They didn’t want Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin to travel in the autonomous vehicle. She didn’t care. “I’m going to join the ride,” she said. “Try to stop me.”
For the next few minutes, they tried very hard to stop her. Organisers had spent many months planning this trip to the minute, producing a spiral-bound guidebook that ran to more 100 pages, which was more than 100 pages for every full day she was in the country, and not a single one of those pages mentioned her getting in an autonomous vehicle.
Security officials and others convened an impromptu meeting, to which they didn’t invite her, during which they expressed much concern about the threat to her safety posed by the 500-metre journey to Peter Gordon’s fancy restaurant, Homeland, where she would be having lunch. They expressed zero concern for the safety of the 10 or so others already committed to going on the ride, but such are the ways we assign value to human lives.
Eventually, she invited herself to the meeting and immediately shut it down. She made clear she would be riding in the autonomous vehicle.
“But the police …” someone said.
“I don’t care about the police,” she said.
She walked through the gathered throng and climbed aboard the autonomous vehicle. One of her very handsome security men raised a single eyebrow, shrugged and got in behind her.
Her day had begun at 8am in Epsom, when a string of generic silver VIP cars rolled to a stop on the comically long driveway of Government House and she stepped from the one in the middle, on to the wet grass of the property’s ludicrously large front lawn, provoking an eruption of rapid-fire long-lens photography from the handful of cameras behind the waist-high picket fence set up to contain the media. After a brief pōwhiri, Jacinda Ardern stepped towards her, smiled warmly, said, “Nice to meet you,” and kissed her on both cheeks.
Marin inspected the guard of honour, listened to the military band play a couple of bangers and shook a bunch of hands, then walked with Ardern up the hill to the house, where a room had been prepared for the bilateral meeting featuring them and a handful of officials. Marin headed for her spot at the centre of the table but Ardern gently steered her towards the front of the room: “I think they’d like us to do a photo,” she said. “There’s always about five different photos.” As the photos dragged on, requiring the rigid maintenance of smiles, Ardern made what appeared to be her first joke of the morning: “They’re always so natural!”
Marin laughed, although it wasn’t clear if that was from obligation.
After taking their seats at the table, Ardern gave her opening remarks. Among other things, she said she wanted to discuss what the pair could do on behalf of women who might aspire to politics. “There’s not so many of us leading countries around the world,” she said.
Their joint statement focused on human rights, indigenous people, gender equality, climate action, free trade and sustainable growth. Their rhetoric, both before the meeting and afterwards, was most notable for the strength of its condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing violence against women and girls, particularly in Iran.
After the press conference, Ardern left for Hamilton to be heckled by farmers at Fieldays, while Marin went first to the Auckland War Memorial Museum for a wreath-laying ceremony, and from there to see the autonomous vehicle at Wynyard Quarter.
The sun had come out and it was uncomfortably hot, but Marin listened patiently while the autonomous vehicle company’s head of research and development gave a roadside sales pitch that relied heavily on the term “mode shift”. At one point he mentioned her home town, which caused her to comment enthusiastically, “My home town!”
Eventually, the autonomous vehicle delivered her safely to Homeland and that was the last we saw of her.
It wasn’t entirely clear what the visit had achieved but if nothing else it felt like an important cultural moment – the first meeting between two historically important young women, high-profile prime ministers from opposite sides of the world who have made a global impact and become role models to millions.
On arriving at Wynyard Quarter she had received a bouquet from two small girls. “I’m so honoured to meet you,” she told them. “I’ve been waiting all day.” If that was a lie - and you have to assume it was - that’s not how those two girls will remember it.