Jacinda Ardern has barely had time to breathe, let alone eat or sleep. On Monday, she was readying herself for another parliamentary sitting week as Labour’s deputy leader and spokesperson for children. Less than 24 hours later, she had been anointed leader, stepping into the very big shoes of one of her former bosses and mentors, Helen Clark.
Over the next day, the just-turned-37-year-old was everywhere – radio, television, press; they all wanted a piece of her. A new phrase, “the Jacinda effect”, was coined.
For someone who, just months ago, was talking about the pressures of being in the public eye, and the responsibility she felt about not making mistakes and letting people down, the latest glare of publicity was a harsh reminder that this is what being at the top in politics is all about these days.
Jacinda has said many times the job of leading the Labour Party – let alone the country – has never been her primary aim. She admits she’s a worrier and has spoken about a lack of self-belief as she’s got older, an over-analysis of everything that can cripple ambition.
Now, she sees that as part and parcel of the job, telling New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, “In a role like this, anyone would have a certain level of anxiousness – you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. But what I know is that’s not going to get in my way of doing this job.”
She confesses she is tired and running on adrenaline, but excited at the same time – she’s ready for what she’s calling the campaign of her life.
Jacinda has never courted celebrity, but celebrity has hounded her. As deputy leader, she determinedly avoided outshining Andrew Little. It didn’t work. Jacinda has star power, a sort of magnetism, according to one political staffer.
A self-described “nerd” and “pragmatic idealist”, Jacinda’s childhood growing up in the Waikato also endears her to the so-called “ordinary” Kiwi – in fact, it reads something like a cliché.
Her father was a policeman, her mum worked in the school canteen. Her first job was at a fish and chip shop, and she had a pet lamb who she called Reggie.
It was in Morrinsville where she was first struck by the plight of some of those “ordinary” Kiwis. As she said in her first speech in Parliament as Labour leader, “When you’re a child, you don’t see politics, you see unfairness.” It was in that little town her views on social policy were born.
She likes a tipple – when she was younger, it was bourbon, now it’s a more refined single malt – and since meeting her partner, TV presenter and producer Clarke Gayford (39), she’s become a keen fisher. She’s pals with artists, musicians and is a not too shoddy DJ.
She laughs as she tells how Clarke found out she had a new job. He had been diving on the Gold Coast of Australia during the filming of his show Fish of the Day.
“I Facebook messaged him. When he emerged, he tweeted ‘been diving for the last few hours, have I missed anything?’”
Public service is in the blood – Jacinda’s dad Ross is New Zealand’s High Commissioner in Niue. In 2015, Ross told the Weekly that he and his wife Laurell have always looked for opportunities to serve.
“All my family have orphaned me,” Jacinda told us with a laugh.
“My parents and sister have lived overseas the entire time I’ve been in parliament, which in some ways is nice because they don’t see the negative stuff. But they’re also not there to say, ‘It’s family time now!’”
She only got around to speaking to her parents on the Tuesday night after she became Labour leader, though she had received a text from her mother.
“They were really proud, but the first I heard from my mum was when I got a text message that said something like ‘well done honey, now would you like me to come and paint the fence before the campaign starts?’ She was obviously a bit embarrassed about the state of my yard!”
Family is hugely important to Jacinda. She has just returned from a whirlwind trip to Spain, where she surprised her sister Louise by turning up for her wedding, which she’d thought she wouldn’t be able to attend. And one of her most treasured possessions is a violin that belonged to her nana Gladys and had been brought to New Zealand by her great-grandmother from Scotland in the early 1900s.
Gladys, a staunch Labour supporter, died when Jacinda was just 12.
“We never really talked about politics. It’s one of the things I am really sad about. But I have her Labour Party membership hanging on my wall, so that’s pretty special.”
A battered suitcase picked up in Foxton during a capital gains tax road trip sits beside her desk, and handmade stuffed toys gifted to her by female prisoners when she was Corrections Spokesperson take pride of place on a comfy cushioned couch.
A couple of cards are on the desk – one sent to her because it looks like her polydactyl (born with extra toes) cat Paddles, another from a friend in Auckland that came with a badge and the words “Nevertheless she persisted”.
Critics have described Jacinda as a lightweight – all teeth and hair minus any substance. She is under constant scrutiny for being young, female, good-looking.
In fact, she’s been criticised for appearing in the Weekly and other magazines and others like it – Jacinda defending herself by saying she’s determined to spread her message to as many Kiwis as possible.
In 2015, former rugby league coach Graham Lowe caused an outcry after referring to her as a “pretty little thing” who would “look good” as prime minister.
When she didn’t put her hand up to be Andrew Little’s deputy in 2014, detractors contended she didn’t have the chops. Andrew chose old hand Annette King, or “Aunty Annette” as Jacinda calls her. But when Annette stepped down earlier this year, Andrew called on Jacinda.
Speaking to the Weekly only a few months ago, it was clear the bond Jacinda and Andrew shared was strong – they joked about pineapple on pizza and road trips, but also shared their thoughts of each other.
Andrew told us, “She’s got a presence and a style about her, but it’s her level of thoughtfulness that definitely marked her out to me.”
And Jacinda remarked on Andrew’s sense of justice – “It’s what drives him… he has a real gut instinct for what’s fair and what isn’t. I love that.”
Now as leader herself, Jacinda’s change of heart has come because it simply had to.
“I have always been really clear that the things I wanted to achieve in politics, I didn’t have to be leader to achieve,” Jacinda tells us.
“But I’m also a person who takes my responsibilities really seriously, so when the party asked me to do this role, I just couldn’t say no."
By the numbers:
A snap poll conducted of New Zealand Woman’s Weekly readers after the news of Jacinda’s appointment revealed that although the majority of respondents believed her new role as leader would improve Labour’s performance in the next election, a far more modest number were considering actually changing their party vote.
Of all National voters polled, 77 per cent were 100 per cent committed or very unlikely to change their vote before the election.
The poll, conducted by All Woman Talk on the evening of the surprising news, revealed the highest percentage of respondents intended on voting National and were unlikely to change their party vote.