Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 26 March 2019

Jacindamania: New Zealand's youngest leader in 150 years on Trump, social media and impending motherhood

How does one get the leader of a Pacific nation on the phone on a weekday morning? Twitter, of course.

Unsolicited pleas for a chat don't fall by the wayside for Jacinda Ardern – whether by formal invitation or badgering on social media.

After all, it was she who "cheekily suggested" Ed Sheeran pop over for a "cuppa and some scones" while he was in New Zealand on tour this week.

Even Ms Ardern voiced her surprise at his obliging nature when they showed up arm in arm on her Instagram feed. Sheeran spent time at her house reading parenting books with her partner, TV presenter Clarke Gayford, and sampling her baking.

Sure, it is one thing when you are the prime minister of a country and can send an invite into the ether and rely on social media, or the right "people" to see that it happens. But for the rest of us, that level of access remains more or less off limits.

Luckily, for Ms Ardern, it seemingly goes both ways.

For how else does one find themselves chatting on the phone to the leader of New Zealand on a weekday morning?

Well, Twitter, of course.

It is after 7pm on a Wednesday when Ms Ardern returns to her Auckland home, where she is in the middle of moving house. Couple that with the fact that she has just spent the day dealing with a political scandal, is now into her second trimester of pregnancy and is busy making arrangements for her impending arrival and temporary handing over of power, and one would think she would be ready to put her feet up.

A post shared by Jacinda Ardern (@jacindaardern) on

Instead, Ms Ardern picks up the phone.

"It's been a busy day and I'm so sorry you got caught up in it," she says, apologising for pushing my interview back. Amid the aforementioned political scandal, she had to call an impromptu press conference to announce the most "comprehensive review" of a political party ever seen, you see.

I understand, I say, but it would have been fine had she needed to reschedule – given the circumstances.

"No, no, no. I gave my word on Twitter – so we had to follow through."

That word was given six months ago now, after I – a fringe member of the Kiwi media diaspora – "cheekily suggested" myself that we had a chat.

Ms Ardern readily accepted. So readily that she initially offered to call the next day – the day before New Zealand's general election.

We loosely kept in touch in the weeks since, amid the leadership takeover, the pregnancy announcement and the media circus that followed – though contact became increasingly relegated to press secretaries.

Eventually, our interview was declined altogether. Ms Ardern put it back on the schedule herself.

"My social-media pages, I still do myself," she explains.

"If someone messages me on Instagram, it will be me that replies; Facebook messenger, I'm not that good at keeping up with now."

It was on that wave of accessibility and "unrelenting positivity" that Ms Ardern rode to become New Zealand's youngest leader in more than 150 years.

She, a paragon of progressive politics and liberalism, was something New Zealand had not yet seen. Brought up as a Mormon, and a Labour party member since she was young, Ms Ardern went on to work for former British prime minister Tony Blair's cabinet office before becoming president of the International Union of Socialist Youth.

To say it was a swift ascension to power since she returned to New Zealand is an understatement – from being elected as an MP in February, to deputy Labour leader in March, to Labour leader in August, to prime minister in October, Jacindamania has taken Labour's popularity to levels not seen for more than a decade.

Understandably, she is probably not as accessible as she once was – perhaps no longer answering Australian journalists' calls to check how to pronounce her last name.

"But accessibility comes in lots of forms," she muses.

"I still have conversations with people at my local supermarkets. When I'm sitting at airports sometimes I get tourists say they think it's really odd that here I am sitting next to them eating a bowl of cereal. But I think that accessibility is very Kiwi – it's not necessarily unique to me."

But as far as being young, pregnant, female and obsessed with quashing child poverty – there are many traits that are unique to her.

The message from New Zealand to the rest of the world has so far been clear: welcome to the future.

Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern is mobbed by university students during a visit to Victoria University in Wellington in September 2017. AFP
Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern is mobbed by university students during a visit to Victoria University in Wellington in September 2017. AFP

On Trump: 'No one marched when I was elected'

Unrelentingly positive or not, Ms Ardern isn't afraid to dig in her heels – especially on the international stage.

She has not joined the 26 other countries to expel Russian diplomats after the Kremlin was accused of ordering a nerve-agent attack in the United Kingdom, saying there are no undeclared Russian intelligence officers operating in New Zealand. She has, however, put free-trade talks with Russia on ice.

She is also fighting for an exemption to American President Donald Trump's steel tariffs.

But on Mr Trump himself, and their relationship, she remains diplomatic.

"[The US and New Zealand] have obviously had a strong, close relationship for a number of years and that doesn't change just because of political parties or political persuasion or personalities," she says. "I always maintain a good relationship with different world leaders and we'll time to time have world leaders pass through who I will take different perspectives from."

Those different perspectives took centre stage at Mr Trump and Ms Ardern's first meeting – at the Apec summit in Vietnam in November. Mr Trump told a person next to him that Ms Ardern had "caused a lot of upset in her country".

Her retort, while in jest, was swift: "No one marched when I was elected."

"It really was a joke," Ms Ardern says, recounting a moment that was quickly shared around the world.

"But when I said it, I didn't really think about it in the context of which it obviously could be taken. So of course after having said it I then realised: 'Oh dear that could be taken as a really insulting thing to say'."

It is a difficult line to tread when your Vogue spread labels you "unabashedly liberal" and, more pointedly, the "anti-Trump".

On Israel, Saudi Arabia and Lorde

So what about the Middle East, then? While trade negotiations between New Zealand and the GCC have stalled after several attempts to revive them since talks began in 2007, Ms Ardern concedes it is probably not a priority right now. The GCC was once New Zealand's seventh largest trading partner. But New Zealand is currently targeting the EU and Britain.

But as far as New Zealand's forays into the region go, the most recent and most publicised is that of Lorde, after the Kiwi singer scheduled and then cancelled a concert in Tel Aviv after an outpouring of public outrage. While Ms Ardern "wasn't quick to judge", she recalls watching the fallout with sympathy.

"It interested me – that crossover between pop culture and politics. My view was that she absolutely needed to make a decision that she felt comfortable with.

"Whatever she did at that point there were people on both sides who were making it really tough."

New Zealand itself supports a two-state solution to the conflict, and was among the 128 nations to condemn the US recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

"Ultimately, there's a whole range of things that need to be resolved and we've always been cautious about exacerbating the conflict," she says. "I visited Israel and Palestine in 2008, and it's such an incredible region – but such an entrenched division."

She remains equally as pragmatic on Saudi Arabia's reforms.

Helen Clark – New Zealand's former prime minister, former UN Development Programme administrator and one of Ms Ardern's most ardent fans – however, has been vocal. Late last year, Ms Clark was in Riyadh to speak on achieving gender balance in the civil service.

"We don't hesitate to raise a view that equality and women's access to education opportunities, employment, are fundamental to us. Those are things that I, from an equality perspective, watch with interest," Ms Ardern says.

New Zealand, after all, was the first country in the world to award women the right to vote.

"But I'm also acknowledging that there a range of different cultural differences," she says. "The Middle East is vastly different to New Zealand."

On pregnancy: 'I think I can cope'

Ms Ardern herself is no stranger to doing things differently.

While deep in negotiations to form a coalition government the majority of New Zealanders believed would not fall their way, she found out she was pregnant. It was a surprise, not least because of the timing, but also considering that doctors had told her she would struggle to conceive.

Six days later, kingmaker Winston Peters announced he had chosen Labour, and unwittingly signed himself up to be acting prime minister for six weeks after the baby's arrival.

The big reveal came officially in January, naturally via Instagram. That post – 'liked' 49,500 times – was only recently pipped as her most popular by the Sheeran cameo.

But amid the chorus of congratulatory messages and heralding of a new age of politics, critiques surfaced over Ardern's ability to govern and be the mother of a newborn in unison. Some called her irresponsible for taking the role when she knew she was pregnant.

A post shared by Jacinda Ardern (@jacindaardern) on

Ms Ardern cuts me off when I ask if her priorities have shifted as the due date looms.

"No," she exclaims. After all, she continues, she is taking a "pragmatic approach to it all" and isn't viewing it as time off – just "doing something different for a while".

But what for those who say she isn't capable?

"In the period of the last year I've had a by-election, two role changes, I ran an election campaign with no notice, changed an entire campaign in a seven-week period, in that time my grandmother died, I found out I was pregnant, I managed through a coalition negotiation, had a relatively long period of morning sickness – as well as setting up a government.

"I think I can cope," she laughs.

"I also think there are women every day who manage of all of these things – I just manage to do my job in a public way and I happen to have probably more people than most around me supporting me. I accept that people ask that question, but I'm not worried about it."

It is almost 8pm New Zealand time when Ms Ardern is forced to call it a day. Someone has come knocking at her door, she says, and she is incredibly sorry.

But there is one thing she wants to make clear before she hangs up. A question I had mooted as a possible topic for her secretary was on domestic media criticisms that she "hadn't achieved much" while in office. She wants to clear that up.

Rattling off her argument in quick succession, she makes reference to sweeping changes to welfare payments and subsidies, an extension to paid parental leave, and increasing minimum wage. Then there's the free post-secondary education for one year – to be rolled out to three years by 2024 – and a bill to make New Zealand one of the first countries in the world to properly measure child poverty.

"I had a minister who used to be in the last government say to me: 'I don't remember a phase of having this much work being achieved in such a short period of time'," Ms Ardern says. And she hasn't even touched on her climate change goals.

"I'm not all defensive about that, I'm proud of it. I think we've done a lot because we felt like people needed to feel the effects of a compassionate government as soon as we could."

It seemed inevitable then, that the opposition would respond. In February, the opposition National Party followed suit with their own generational change and elected 41-year-old Simon Bridges to its helm.

However, Jacindamania, it seems, will not be stymied just yet – with or without Ed Sheeran.


Read more:

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Updated: April 5, 2018 12:12 PM