Meet the Newsmaker: Jacinda Ardern

6:02 pm on 11 March 2017

In the Newsmaker series, RNZ talks to people who have dominated the headlines. This week: new Labour Party deputy leader Jacinda Ardern.

Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern Photo: RNZ / Demelza Leslie

Ms Ardern, who has been in Parliament since 2008, replaced Annette King as deputy leader on Tuesday.

She's pleased as punch to be given the role - but is angered by some commentators who have said the appointment amounts to Labour rolling out a "show pony" for the election.

RNZ political reporter Demelza Leslie spoke to Ms Ardern about her career, her promotion and how she feels about the continued focus on her looks.

I just want to start with, what got you into politics?

Yeah, I guess I've talked about this a little bit over the years because there's that constant question I think when you go into any field that people consider it unusual that someone go into, particularly when they're young.

Was it nature, or was it nurture? For me, I certainly remember, from quite a young age being, I'd call it more socially-minded than politically-minded.

I was born in Hamilton but did spend a couple of years, very early on, living in a town called Murupara. I do talk about that a bit because the images of that, for the age that I was, are pretty strong.

I think having come from Dinsdale and landing in a place where it was so obvious that not everyone had the same things that I had. They didn't have the same chances, shoes, lunch at school. I noticed that.

I think when you view the world through a child's lens things are very black and white. You're not walking around thinking about Rogernomics but you've seen the consequences of it. So I have no doubt that had an influence on me.

It obviously wasn't until much later that I realised that politics was a way to change the things I saw around me. So I was never attracted to the sport, as it were. I was attracted to what you could do with it and that's probably why I do politics the way I do it as well.

How old were you when you entered politics?

Well I guess on the informal side, I joined the Labour party when I was about 17. I campaigned then right through to the '99 election.

But I joined without a view of ever having it as a career necessarily.

I joined because I wanted to be a part of a team. I wanted to feel like I was doing something useful at a time when I really felt like we were on the cusp of something exciting in that '99 election. So I was happy being a mixture of a flier, leaflet deliverer.

I also ended up coordinating all the volunteers for Harry Duynhoven's campaign in New Plymouth which was a great entry into politics for me.

My aunty taught me how to door knock and it's been a useful skill for my entire career. But as I say, it was never with this view that I would end up being here. I did think what an amazing job it would be, but to be honest I actually never thought I had what it took.

There's been a lot of focus, particularly in the media, on your looks. How do you feel about being called a "show pony"?

I will be very open about that being a hugely frustrating thing to read. Somewhere in between anger and disappointment.

I'm very frank about that, that came from a business writer. I consider the fact that within the surveys of the boardroom and CEO's I've always come out reasonably favourably in that group and that's not for nothing.

Auckland Central is an area where I had a lot of contact with that community.

I grafted, I always fronted and did as much work as I could to be Labour's voice within the CBD. That is the reason I think that I had managed to build a relationship with the business community and I've tried to use it in a meaningful way. For instance, working to ensure an increase in funding from banks for community law centres. Those are all things that took quiet grafting.

So to have someone represent you in that way, yeah, that's very, very frustrating.

You do have a big profile in Auckland, how then do you translate that to across the country?

I always think that probably my friends and family from the Waikato would find the Auckland profile amusing.

Yeah, I grew up in small town New Zealand. That will forever influence the way that I view the job I do and the policies that I have a hand in developing.

The question I always ask myself is "yes how would it work in our biggest city?" but "how would it work in Morrinsville, what effect would this have on people in Murupara?" Those are questions I ask myself and those experiences have made me who I am and also have influenced the way I develop ideas.

So yes, I do have a role to play in Auckland. But I will never lose sight of the fact that I have been shaped by the places I've been brought up.

What's your biggest achievement in politics?

You know in opposition nothing you do will ever feel enough.

So yes, I feel a certain amount of pride in having developed a children's welfare policy in Best Start. That we've done more to improve the lives of vulnerable children than anything the government's done in nine years.

But those are ideas on a page. Yes they're fully-costed and they took a lot of work and they're fully consulted and I got that through a process within the Labour Party. But until that idea is having an effect on people's lives I don't feel I can boast as if that's some big achievement. I'd say the same for everything in opposition, that's how it feels.

Probably then, the thing that gives me the most satisfaction, has been the constituency work.

During the by-election, my most recent example, I met a young man who was living in his car, had lost his job and was on a stand down and being able to have some positive impact by getting him the assistance that he should have had and having him come back and say "that he was in a better place because of it", that's what keeps you going in opposition.

Sure, commentators might not see those as great achievements but that's what gets me out of bed.

Annette King was known as a deputy leader who had quite a good control of the caucus, in terms of keeping everyone in line. What sort of deputy leader will you be and will you have that same control over the caucus?

Annette King

Former Labour Party deputy leader Annette King Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Annette is one of those rare people who just had every skill set that really makes and defines a politician and a political leader.

To be both warm and fun, but firm. To be an excellent communicator, but also have such a great policy mind and good political intuition.

She has been an enormous influence on me, a mentor and a friend. So I've learnt a lot from her.

But I also have to acknowledge that my team unanimously supported me yesterday and I'm the youngest member of their team. So that speaks volumes about them.

But also about Andrew's faith in me. Andrew, however, has also been part of the reason that we have stability and that we have discipline. So obviously, that, under his leadership I have no doubt will continue and I will play to my strengths as a team member as well.

I've already talked to the team about how we can lean on each other and what I can bring to the table and what I think we can bring out of them too. I think that's where the magic going to be.

How do you see the election campaign rolling out? How will you and Andrew work as a team during the campaign?

Jacinda Ardern and Andrew Little, shortly after Ardern was named deputy leader of the Labour Party.

Ms Ardern and Andrew Little shortly after she was named deputy leader of the Labour Party. Photo: Supplied

Obviously it's just early days. I see very much my job as supporting him out on the campaign trail and so the next few days I'll be out attending public meetings with Andrew.

My view is that as a team if we can create those opportunities to talk about the things that will make a difference to people.

We already know what the big issues are for this campaign. Housing is certainly going to be one of them and people want answers. They want ideas, solutions and hope.

We need to use every opportunity to remind people that we have them. In this presidential style of campaigning that we have now, just use that as a platform to get those ideas out there.

So that's why I want to be standing side-by-side with Andrew, using every channel I have, every opportunity to communicate alongside him and make sure people know that we've got that vision.

Do you think the style of campaigning, even in New Zealand, has changed?

I do. I absolutely do and I feel like in the time that I've been involved in politics I've really watched it.

I do think it's become increasingly presidential in its style.

There's a big focus and emphasis on personality politics and look I absolutely understand why that's happened. But ultimately people deserve to know what ideas your team brings to the table and they deserve to know who is going to be in those big roles.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs