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I know that the world’s youngest female prime minister is on her way when a burly plain-clothes policeman appears at the door and starts scanning the room. There are only seven or eight tables in the Hillside Kitchen & Cellar, a quietly stylish café-cum-restaurant opposite Jacinda Ardern’s official residence in Wellington, so it doesn’t take long for him to spot me in the corner. “All good?” he asks, introducing himself as Eric from New Zealand Diplomatic Protection.
If her security seems down-to-earth, then it is very much in keeping with the public image that persuaded New Zealanders to vote Ardern into office late last year. Fuelled as much by the 37-year-old Labour politician’s fresh, informal style as by her championing of progressive causes, “Jacindamania” quickly became a global phenomenon, giving her a prominent place alongside France’s Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau in the liberal counter-narrative to resurgent rightwing populism. The sense of a leader in a new optimistic mould only deepened after the announcement in January that she was pregnant with her first child, which in June will make her the first head of government to give birth in office since the late Benazir Bhutto.
Eric is satisfied and moments later, Ardern strides into the café flashing her trademark toothy smile, that bump visible beneath a bright red blouse. At her side is a sporty-looking man dressed in jeans and a casual top.
“I hope you don’t mind, I’m just back from travelling from an event last night in Wanaka so I’ve brought my partner Clarke [Gayford] with me,” she says, gesturing towards the “first bloke” already known to many New Zealanders as the host of a popular TV angling show, Fish of the Day.
Ardern ushers Gayford to a separate table, where he is joined by a few others in the prime minister’s entourage. Settling into her chair, she talks of the effort she is making to lead a normal life despite the pressures of the job and her pregnancy — “I still get the groceries and I still go to Kmart to get my maternity clothes” — and how fortunate she feels that Gayford has agreed to be a stay-at-home dad.
“The only reason I can do what I’m doing is because my partner has the ability to be a pretty much full-time carer,” she says. “So I don’t want to appear to be superwoman because we should not expect women to be superwomen.”
Ardern plans to take six weeks of maternity leave before returning to work. She tells me how she suffers the same doubts and fears that grip many prospective parents — although she is clearly one of a select few in having had the opportunity to discuss them with Barack Obama, who visited New Zealand last month. “I asked him, ‘How do you manage guilt?’ I consider myself a high-guilt person. Probably being in politics is the worst place for me to be,” she says disarmingly. “His advice was, ‘You’ve just got to do your best’.”
Such intimate disclosures are not your average fare when interviewing prime ministers. One of Ardern’s big electoral selling points is her apparent normality. Openness has tripped her up on occasion: when a friend revealed that Donald Trump had mistaken Ardern for Trudeau’s wife at an Asian summit, for example, the story generated excited headlines in New Zealand.
Just as I’m about to ask her about that incident, a waitress appears at the prime minister’s shoulder and takes us through the menu — an eclectic blend of brunch offerings and European-inspired lunch dishes including sauerkraut, Italian sausage and black pudding. I choose beef cheeks with pickles followed by halloumi, whole wheat and roasted beetroot, while she orders a tomato and beetroot salad and some sourdough toast. Ardern insists I try a glass of New Zealand wine and orders a peppermint tea for herself. “You’ll have to drink for me. I’d prefer someone had some joy,” she laughs.
It has been a whirlwind year for Ardern. Elected deputy leader of New Zealand’s Labour party in March 2017, she assumed the top job just seven weeks before last September’s election after her predecessor’s sudden resignation. Even Ardern seemed downbeat about her chances: “Everyone knows that I have just accepted, with short notice, the worst job in politics,” she said at the time. Labour, out of office for nine years and trailing the governing National party by more than 20 percentage points in opinion polls, was steeling itself for a fourth consecutive defeat and another demoralising spell in opposition.
Then something unexpected happened. In a country repeatedly praised by HSBC Bank for its “rock star economy”, a campaign that focused sharply on inequality and rising homelessness struck a chord and closed the gap. Though Labour’s support fell back in the final stages, leaving it as the second-largest bloc in parliament, Ardern was still able to cobble together a coalition government with the nationalist New Zealand First party and the Greens.
Ardern says she was conscious of a turning point when media commentary began focusing on homeless people in Auckland who were forced to sleep in their cars, some with their children.
“Fairness is in our DNA,” she says. “There was a sense, I think, that we were moving away from some of the things that, regardless of political stripes, had been pretty central to New Zealand’s values and the way we saw ourselves.”
Ardern’s commitment to progressive politics took root at a young age. She grew up in a small town in rural New Zealand, where her father was a police officer and her mother worked in the school canteen, and says she witnessed many families struggling to make ends meet during a period of “jarring” free-market reforms that swept through New Zealand in the 1980s.
At school she founded a chapter of Amnesty International, which still exists today. Brought up by her family in the Mormon faith, Ardern left the church in her early twenties because of its conservative views on homosexuality. John Inger, her former school principal, whom I called the day before meeting her, told me that Ardern was a wonderful student, a brilliant debater and probably too nice a person to be in politics.
Yet Ardern’s ability to tap into public unease about rocketing house prices, low wage growth and inadequate infrastructure also reflects the sharp political skills she honed while working as a staffer for Helen Clark, a former Labour prime minister who won three terms in office between 1999 and 2008. Ardern later worked briefly in the UK Cabinet Office under Tony Blair. “I was there when Gordon Brown basically was taking over — so right in the middle of that transition,” she says. “It was fantastic, I learnt a lot.”
Indeed, for all Ardern’s engaging style and ability to connect with the public, it is possible to cast her as an insider rather than an insurgent — a consummate career politician with little experience in other fields. “I worked as long in a fish and chip shop as I did in parliament,” she says when asked about this, referring to an after-school job. “I’ve had particular experiences in politics but they’re not my only ones and they’re not the ones that defined me.”
As we turn to the unsettled state of international politics, Ardern’s tea arrives along with what looks like a rather cloudy glass of wine. Sensing my concern, the waitress explains that this particular Canterbury variety is fermented with the grape skins for several weeks to give it more flavour and texture — and it is delicious.
“I think a vast demographic of people feel they have missed out from the GFC [great financial crisis] and at least the perception of globalisation,” Ardern says. “My sense is that some of the reaction that we have seen in, let’s just call it broadly referendums and elections, has been disquiet around there being a lack of response to people’s growing sense of insecurity — be it financial insecurity or other. Politicians can either fill that void with a message of hope . . . or we can capitalise on it with fear and blame.”
Ardern’s response has involved big commitments to the electorate: solving the housing crisis, lifting 100,000 children out of poverty and setting New Zealand on a path to becoming a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, to list but a few.
Her government has begun boldly. This month Ardern banned future offshore oil and gas exploration, a big departure from the policy of the National party, which actively courted Big Oil. She has raised the minimum wage by 75 cents to NZ$16.50 per hour, started to phase out tertiary education fees and legislated against foreigners buying residential property. But Ardern has also shown a pragmatic streak by signing up to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal encompassing 11 countries in the Pacific region that she had criticised in opposition.
A feminist, Ardern is clearly no fan of Trump but is too diplomatic to say so, given New Zealand’s close trading and security relationship with the US (New Zealand is a member of the Five Eyes spy network, which also includes the US, Canada, Australia and UK). I remind her that before she became prime minister, she joined hundreds of demonstrators at Auckland’s Women’s March, which took place the day after Trump’s inauguration as president in January 2017.
“For me that wasn’t a post-election march — it was a march about the future of women’s rights in New Zealand,” says Ardern. Still, at an Asian summit meeting in November, when Trump joked that she had “caused a lot of upset in her country” by winning the election, Ardern promptly replied: “No one marched when I was elected.”
Can the woman dubbed the “Anti-Trump” by Vogue magazine build a close relationship with his administration? “Oh yes, we have to,” she says. “You’ll find in every relationship points of difference.”
We look up as a brief commotion erupts at the next table, where someone is joining the prime-ministerial entourage. Across the restaurant a few diners have left their seats to examine the paintings by local artists that adorn the walls, and I’m struck that no one seems to be paying any attention to the prime minister eating her lunch — here at least, New Zealanders are living up to their grounded reputation and eschewing the cult of celebrity.
I move on to growing concerns over Chinese Communist party influence in New Zealand’s politics and society, which have come just as the government attempts to upgrade its trade deal with Beijing. Australia has moved to tighten its foreign espionage laws, yet New Zealand has taken no overt action to date.
“We keep a rolling review in that regard,” says Ardern, who insists her government is not afraid to speak out on human rights even when it involves its largest trade partner, China.
John Key, a former New Zealand prime minister, was criticised for not meeting the Dalai Lama when he visited New Zealand in 2009, despite a pre-election promise to do so. Ardern says any future meetings with the Tibetan leader would be considered by her government on a case-by-case basis, suggesting her government has no plan to anger Beijing.
Just as it looks like Ardern’s patience with this line of questioning is wearing thin, our food arrives. My plate is beautifully presented with an assortment of pickles, including fiery hot kimchi. Ardern’s salad is tiny but she insists it is sufficient.
“I ate a huge amount of food yesterday. I had a breakfast event, a lunch event and a dinner event — maybe the baby is sitting on my stomach but I just don’t feel hungry,” she says.
Jacindamania was in full flow last week as Ardern travelled to Europe for the Commonwealth leaders’ summit in London, stopping along the way to lobby Macron and Angela Merkel on trade and concluding with something of a masterclass in the art of political symbolism when she turned up to meet the Queen in Buckingham Palace wearing a traditional Maori Kahu huruhuru cloak.
Back home, however, there are signs that Ardern’s political honeymoon is coming to an end. A plan to raise petrol excise duties recently prompted accusations that she was reneging on a promise not to introduce new taxes, while last month her broadcasting minister become embroiled in an influence scandal that led to the resignation of a Radio New Zealand executive.
All governments encounter such problems but for Ardern they will require skilful handling, given the fractious nature of the coalition she leads. Winston Peters, the populist leader of the New Zealand First party and deputy prime minister, is regarded by commentators as a maverick and is not a natural ally of the Green party, whose support is critical to the coalition.
As the waitress swoops to remove our dishes, I tell Ardern about my conversation with her former school principal, whose comments echoed questions raised after she resisted calls to sack her broadcasting minister in the wake of the RNZ scandal. What does she think of the charge that she is simply “too nice” to make the tough decisions required of a prime minister?
Ardern shakes her head. “Should the minister have been sacked? No. That would have set the threshold in an unattainable place for the whole government. Sometimes actually riding out those situations — when forcing someone to resign wouldn’t be the right thing to do — takes leadership too,” she says.
“Politics is a very hard place so you have to be resilient . . . Yes, I do feel things rather acutely but that means that my [political] compass is probably still very much intact as well, and my sense of empathy and kindness still sits really at the forefront of this.”
And with that she gets up and attempts to pay the bill. I rush over to stop her, no doubt alarming Eric and the rest of the security detail, and as Ardern heads for the door she turns to call out: “I’ll see you next time you are here and we’ll see whether I’m at a high point or a low point.” For now at least, New Zealand’s prime minister does not seem to be losing any sleep.
Jamie Smyth is the FT’s Sydney correspondent