Perched on a fence overlooking New Plymouth’s picturesque Pukekura Park, a flock of waterfowl paddling about in Fountain Lake behind them, Labour Party leader Andrew Little and his deputy Jacinda Ardern aren’t quite ready for our photographer.
“Hold on, we’re just getting our ducks in a row!” Andrew quips drily, earning chuckles from the Weekly crew and a few quacks from the birds too.
“See what I have to put up with?” Jacinda groans affectionately. Laughing, she adds, “Honestly, he’s all about the dad jokes. He doesn’t even need to think about them. When he’s on fire, they just roll out of him. He’s so funny.”
This warm, jokey side to the Leader of the Opposition is one few get to see. As we’re boarding our flight to Taranaki, Jacinda tells us she’s excited for us to meet her boss, who can come across as rather intense on television and was branded “Angry Andrew” by former Prime Minister John Key.
“I think it would surprise most people how laid-back and funny he can be because the sound bites you get on most politicians are often serious, but he’s a really good-humoured, fun person,” insists Jacinda.
The newly elected MP for the Auckland seat of Mt Albert goes on to tell the story of the artist who wove a rug featuring a very flattering, full-frontal nude portrait of Andrew on it. A shocked Jacinda was at the unveiling and recalls, “I thought he should know about it, so I took a photo and sent it to him, thinking, ‘What’s his response going to be?’ But he thought it was hilarious.”
We’re in Andrew’s hometown of New Plymouth because it’s where both he and Jacinda began their forays into politics.
The Labour leader (51) was born to National-voting parents and recalls delivering the party’s pamphlets throughout town at the age of 10 under his dad’s instruction.
“My father was on the local committee, so it was going to be hard to avoid that, but I swear it was the first and last time!” says Andrew, who’s now based in Wellington.
“It was the Springbok tour that opened my eyes. I was 16 when that happened.
“At that age, you’re starting to think about the world, assert your own independence and question your parents’ views. I couldn’t understand why my parents were happy to support the tour when there was such a big issue about justice.”
Growing up in Morrinsville, in a Mormon family that didn’t discuss political viewpoints, Jacinda (36) was a similar age to her boss when she started forming her own firm opinions, which she mentioned to her New Plymouth-based aunt Marie Ardern. The longtime Labour supporter encouraged her headstrong 17-year-old niece to travel to Taranaki to spend her school holidays pamphleteering for the party.
“New Plymouth is my first political place,” Jacinda smiles, enjoying the city’s scenery on a warm, sunny autumn day. “I remember being a teenager, taking time off my supermarket job, jumping in my Toyota Corolla with its four gears and coming down to campaign. It’s where I first door-knocked and where I first voted.”
Andrew and Jacinda’s paths first crossed in the early 2000s, when he was national secretary of the Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union and she was working for Helen Clark, but they didn’t properly get to know each other until 2008, the year she was elected to Parliament, and a year before he became president of the Labour Party.
“She was smart, articulate and had that bright personality,” recalls Andrew of his first impression of his colleague. “In caucus discussions, you either have people who try to talk about everything and like to hear their own voices, or you get people who are thoughtful and don’t feel the need to talk about every issue, but when they do talk, people listen.
“Jacinda was very much in the latter camp. She always made a good contribution and can be very persuasive. She’s a top performer, no question about it. She’s got a presence and a style about her, but it’s her level of thoughtfulness that definitely marked her out to me.”
Jacinda, meanwhile, remembers, “Andrew always had this sense of calm and gravitas that sat around him, but what really impressed me was how strong his sense of justice was. It’s what drives him. You get that a lot when someone works in the union movement, but he has a real gut instinct for what’s fair and what isn’t. I love that.”
Jacinda says this instinctive sense of what’s right and wrong is something she and her boss have in common, as well as their work ethic.
“We also have these great conversations, many of them about pineapple on pizza,” smiles Andrew.
“I’m deeply opposed to it because it makes the pastry soggy and, honestly, would Italians really put pineapple on pizza? Jacinda definitely backs her leader on this matter.”
Nodding, Jacinda goes on to describe an anti-Hawaiian pizza post she made on social media that saw her swamped with both strongly supportive and vehemently critical responses.
“I lost and won votes on that day,” she sighs, cheekily adding, “Apparently Bill English likes pineapple on everything.” As well as pizza preferences, Andrew and Jacinda have also bonded over their fondness for whisky.
Andrew tells, “I’ve been to tastings with her and she’s very much led the way. She’s got a stunning knowledge and appreciation of whisky. I like a good single malt, so I always thought I knew a bit, but man, she blows me out of the water.”
And then there’s their shared love of a good Kiwi tune.
“She’s a generation younger, so her knowledge of contemporary New Zealand music is different from mine,” says Andrew, who is excited about attending the Womad festival after our interview.
“I’m happy to talk about the Dance Exponents and the Muttonbirds, although we’ve discovered this morning that we’re both very fond of young, up-and-coming artist Marlon Williams.”
Asked if she’ll be showing off her DJ skills to her boss, Jacinda warns that she’ll be in charge of the playlist when it comes to campaign road trips, but she won’t be taking to the decks.
“I was only ever an amateur and the thing that’s caused me to rein it in is the fact that I live with a professional DJ,” she grins, referring to her partner, radio and television personality Clarke Gayford, who Andrew describes as a “great guy”.
Equally, Jacinda has enjoyed spending time with Andrew’s wife Leigh, his teenage son Cam and his twin sister Val.
She says, “His relationship with his family is really important to him, which is something I’ve learnt since hearing him talk about the effect that his prostate cancer had on his life, and how it’s made him look at the world and re-evaluate.”
At 28, Jacinda was one of New Zealand’s youngest MPs when she was elected and she’s now still the youngest female. Rather than a disadvantage, her youth was a drawcard hen it came time for Andrew to find a replacement for his long-serving, much-admired deputy Annette King early last month.
He explains, “Jacinda is very much part of the generation who is missing out at the moment, the ones facing a future saddled with student debt and no hope of buying their own home. They’re faced with very different choices and pressures, and Jacinda is of them and speaks to them. That’s a great thing to have in the leadership level of the party.”
It’s only a few weeks into their partnership when we chat, but already Andrew says, “Getting around together, we’ve got a good yin and yang. She brings youthfulness and a freshness that perhaps I don’t – a bit of vitality and articulateness.”
Just days after the announcement of Jacinda’s promotion, the National Government went on the offensive, with her former electorate opponent Nikki Kaye in the lead, accusing her of having achieved nothing in her time in Parliament yet having her face plastered all over billboards.
“I’ve been in Auckland Central for eight years and I struggle to name anything Jacinda has done,” she said.
Nikki’s colleague Maggie Barry also claimed that Labour’s new deputy had “achieved almost nothing” and when Jacinda later tried to defend herself, deputy prime minister Paula Bennett accused her of being “condescending”.
Jacinda recalls, “Afterwards, Andrew asked, ‘Are you okay?’ Our offices are opposite each other and he came over to check in. You’d expect that these things happen all the time in Parliament – and I was very much okay – but the fact he bothered to check was really nice. He’s a kind person.”
Jacinda insists she wasn’t upset by the attack, just surprised – Nikki and she get on well and had an agreement never to make their long-standing rivalry personal.
As for the accusations, Jacinda explains that the very nature of being in opposition means trying to get things done can be frustrating, but she’s very proud of the work she does in her electorate – and Andrew rattles off a list of things she’s done within the Labour Party.
And the billboards? Jacinda admits she doesn’t enjoy having her face plastered on signs, but it was a necessary evil for campaigning in the Mt Roskill by-election, which she won by a landslide.
Andrew says National’s attacks are “desperate” and show that the Government feels threatened by her “impressive array of talents”.
Certainly, Jacinda is popular, even out-rating her boss in a recent poll for preferred prime minister, but Andrew laughs this off as “a great problem to have”.
Insisting her popularity is a good thing for Labour, he adds, “We’re a complementary team, and we’re united in our common values and principles. It’s about uniting the party to campaign strongly and offer better prospects to more New Zealanders than is the case now.”
Jacinda herself dismisses any ambitions of wanting to take over the Labour Party, saying, “We’re both just focused on the party vote. Andrew’s the leader and I’m here to collect as many of those votes as possible so we can be in government. He’s the one who asked me to fill the vacancy and supported me in taking on the job, and I was really humbled by that.”
This election year will be a huge challenge for them both, she says.
“We’re in opposition and we’re trying to make sure that people hear about our ideas in an environment where there is so much competition for people’s attention. We’ve got six months to convince people we’re the change this country needs. It’s not a lot of time, but I feel optimistic. We feel really optimistic.”
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