Growing up, Jacinda Ardern never considered becoming a politician. She wanted to be a writer, a vet, an actress, a policewoman. She wanted, she says, to be lots of things, but never an MP: “The reason is probably because it never seemed achievable. There are only 120 MP’s in the entire country and where I lived in Morrinsville where only conservative politicians were ever elected and there was no real Labour Party there. That’s something I talk to young people about – the fact that we limit ourselves and our aspirations based on experience. It’s understandable, but it’s sad.”
Jacinda is touted by many as the future of the Labour Party, destined for the top job. But, she says, she doesn’t want it: “I’ve never had an aspiration to become leader, probably because I worked for Helen Clark and saw firsthand how incredibly difficult it is. I just want to be good at what I do, and if that means moving up the ranks, fantastic, but the top job is not something that interests me.” Ardern appears a person of great principle. I ask if her reluctance to take the top spot stems from a belief that she would inevitably have to compromise. “There’s a certain degree of pragmatism that you must have, not just to be leader, but to be part of a major political party and I learned very early on that as long you don’t lose sight of the final destination, then you can sleep okay at night.” She pauses briefly, and then adds, “But yeah, compromise isn’t something I’m particularly keen on really.”
Last month’s events in France have once more propelled terrorism to the top of the news agenda, and having interviewed Jacinda the day after the Sydney siege, I asked her for her thoughts. “We need to be careful of the context in which these things happen,” she says. “We must look at every incident individually, not use them to generalise against entire ethnicities and religious movements.” The Muslim community, continues Jacinda, has done all it can to distance itself from hateful groups such as Isis: “We mustn’t make assumptions, we need to protect our ethnic communities who have nothing to do with these situations and are often vilified anyway.”
It has also shone fresh light – justification, some might say – on the passing of the controversial Countering Terrorist Fighters Legislation Bill late last year which gave greater powers of surveillance to the government, along with increased abilities to cancel and suspend passports. The bill was supported by Labour. I ask Jacinda if she supported it personally. “We debate and decide as a collective. That first version of the bill we never would have voted for but we used what leverage we had as opposition party to say ‘if we get these concessions, we’ll vote for this bill.’ It’s not the bill we would have drafted, but had we not said we would vote for it, we would not have got those concessions. It was important, because the bill would have gone through anyway. I understand that people would rather us take a principled stand, but if a principled stand means we end up with crappy legislation, no-one’s better off. It was hard, but politics is hard.”
Do you feel people realise the work that goes on? Voter apathy is on the rise.
“People have to think politics is relevant to them, I don’t think that we’re very good at letting the public know that central government has enormous control over many of their everyday concerns, whether that be housing, schools or income. Another problem is people think all parties are the same, and though we do have similar goals, are ideas on how to achieve them are drastically different. I believe voter apathy undermines democracy. It’s bad for everyone.”
I ask Jacinda about the best way to remedy this, and she says it should start with schools. “We don’t use the education system properly,” she says. “We should be better preparing students and we should not be afraid of putting politicians in front of young people. Some schools are really gun-shy about allowing you to talk to the kids. They think that parents will be upset by it, that they’ll be exposed to propaganda. But kids have the best sniff test. They are smart enough to make up their own minds. We should at least be getting them to challenge us, to ask us questions about how the system works. To engage with politicians and think that maybe it’s something that they want to do. At the moment I think we’re missing the opportunity to give kids that kind of exposure.”
Paradoxically, while voter apathy has increased, so has public politicisation, giving rise to mass global protests such as Occupy. “Movements like that were incredibly empowering, but people need to see change from their actions,” says Jacinda. “If someone signs a petition, they want to know it’s going to make a difference. If you vote in a referendum, you want to see change. There are countless examples in New Zealand of civil shows of strength – such as the march against the Springbok tour and the push to make us nuclear free – which have brought about change. If we stop using our voices and only rely on election time to engage, then people stop seeing the power of their voice and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Jacinda says housing is “most definitely” the most pressing issue among voters at present with many believing they’ll never have the security of home ownership: “That’s quite depressing in a nation where it’s a cultural thing to own your own property.”
Is there a resolution in sight?
“Not with the ideas on the table at the moment.”
What needs to be done?
“No one thing will fix it, but we have to be big and bold and so far what I’ve seen has been pretty incremental. We need to start building houses, firstly. There are only a handful of companies that build more than 20 houses a year in New Zealand and in Auckland alone we need tens of thousands.”
Jacinda’s lack of ambition for that top job is certainly not indicative of a lack of passion. She expresses frustration at the “limited power of opposition” and joy at her ability to support the individual: “I still advocate for people on things like immigration, housing and welfare cases. They must feel that they have been well represented, and that even if you haven’t succeeded, then at least you have tried.” She personally responds to every letter, tweet and email, holds town hall meetings and clinics on Waiheke Island. Before becoming an MP, Jacinda left the Mormon church, unable to reconcile her socio-political views with her religious upbringing: “For a long time, I ignored it, but when I began to campaign for civil unions I realised there was this huge clash. I had some long conversations with some senior members of the church and never felt satisfied enough with the answers so I made the decision to leave. But I still have a huge amount of respect for the work they do in the community.”
Jacinda also admits that, as passionate as she is about politics, it’s not something she intends to do forever. Which begs the question, what next then? “I have no idea! We should all remember how privileged we are to have these roles but there’s always, eventually someone out there who can better do your job. I’ve told my friends and family to let me know when they think I’ve done all I can, that it’s time to leave.”
Jamie Christian Desplaces