Real Life

Jacinda Ardern on how quickly things change in politics

The uncanny interview that Jacinda Ardern had with NEXT just weeks before topping the polls and those election results.
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Jacinda Ardern is now our preferred next Prime Minister, according to the most recent Colmar-Brunton poll. In July, just before Jacinda’s meteoric rise began, NEXT magazine sat down with Jacinda to interview her for its cover story, and she talked about how quickly things can change in politics, and what we can learn from overseas elections.

These are the never-before-seen additional comments from that interview – how foretelling Jacinda’s words seem now:

What can we learn from the last year in politics?

You’ve got to be prepared for anything to happen in politics, and I guess in that sense we would be foolish not to look at what’s happened abroad and not ask ourselves, ‘Could that happen here?’

There are certainly elements of Brexit and Trump which could, if we’re not careful, happen here, because I think that kind of thing arises when people feel like they can’t trust politics, or they can’t trust business, or they can’t trust those systems that are meant to support them. If people feel like they’re being left behind – they have no financial security, or they have fear about their future, and they don’t think we can fix that or help with that, then they look around for people to blame.

And so politicians have a real choice that we can either channel that or turn it into a message of hope – or as others have done overseas, turn it into a message of hate. So that’s the stark nature of what we’ve seen overseas.

It can be easy to become disillusioned when you watch Trump.

Oh yes, for sure. Particularly because I will never understand how anyone could push aside sentiments that were so anti-women and racially motivated. How can anyone ignore that? I don’t believe that everyone who voted for him, for instance, was racist; I think they just prioritised all of the other things he was saying. But I still don’t understand how things could be so bad that you would be able to ignore everything else. So that was worrying. That just says to me that’s the low bar that people had for the politicians in that race, which is really sad…

Or that they have that much fear, or feel that disenfranchised. The 59 million people who voted for Trump, I think their profile is perhaps very different from the disenfranchised profile of a voter in New Zealand. So I think there are absolute differences but… we should never rest on our laurels at all.

We have to constantly do everything we can to demonstrate that people can have faith in the system we have here; that politicians aren’t here for their own self-interest. The fact that young people tend not to vote at election time, that only 65 per cent are enrolled to vote, I don’t blame them for that and I don’t think it’s a sign of their indifference. I think it’s a message about us.

How do you not let the frustration get to you?

The frustration of Opposition politics? I mean you try… it has got to me a few times, because there doesn’t seem to be any different bar that you’re judged with when you’re in opposition versus when you’re in government.

People have an expectation that you’re going to achieve reasonably significant things from opposition and I wish that were so. There are still things I’ve managed to do that I’m proud of but it’s nothing compared to what you can do when you’re in government. You can help individual people with their Housing NZ issues or their access to emergency support; you can do things like that and that gives me a huge amount of satisfaction. But that’s not the only thing people go into politics for – you want to make systemic change, rather than just picking up the pieces locally. So it is frustrating.

After the last election, I made a list of things I wanted to achieve, just little things, so that I could feel that – even from Opposition – I was still helping. One of them was to see a change in the age of care and protection. We created a petition to get the government to move on that. I put up amendment after amendment in the House, started working with other NGOs who had real credibility, and eventually, the government has a lift in the age in care and protection so it basically means now that someone who’s in foster care won’t be turfed out at 17.

The minister made the decision but I like to think we gave her a bit of cover to do that. She wasn’t going to get any opposition on that and she was only going to get support from us. Boosting community law centre funding, something we managed to do, via the banks in New Zealand not via the government.

Is it easier, in a way, because you’ve always been in Opposition? So you’re not like ‘oh, I remember the glory days.’

No, because I remember, even though I wasn’t an MP or a minister, I was there [working in Helen Clark’s office]. I remember when we introduced interest-free student loans!

And I remember when we introduced Working For Families, and how good that felt. And they’ve stood the test of time, those policies.

I even remember working for Phil Goff when there was a brilliant programme working with kids and families who were on the verge of going into the criminal justice system, and Phil managed to find some financial support for the programme, and what a different it made to that group.

I remember what budgets used to feel like – it was a big day, the bringing together of so much work – such an exciting time, you were releasing your plan. And now, budget is a very different day for Opposition.

Has working in government made you realise how easy it is for people to slip through the gaps?

Yes. But it also makes me realise that there’s a huge chunk of the population that actually, if they just had decent incomes, they wouldn’t need anything else: the dignity of a decent wage. There are a lot of people who are coming through programmes or who are considered ‘at risk’ by the government, who would probably never cross our radar if they just didn’t have that huge burden and stress in their lives of not being able to support themselves. That’s something I’ve become more and more aware of.

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You’ve got a big social media presence, which – while useful – appears to also be quite the mixed bag when it comes to the response you get.

Totally. I think everyone thinks, ‘Oh, Facebook – that’s where your friends follow you!’ Not so when you’re a politician! I do not have 50,000 friends – that’s probably obvious when you look at the feed. I do scroll through the comments, because people want you to have a read, although you’ll never have the capacity to react to everything. But that doesn’t bother me as much, because you’ve got the ability to reply. When someone writes an article about you, you don’t have a right of reply.

Being a multi-platform politician is something your predecessors didn’t have to deal with.

When I came into Parliament, I had a Facebook page – as a human, a citizen. It is a bit of a transition. But I think the key is that it shouldn’t be too much of one, because people don’t want to see a sterile façade out there – not being human. Some people do sometimes tell me off for being serious 100 per cent of the time. I will post something that I think is funny, or sometimes I think might brighten someone’s day. People sometimes have a go at me for that, but you have to be yourself. New Zealand is too small to be anything but yourself.

Does this feel like a more unfair country than it did five, 10 years ago?

People will think I’m completely biased in my answer to that, but I do. And when you look at the next generation’s ability to even buy a house having diminished so much in such a short amount of time, and that’s only going to get worse. Those, for instance, who are in a position where they’ll have a parent’s help to get into a home are also going to be the ones who will inherit one as well.

I think that’s always been something that’s made New Zealand so unique, is that we’ve never been a society of class. It’s something New Zealanders are almost put off by that idea – that hard work should get you ahead – nothing else, not birth right, not private education, just effort. That should be enough.

And I think we’re increasingly moving to a place where effort isn’t enough any more. And that’s just not New Zealand. I do think we can turn the ship around though. I don’t think all is lost, but I do think it will take a bloody big effort.

There remains an attitude, in some people, that ‘I did it, so others can – they just need to work harder.’

I just think actually there have been times where you could have been the kid growing up in the state house, that had just as much chance of having a university education, why wouldn’t you? Now, when I look at some of the circumstances of families, that if you mirrored them even 20 years, this feels to me like we’re not comparing apples and apples any more. So I don’t think that’s fair.

You hear that slogan repeated – well I used to, anyway – from National MPs who would say ‘believe in equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome’. Actually, we don’t have equality of opportunity.

Yeah, every kid has the right to go to school but we know a kid who goes to school hungry isn’t getting the same education as a kid that doesn’t. We know a kid that never had a chance to go to early childhood education isn’t going to start out with the same chance as someone who did. And we know a kid who grows up in poverty is actually going to have the lasting effects of that in their health for the rest of their life, even if they manage to climb out of poverty.

So all the evidence tells us that slogan is just not true. We can either ignore that or we can accept that life is complicated and try to do something a bit different.

How was it – being defined as ‘the voice of a generation’ earlier this year?

In political years I’m young, but I’m in my mid-thirties. So I think there are a generation of people who are starting to look at politics differently, and I understand that, but I can’t pretend to speak for an entire generation. If I can do anything though, to make sure politics feels a little more close to them, then that’s a good thing. I think the thing that will move entire generations will be the kind of values that we talk about and the things we commit to.

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