Easing into new challenge

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern relaxes at her home in Point Chevalier and reflects on what comes...
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern relaxes at her home in Point Chevalier and reflects on what comes after the 100 days and what kind of government she wants to lead. Photo: NZ Herald
Jacinda Ardern opens the front door of her Auckland suburban home in bare feet.

She has been easing back into work this week with nothing like the intensity of the whirlwind of last year that took her from Labour leader to Prime Minister in less than three months.

She looks relaxed and happy but that is not out of the ordinary — nothing to suggest she was sitting on yesterday’s sensational baby news.

If a house is a reflection of its owner, it is hard to know what this one says about Ms Ardern, perhaps old beyond her years, practical and convenient.

There is nothing millennial about it, inside or out, nothing trendy, nothing that says it belongs to a celebrity couple — or parents to be.

In fact it would be perfect for a retired couple — a modest, lowmaintenance pleasant, brick and tile house, a double garage, two bedrooms and a study.

"It’s a granny house, a simple home," Ms Ardern says.

"We didn’t move in loving this house, not at all. It was practical and it was convenient."

The modern touch, besides a new kitchen, is the flash fishing boat along the side of the house belonging to partner Clarke Gayford, a professional fishing expert and TV host, and soon to be stay-at-home dad.

They bought the house two years ago. Ms Ardern says she thought about modernising it with polished concrete or wooden floors but after living with carpets for a couple of months, she is happy with comfort over trendy, a nod perhaps to pragmatism over idealism.

The couple’s summer break included six days on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, where she was recognised only about three times a day.

She kept abreast of the storms lashing New Zealand early in the year but there were no major political events. Now it’s back to the first caucus tomorrow — albeit in a Wairarapa country retreat — and the first Cabinet meeting next week.

She held meetings separately on Thursday with coalition partner and New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and with support partner and Greens co-leader James Shaw where she told them about her pregnancy and her plans to take six weeks off from mid-June.

Now she is turning her mind to work: what comes after the 100 days and what kind of government she wants to lead. There just wasn’t time for such reflection last year.

"The good thing about a whirlwind is because you are in the vortex, you don’t ever sit and hover above it and reflect on anything," she says.

"You just get on with it because you have to, because you are stuck in a whirlwind."

Easing in this week has meant the occasional radio interview, an interview with the Weekend Herald, and the odd television appearance — decidedly odd for British comedian Jimmy Carr, who found himself being interviewed by Ms Ardern when she joined the panel of The Project on TV3.

"You’re like the opposite of Trump," he said.

Mr Trump has been leader of the United States for exactly a year today and his 12 months of chaos has just been chronicled in a blockbuster book. For Ms Ardern it has not yet been 100 days in office — that’s up on February 3.

There may be small similarities with Mr Trump: he and Ms Ardern came to power when neither really expected to win.

"That’s where it begins and ends," she insists.

It’s true, at least, that Mr Trump would never welcome a journalist in bare feet and make them a cup of coffee before getting under way.

Ms Ardern has largely avoided chaos in her brief time as Prime Minister, but has faced some setbacks, as recently as this week.

The admission by the Treasury that a coding error has probably over-estimated the number of children who will be lifted out of poverty by the Government’s Families Package last year (and the previous government’s) is not exactly chaos but it is a major embarrassment.

It should not reflect badly on Ms Ardern but the distinction between the Government and its public service is not always clear and the blunder comes at a crucial time for the PM.

In 10 days, she will be unveiling her flagship Bill as Minister of Child Poverty Reduction — part of the 100-day plan.

Ms Ardern’s Bill will require the Government to set targets for poverty reduction and to report against them.

The blunder won’t affect the content of the Bill — or anyone’s entitlements to the package — but it has messed up what may otherwise have been a smooth start to the year.So what would a government that is humming look like for her beyond the 100 days?

"For me it would be — and this is the thing I really learned from the 100 days — is that we had this clear agenda, the public servants knew exactly where we are going and we were ticking off milestones the whole way. That’s what I want us to be doing."

Eliminating homelessness is the long-term objective but she wants the public to be able to track progress each year in a number of areas through what she terms a "public-facing dashboard".

Setting targets or milestones against which to measure progress is going to be a feature of Ms Ardern’s policy commitments, be it part of the 100 days, or other coalition promises or implementing Labour’s own manifesto.

But she does not want to replicate the model National developed under Better Public Services targets which she says were a product of their time.

Under the funding constraints of the GFC, about 15 specific targets were identified as a focus for the public service, such as "reduce youth crime by 25%", or "reduce the incidence of rheumatic fever".

"We are going to create something that I think will be fit for purpose for us," Ms Ardern says.

"I am looking around at the moment at the way other governments in other jurisdictions have done it."

The target to reduce rheumatic fever, she argues, did not address the root causes — damp, poor quality and over-crowded housing.

She then conducts her own mini Q and A, which laces the interview.

"Do I think goals and aspirations and being explicit about what they are and why is a good idea? Yes.

"Do I think the nature of what National did really was where we wanted to get to? Some of the examples I don’t think were good examples."

Ms Ardern describes herself as a "pragmatic idealist".

"You can have a goal around eradicating homelessness but be realistic and open about how long it might take you to get there," she says.

"I’m pragmatic about the pace of change but I’m never going to stop being ambitious about where it is possible for us to go."

She hasn’t been bombarded by advice on the job from Sir John Key or Helen Clark,  although  at an ANZ breakfast last year, Sir John advised her to get a decent break and she does get the occasional text from Ms Clark.

"So much of anyone’s leadership style is intuitive, is instinctive, is part of who you are," she says, "and so I am not sure necessarily you can sit back and design the kind of leader you are going to be."

But she is curious about how she compares.

"I’m interested in ‘do I churn back all the work that comes my way as quickly as everyone else did or am I chairing meetings in a similar or vastly different way?’

"I’m just intrigued at different styles — and only the public servants know and, of course, they are very discreet. I do wonder."

Ms Ardern says that, under her leadership, she would like to see more transparency and public debate about the difficult issues facing the country.

One issue would be what to do about the growing prison population — despite a fairly stable crime rate — requiring new prisons on current projections.

"I knew our imprisonment rate was high relative to Western nations. Did I know that we were staring down the barrel on current projections of building new prions every three to five years? No," she says.

There were conflicting views in Parliament and there would be conflicting views in the public about what to do.

"Let’s have that conversation and the endpoint of that will be everyone having their voice heard.

"Does anyone within this coalition Government want to be building new prisons? No.

"But we want the community and the public to feel safe and we want people to make sure we’ve still got a system where people still pay their debt to society — so what does that look like for New Zealand?

"We have to start asking questions about whether those alternatives to community-based sentencing are being used well."

Ms Ardern says the debate about the justice system is separate to the decision about whether to proceed with the previous Government’s expansion plans for Waikeria prison in Waikato [from 650 to 2000] — a decision yet to be taken. She hopes the public already has a sense of way she operates and the flavour of the Government — with big themes including child well-being, reinvigorating education, housing, thriving regions, environmental measures and sharing prosperity.

But she also wants to enhance New Zealand’s reputation internationally as an advocate, especially on nuclear non-proliferation and climate change. It is something that has been playing on her mind since being in Opposition, she says.

"I see us having a sense of responsibility within the Pacific to make sure we are not only doing our bit domestically but are seen to be advocates internationally, as well — because I feel the burden of our Pacific neighbours for that, too."

She has already been far more forthright than the previous Government in criticising Australia over its offshore asylum seeker centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, antagonising the Government over the Ditch.

And she has had no qualms about criticising Mr Trump on occasion, either. Earlier this week she said the suggestion that he referred to Haiti and African countries as "shitholes" was offensive and sad.

"Imagine if you’d said that about New Zealand, how we would respond," she says.

"Everyone should feel pride in their culture, in their home country and no-one  should  assert superiority over any other country, its people or its country."

Michael Wolff’s book about Mr Trump, Fire and Fury, is not on her summer reading list, but her partner has immersed himself in American politics.

"It is like a political soap opera. Even if I miss an article, Clarke will update me," she says.

She is not bothered by suggestions that her answers about events happening abroad lead to friction.

"Am I worried about whether or not being honest about our view of the world will cause diplomatic friction? I think, actually, what characterises New Zealand is that, no matter what or no matter our size, we will give an honest reflection of our view and I think that is probably what people would expect us to do." 

- Audrey Young

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