Michele Hewitson interview: Jacinda Ardern

By Michele Hewitson

Labour list MP comes across as terribly sensible and annoyingly earnest but she is also fun: a whisky-drinking DJ who once had a nose-piercing

Labour list MP Jacinda Ardern was once a Mormon but has since transferred her loyalty to the Labour Party. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Labour list MP Jacinda Ardern was once a Mormon but has since transferred her loyalty to the Labour Party. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The Labour list MP, Jacinda Ardern, is one of the few politicians who lets you go to her house and what's more, she lets you have a good nosy around. She said: "It's hard to get a sense of people's real selves in Parliament. It can be quite an artificial place. I've always been quite terrible at creating preventive barriers for myself. Well, you're in my house. I don't have many walls."

She was sitting on her couch, with her legs folded under her, perfectly groomed, at 8am. But was she looking cool? She has a tiny stud in the top of her ear. That might count. She grew up a Mormon, which may not, although she did have a stud in her nose when she was a Mormon. That seemed a bit un-Mormon but she said she never heard that Mormons weren't allowed nose piercings and: "Nothing bad happened!"

She was the only politician on a list of cool people in the Herald last week. She laughed like anything at the very idea. She helpfully laid out the ways in which she is not cool. She is "a bleeding-heart liberal, I know that. I think that whatever job I do, I have to feel like I'm doing something good".

If you had come looking for the country's only cool politician this would be disappointing, but it's not surprising.

Despite the piercings, she has always been just the same. "I was a high school debater. I was a board of trustees rep. I was, in the past, a Mormon and I did play the odd round of badminton. I played basketball as well." But not in a pointy-elbows in the other girls' ribs kind of way, I assumed. "In the awarded team captain because you organise the uniforms kind of way."

She said, a little desperately, later: "I don't think everyone is nice though!" She was able to name one person she doesn't think is nice but, as it is Judith Collins, even she admits that doesn't count. "She'd hate to be described as nice."

Her best friend in politics is Grant Robertson and she's very fond of Chris Hipkins and she loves Annette King: "She's like a kind auntie."

Her house is cooler than its owner but it is quite a lot like her, in other ways. It is a lovely but modest and modernist '60s apartment in Freemans Bay. It is, like her, nicely turned out and fashionable but not in a swanky or precious way. The arm chairs are from TradeMe, but she had them covered in a Florence Broadhurst fabric so they are stylish but not screamingly so.

Her block of flats is part of an estate which was built to provide public housing. I can't be certain that she bought the place (about a year ago) so that when you say how much you like it she can tell you that the Nats sold the flats but that Labour bought some of them back. Being able to tell you that is a bonus, put it that way.

I wanted to think she was cool because she is immensely likeable and somehow fun despite being decent and hard-working and also horribly earnest, by her own unarguable assessment. So she ought to be deathly dull and somehow isn't. But it is a challenge to write about her and not make her sound just that.

Presumably she makes it on to those sorts of lists because she is young, still, for an MP, at 33. She was just 28 when she became an MP, which led to her and another young woman MP, Nikki Kaye, being described as battling babes - they were competing for Auckland Central, which Kaye won. So perhaps she had to assure people that she was dull and decent so as to be taken seriously.

She's probably relaxed into herself a bit since. She has become a part- time DJ, and does the odd gig. She says she pretends to be a DJ. I'm sure she pretends assiduously and is the best-behaved DJ in the history of DJs. Well, she'd never turn up drunk or stoned, would she? She does drink - she bent her head in the direction of her drinks trolley, which was admirably well stocked. She said: "I discovered whisky when I started drinking." Straight to the hard stuff then. "That's right! If you're going to do it, do it properly."

She loves whisky but she never gets drunk on it. "If I got drunk on whisky, I might ruin my love of it and that would be a tragedy. You know, too many hangovers after whisky and you wouldn't want to drink it any more, would you?" That made me laugh because trust her to make the drinking of whisky sound sensible.

Even her To Do list, written on a little blackboard in her kitchen, is exasperatingly worthy and also exhausting. There is only one thing written on it but it is: Every Thing. That was absolutely her. "Yeah, it's earnest," she said. Then, without much hope: "Does it make it any better it you're self-aware and earnest?"

I thought it might make it worse, actually. You can't magically become un-earnest. "It's hard to undo, isn't it?" she said. "That's the problem with being earnest."

She was supposed to be, earnestly or otherwise, reeling about Shane Jones. He had announced he was quitting politics the night before and that he had been talking to Murray McCully about a role as a Pacific Economic Ambassador. So, was she reeling? "Oh. The Shane situation?" Yes, the Shane situation. You'd think they must all be seething as well as reeling but not publicly, obviously. Perhaps she's more of a natural politician than she appears. She told a story about how at the beginning of a parliamentary session, a minute's silence is held for MPs who have died.

"I remember the first time that happened, standing up in Parliament, thinking: 'You know, I'm reasonably focused on politics and yet I don't know who this person was,' and it's happened a couple of times since. And I thought: 'You know, your time in this place is so fleeting and it'll only be a couple of decades before people look quizzically when your name is read out.' So I think just always keeping a sense of the fact that you are just here for a particular time and place, you do the best you can, but no one is bigger than the party and Parliament and the job you're doing."

Was that a bit of a swipe? I'm still not sure. She really does think that the party is greater than the individual and that "the vision, the stuff you're driving towards ... and what you're presenting as a collective" is more important than the individual. So she's glad to see the back of him then? "Shane? No! I think when you lose anyone that you've worked with, it's always a sad thing."

She of course backed her good friend Grant Robertson - she blames him for her swearing and drinking, neither of which she did before she met him - in the leadership contest. That looked like a bad political choice; she must have known he wasn't going to win. "No! Honestly, it's like picking class president." And her chap was never going to be class president. "You just vote the way your heart says to go. I think it's more about just being open about what you are doing and why." It most certainly was not about not liking David Cunliffe because everyone likes Cunliffe, don't they? I may have said this in a slightly sarcastic way, or what she called: "The tone."

"David Cunliffe," she said, "is a lovely person." She got demoted by the lovely person. By two spots, she said. "It's not really a demotion, is it? Are you telling me I was demoted? I guess some people classified it that way ... There were no tears." She is an optimist. You might have to be, in the Labour Party. "To be in politics!"

Labour is going to form the next government then? I may have given a little laugh. "Absolutely! Again with the tone! And a little laugh. We've got five months. I've seen very dramatic things happen in very short spaces of time." Yes, Shane Jones. "That says anything can happen! John Key might go!"

She replaced her Mormonism with the Labour Party. She left the church over the "cognitive dissonance" created by conflicting values, including civil unions. She was in her 20s, so she left the church quite late, really, and I thought it might have been quite traumatic. But she says she replaced the church community and her faith with the Labour Party. "It's faith of a different kind, isn't it?"

She showed me a photograph she has hanging on a wall outside her bedroom. It is of Ernest Shackleton, leaving Elephant Island for South Georgia, after the loss of the Endurance, setting off on what looked to be an impossible feat of sea-faring. It is, she said, a picture of hope.

She said: "I'm genuinely optimistic." She worried that she might be too sensitive for politics, but she's discovered that she is fairly robust. She doesn't mind when people come up to her in the street and ask, as they have done: "If my teeth are real! That doesn't particularly bother me. Though if someone questions my motives or if someone thinks I'm not doing a good job, that bothers me a lot."

She says she is combative. Is she ambitious? There was some talk about her being deputy leader but if she ever did want to be, she doesn't seem to much any longer. She doesn't want to be PM. She worked in Helen Clark's office before becoming an MP and, "she had to give up everything to do that job and I feel like I can do all the things I want to do in politics without having to be in that particular role".

She would like to have a partner and a family and a "normal life" at some stage. She hasn't been in a relationship for some years. Blokes do ask her out on dates, "from time to time. I totally accept that it's probably an unusual thing to ask a politician out because you don't know their circumstances. I do think that people assume often that you have a reasonably settled life if you're crazy enough to go and be a politician".

Really? I googled Jacinda Ardern and boyfriend and nothing came up. "Ha, ha. Empty search. Please try again. Google can find nothing! I can't say that I've searched that, Michele."

I was trying to imagine what she'd be like to live with. She lies awake at night worrying that she's not working hard enough. She writes "Every Thing" on her To Do list. She's a do-gooder.

She's so earnest she annoys herself. Even her sister says her Facebook page is boring. She has two ukuleles in her living room. She ought to be ghastly. She somehow isn't. She's interesting and fun. I don't know whether any of this makes her a good politician, but I'll leave the lying awake at night worrying to her.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n4 at 15 Sep 2014 14:56:44 Processing Time: 727ms