Asia-Pacific

NZ Labour's rising star insists: 'I'm not the new Helen Clark'

Jacinda Ardern (R) with running mate Grant Robertson. (Supplied)

She’s been called the rising star of New Zealand’s Labour Party with a faithful following, a dedicated hashtag and a flurry of leadership predictions. But some pundits have questioned whether Jacinda Ardern lives up to the hype.

When Jacinda Ardern was growing up in a small rural community in New Zealand’s North Island, she used to joke to friends that she would be the country’s first female prime minister.

"Everyone at high school thought that was what I was going to do," she says, speaking down the line from her home in Auckland.

"But that was because I was the only person who belonged to a political party."

Now aged 34, Ardern is the youngest MP in the country’s Labour caucus and was last week named as running mate to leadership candidate Grant Robertson.

Her supporters have her pegged as the next big thing, with high hopes she will eventually lead the country.

Labour suffered an excruciating loss to two-term Prime Minister John Key at the last election, forcing its embattled leader David Cunliffe to step down, leaving his position up for grabs.

Ardern and Robertson are now campaigning around the country to convince Labour faithful they are the best team to lead the party out of the doldrums and into government, but the party’s poor showing isn’t helping.

"It’s the constant battle of people’s perception, when you know in your heart of hearts you are genuinely trying to do the right thing."

And teetering on the brink of her childhood ambition apparently hasn't made Ardern keen to pursue the top job herself.

She says she changed her mind after a stint working under former Prime Minister Helen Clark from 2005.

"I watched how much Helen put in, how difficult it was, and realised there were lots of things I could do in politics to get a sense of fulfilment without feeling the need to aspire to have the kind of role she had and make all the sacrifices she made," she says.

Poverty and privilege

Like Helen Clark, Ardern started life in rural, working-class New Zealand. Her father was a policeman and her mother ran her high-school canteen.

When she was a small child, her family moved from Hamilton to the forestry town of Murupara before settling in Morrinsville, home to roughly 6,000 people, in 1988.

It was in Murupara - where the forestry industry was becoming privatised and countless people were losing their jobs - that the seeds of Ardern's political values took root.

"I remember noticing that kids didn’t have what I had," she says, "that there were kids without shoes at school, and that it was cold and that people didn’t always have lunch and that there was hepatitis in the town. And I knew what suicide was.

"It was a place where you saw the effects of deprivation."

After completing a communications degree at Waikato University she entered politics in 2002 as a researcher in the office of Labour MP Phil Goff, who went on to become leader of the Opposition from 2008 to 2011.

"Phil was a magnificent politician to watch and to learn from," Ardern says.

"I made a significant mistake in his office in the first week and some of his staff members were pretty harsh about the consequences but Phil just laughed it off."

When she took a job as an adviser to then Prime Minister Helen Clark, she learned some home truths about political life.

"You sometimes have to cut your losses and recognise that people are just going to see something differently. That's a hard lesson to learn."

Both in 2011 and in 2014, Ardern ran for the seat of Auckland Central but was beaten by sitting National MP Nikki Kaye. She remains in Parliament as a list MP.

The new Labour

To her supporters Ardern is a fresh face in an otherwise tired party. Young, smart, ambitious and well-spoken, she is viewed as someone who can connect with a broad sector of the country in a way that some of the stalwarts struggle with.

To her detractors she’s a flash in the pan – too young, lacking in life experience and, as controversially pointed out by National MP Maggie Barry during a 2012 parliamentary debate on paid parental leave, childless.

She currently serves as Labour's Spokesperson for Arts, Culture and Heritage, Children, Corrections and Police, and has been credited with introducing a private member's bill aimed at reducing child poverty and advocating for the rights of minority groups during her time as Labour's Spokesperson for Social Development.

She's active in Young Labour and campaigns to engage youth in the political process. Whether it's having any effect is up for debate; voter turnout at the last election was at a record low with roughly one million people failing to cast a ballot.

"You have to rally a bit against the assumption you're fulfilling some kind of token role."

Political commentator Simon Wilson says cracks began to show in Ardern’s performance when she was up against former Minister for Social Development Paula Bennett, who famously described Ardern as “My Little Pony”.

“What was interesting was that it showed that Paula Bennett had the upper hand in the battle between them,” Wilson says.

Despite Ardern’s strengths – "she is extremely articulate and warm" – Wilson says Ardern failed to make her mark on the social development portfolio in opposition.

“In the debate about how social welfare should be structured, how poverty should be addressed, Paula Bennett gave more than she got,” he says.

“Jacinda Ardern didn’t manage last term to dominate the debate, or frame it in a way that would suit Labour rather than National.

“Politically, she wasn’t the heavyweight people thought she would be.”

Ardern recently hit back at accusations that she and Robertson were "Beltway babies" - the term "Beltway" being used in the US to describe issues that affect only government officials and lobbyists located inside the ring road around Washington DC - saying she had "worked longer in a fish and chip shop than as a parliamentary staffer".

The pair have also been accused of showing style over substance and lacking the vision to bring Labour back from the brink.

Ardern says her age has also been used against her.

"I’ve been given enormous opportunities because of it, but equally there is that extra burden of proof: you need to demonstrate you deserve to be there," she says.

While Robertson’s decision to pick her as a running mate has been considered risky, Wilson says the party is trying to “start again” after a dismal slog in opposition and that this message will resonate more if it comes from someone young.

"They are rejuvenating with a new generation of leaders," he says.

The gender debate

Ardern says some of the commentary around her proves only that New Zealand needs more women in politics.

"Numerically, we have a lack of adequate representation, just as Australia does," she says.

"There aren’t enough women in Parliament for it to be representative of the general population.”

Women make up 31 per cent of the 121 MPs in New Zealand's Parliament and despite the long reign of Helen Clark and the party being, in 1985, the first in the world to set up a Ministry of Women's Affairs, only 37 per cent of the current Labour caucus are female.

Ardern says this comes at a price.

"You have to rally a bit against the assumption you're fulfilling some kind of token role."

So do the experiences of Julia Gillard - whose "misogyny speech" went viral around the world - ring true with her?

"No," she says. "Australian politics does seem much more brutal in that regard.

"I think there are some subconscious battles we’re fighting here, but to me the bias doesn't feel as overt as it does in Australia."

A difficult road

If they are selected as the leadership team - and at the moment the race between them and ex-unionist Andrew Little appears too close to call - Ardern and Robertson will face a tough job rebuilding the Labour brand. 

"There's no doubt we’re in a difficult patch," she says.

"All the things Labour was founded on still really resonate. The problem is we haven’t done a particularly good job of making them still seem relevant".

An even tougher job will be unseating John Key, who has firmly positioned himself as one of the country’s most popular leaders, a fact not lost on Ardern.

"You cannot deny that he has an appeal to a really broad section of New Zealanders," she says.

Ardern and Robertson have even had a hashtag, "Gracinda", coined in their honour. 

Under a 2013 change, votes for the Labour leader are split between the caucus (40%), party membership (40%) and affiliated unions (20%). And while media reports swirling around the Gracinda campaign have attracted a flood of public comments urging Ardern to shoot for the top, she’s adamant that she'd prefer the deputy slot.

"I still have a desire to have a little bit of a normal life," she says, "to be around for my family, and to have a family.

"I don't want to have any regrets in my political career and I feel the best way is if I still just keep a little bit of myself.

"Whether or not I'm going to be successful, I don't know."

Simon Wilson sees her problem as having been always in opposition.

"Helen Clark was in government and became a minister before the end of her third term in Parliament," he says.

"You grow a lot when you've actually got some power."

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