Being New Zealand’s prime minister can be a funny business. One minute you are courted by Pacific Island countries that rely on Kiwi largesse and the next you are sat at an Apec summit alongside the presidents of China, Russia and the US speaking up for your own small nation of just 4.8 million people.
“I remember standing in one of the rooms waiting for a meeting to start and Vladimir Putin walked in. There was a moment when I thought, ‘This feels quite surreal,’” says Jacinda Ardern, who attended her first meeting with the strongman trio less than two weeks after becoming prime minister in October last year. But Ardern is no shrinking violet; it was later revealed that she ribbed Donald Trump about the protests at his inauguration. It was the result of speaking without a filter, she explains, while sat on the couch at her constituency home in Auckland’s Mount Albert neighbourhood. “New Zealanders are generally quite straightforward. We tend to say what comes to mind but I’m certainly a polite person so when that came out [of my mouth] it wasn’t my intention to offend. I will not be creating any diplomatic disasters. At least, that’s the intention.”
Several months later, Ardern is still keeping company with big names: the morning she meets us she’s fresh off a sit-down with former US president Barack Obama. She welcomes us into her bungalow with an offer of a cup of tea; a stint in London working as a researcher for Tony Blair turned her off coffee and now that she is pregnant she is off caffeine, despite 05.30 starts. She has three portfolios on top of her general prime-ministerial duties: national security, arts and culture, and tackling child poverty.
“That keeps me busy,” she notes as her partner Clarke Gayford, a television presenter, appears in the kitchen to boil the kettle. The announcement in January that the couple are expecting their first child in June is garnering levels of interest that you’d normally associate with a royal family. Arden intends to take six weeks of maternity leave. Will she also channel Margaret Thatcher’s infamous four-hours-a-night routine when she returns to work? “You mean, am I a crazy person? No, I don’t make good decisions with that little sleep.”
Ardern may be a favourite among urban elites – in New Zealand she is known simply as Jacinda – but she faces challenges beyond legalising cannabis and being the first prime minister to attend Auckland’s annual Pride parade. New Zealand is not all rolling green hills: overseas demand for investment property is making housing unaffordable and economic prosperity has actually widened income inequality.
On the world stage, climate change is where Ardern expects to make a mark. She has committed to raising the issue on behalf of Pacific islands at every opportunity. She has also established national goals for New Zealand: the country will use only sustainable energy by 2035 and be carbon neutral by 2050. “Jacinda is the first New Zealand prime minister to make climate change one of the top priorities,” says James Shaw, leader of the Green party. The Greens’ confidence and supply agreement with Ardern’s Labour party, and the nationalist party New Zealand First, enabled the coalition to form a government and push the right-wing National government – still the largest party in parliament – into opposition.
There is little doubt that Ardern is a breath of fresh air in New Zealand politics. But how long will she will get? Her coalition has yet to be properly tested but – at best – Kiwi prime ministers only serve three-year terms. So she will soon be forced to prove herself as an election winner again. By then the competition could be stiffer: National is using its time in opposition to clear out the old guard and has appointed its own youthful leader in Simon Bridges.
An April visit to London for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting is set to be one of her last overseas trips before she gives birth. A meeting with the UK prime minister is on the cards when she lands; though usually the Kiwi prime minister and “Theresa”, as Ardern refers to her, communicate by text given the time difference. A regular text or is Theresa May on WhatsApp? “I probably shouldn’t give away the platform that we use,” says Ardern. A filter of sorts has been switched on but her Kiwi frankness is still refreshing.
MONOCLE: Six months in, has ‘Jacinda-mania’ faded?
JACINDA ARDERN: Don’t buy that hype. I mean, look at our election result: that wasn’t mania. It was a real surge of interest and a shift for Labour, but Jacinda-mania? I wouldn’t go that far.
M:What’s been your proudest achievement so far?
JA: What we were able to do in that first 100 days. In that period we increased the minimum wage and started working on a zero-carbon act [enshrining specific targets in law]. We brought in a families package that will lift 64,000 children out of poverty; that one felt really important.
M: How come the New Zealand story told overseas has been more about economic growth than rising child poverty, homelessness and drug addiction?
JA: There’s nothing better for economic growth than a natural disaster or a war, so what does that say about the way those indicators work? We had relatively low unemployment and steady growth at the same time as we had people sleeping in cars. It’s a poor indicator of wellbeing and success so we want to change the way we measure things. From 2019 we want to be the first country in the world to use a living-standard framework for our budget and to start talking beyond GDP.
M: But do you worry about GDP growth slowing?
JA: Our indicators are looking solid and we’re also on track to run budget surpluses with decreasing government debt. There is an unfair perception around Labour parties, particularly when you look at our previous record. [Former PM] Helen Clarke ran continuous budget surpluses, had some of the lowest unemployment in the OECD and also got our core [government] debt down to almost zero. Yet National still said we ruined the economy. Is it frustrating? A little bit.
M: What do you think of the global state of left-wing parties globally?
JA: We’re in a position at the moment, particularly in Europe, where leftist parties are in a downward part of the cycle but I’m always reminded that these things are cyclical. People have a sense of insecurity right now and there are two things that politicians can do: either acknowledge that and show how they can address it, or try and capitalise on it and make people feel more insecure to garner support.
M: France and Austria also elected new 30-something leaders last year. Do you see your victory as part of a generational shift in global politics?
JA: It doesn’t necessarily have to be about a new wave of political movements; the older parties do have some of the answers. I’ve picked up the baton of a well-established party with a long history. We had these great policies but we just weren’t being heard. Suddenly our leader stood down, I was thrust into the limelight seven weeks out from an election and people took a moment to hear us in a way they hadn’t before.
M: You’ve previously questioned the future of the British monarch as head of state in New Zealand. Is a referendum on the cards?
JA: I was asked for my opinion but it’s not something I intend to pursue. Not one voter asked me about becoming a republic during the election so it’s much more of interest to the Australian public. It may well happen in my lifetime but there’s a lot of work that needs to be done first. The Treaty of Waitangi is our founding document and that was signed between indigenous New Zealanders and the British crown. So if we were to go down that path, re-establishing the nature of the relationship would be complex.
M: What did you think about the previous government’s referendum about the flag?
JA: It hung without any foundation to it. We should have been having a conversation about the future of New Zealand. Instead it was about one symbol of who we were. Should we have a new flag? Yes, but it needs to link to our heritage and how we wish to be perceived. In the first round there was one particular design that I favoured but when the options got whittled down to what I thought looked like a clip-art logo I voted against it.
M: When you see US presidents playing golf with other leaders does it still feel like an old boys’ club? And do you play golf?
JA: No I don’t, although I grew up next to a golf course so I’ve got a lot of good golf stories. But, no, it doesn’t feel that way. Do I stand out? Yes. That’s just by default. Do I feel alienated or as if I matter any less? No.
M: As New Zealand’s third female prime minister, is the global conversation about gender equality just as vital at home?
JA: Absolutely. We cannot assume that everything’s peachy just because we’ve got women in senior leadership positions like prime minister and governor-general. We’ve actually only recently had the highest ever number of women in New Zealand parliament and it’s just on 40 per cent. And when we have these conversations about representation we mustn’t forget the effects on women every single day as well: being over-represented in low-paid work, disproportionately affected by violence and experiencing a pay gap to the degree that they do.
M: Getting on the housing ladder is a global talking point that resonates in New Zealand. Should young people accept that home ownership may never be possible?
JA: I don’t accept that. It might not be the same house that your parents bought: it might be an apartment or a townhouse. But there’s such security that comes with ownership, particularly in retirement. Our system is not built around someone renting in their retirement years and so we just weren’t willing to give up on that.
M: Your proposed fix is to ban overseas investors from buying property. How do you square this barrier with signing up to huge free-trade agreements?
JA: Having rules around your residential housing market is one thing; claiming that’s blocking foreign investment is another. Most countries have some kind of constraint around their residential housing market and for really good reasons. I want to encourage foreign direct investment in our productive economy rather than in an empty house. But it’s not just one solution. We are also acknowledging the high cost of building in New Zealand. The answer to that is to build at scale so the state needs to be involved. Our intention is to build 100,000 homes, which is a lot for a small country.
M: You are now privy to the ‘five eyes’ intelligence-sharing network with the US, the UK, Canada and Australia. How scary is it out there – should we all be moving to New Zealand?
JA: No, no, no. People probably have a sense of the things that all of us are tackling. The radicalisation, the random nature of these attacks. The only difference is that when you’re in a leadership position you get a bit more detail on them.
M: What big issues do you plan to tackle for the rest of the year?
JA: Probably having a baby. That really sticks out there for me. We’re also planning a 10-year programme of work around child wellbeing that I’m really excited to be helping lead.
Biting the hand that feeds you is never an advisable strategy, especially when that hand belongs to a dragon. New Zealand’s export economy has benefited from the rise of China’s middle class but it’s come at a cost. Auckland’s property prices have gone through the roof due to an influx of wealthy foreign buyers and stoked anti-Chinese sentiments in the country in the process. Meanwhile a tourism tax is being mooted, immigration curbs are being brought in and a ban on foreign property buyers is going through parliament.
One in three New Zealanders live in Auckland so the city dominates the country and exacerbates the rich/poor, urban/rural and north/south island divides. But Ardern’s visit to the Waitangi Day ceremony in the Bay of Islands this year was part of her commitment to rural development. She received a boost last year when Labour colleagues took control of Christchurch: the South Island’s largest city is struggling to get back on its feet seven years after the earthquake.
New Zealand is officially a happy place: it made the top 10 in the most recent World Happiness Report. But it has a dark side: drug abuse is widespread, while Kiwis have some of the highest levels of homelessness and child abuse in the developed world. Ardern has her work cut out to address these social ills.
How does a tiny country make a global impact? Ardern has described climate change as her generation’s nuclear-free moment and is determined to make fixes that set an example for the world. New Zealand – a great test bed for new ideas because of its small size and relative wealth – could find its voice by developing a truly post-oil economy.
Like Ardern, one of New Zealand’s former prime ministers, Jenny Shipley, governed a coalition in the late 1990s. Yet she only succeeded for two years before being replaced by the opposition. Her coalition partner was the very same Winston Peters of New Zealand First who is performing the same role for Ardern. Keeping the populists happy without alienating her progressive fanbase will be a tricky tightrope and this uneasy alliance is already showing signs of fraying.