of its people to the margins?
Obviously, that’s what I rail against. And that’s what we’re presenting to the voters in this campaign. We’re saying that it can be different. But I have to acknowledge that there are lots of people who don’t see the difference between National and Labour.
I find that hugely disheartening. I see such a big difference between what we’re presenting, what we want to do — and what the present government has been doing for the last three terms. People make their own decisions though. And I have to respect their right to do that.
But that’s never going to stop me from pointing out what’s wrong with how things are now — and how we’d do things differently.
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