It's two weeks until election day 2017. Steve Braunias has been travelling on the campaign trail with Labour leader Jacinda Ardern as she rides a wave of popular support. Next week, he joins Bill English.

'This will go down as the most extraordinary period of my entire life.'

The turnout for Jacinda Ardern at Waikato University was bigger than orientation day.

The royal carriage sped through the land for three long days. There was a storm.

Advertisement

Lightning struck a house in the Manukau Heads, and rainwater poured through the smoking roof. The morning sky in Hamilton was black as coal. Inside the carriage, the woman talked on the phone and read documents given to her by the royal press flunky.

The driver had the sombre face of an undertaker. He had jet-black hair and very big hands that guided the silver BMW soundlessly around corners.

Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern visits her old university, The University of Waikato to talk to students on during the labour campaign trail. Photo / Nick Reed
Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern visits her old university, The University of Waikato to talk to students on during the labour campaign trail. Photo / Nick Reed

The woman looked out of the window. When she was filmed sitting in the back of the parliamentary services limousine for a TV commercial, she looked out of the window with a dreamy, soulful expression; it made her look like a saint, come to house the poor and bathe their feet. Her gaze appeared to be all-seeing. Now, in the wet Waikato, her green eyes took in nothing.

She was thinking ahead. She was travelling to Rotorua for the night, then flying to Christchurch. It was the middle of the week. It had started on Monday morning with a royal visit to the Pink Batts factory in Penrose. She couldn't have sworn she had been there on Monday, the days of the North Island tour folded into one another and time lost meaning, but she remembered almost everything else.

Three days after the factory visit, she was suddenly asked, "What is a Pink Batt made out of?"

"Fibre and recycled glass," she said.

"What kind of glass?"

"Off-cuts of window glass."

Advertisement

"What temperature is the molten glass when heated?"

"1200 degrees."

Close: the correct answer is 1300.

She had met Tolu Makakona, team leader at Pink Batts, and remembered later that he'd worked there for 34 years. They spoke at the factory while the loud, heavy crash of the chopping blade came down 28 times a minute to guillotine each Pink Batt. The ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate followed the woman, their minds pulped 28 times a minute.

Afterwards, they gathered around her, and the beatific leader of the Labour Party made a fine speech about the need to provide warm homes. "Insulation," she said, "will improve the health of New Zealanders!" But no one listened. When she finished, all the questions were about the exact capacity and dimensions of a $11.7 billion hole that National Finance Minister Steven Joyce claimed he had discovered in Labour's costings.

She said there was no hole. The fourth estate asked if there was a possibility of a hole. She denied the existence of anything resembling a hole. The fourth estate speculated that in a certain light there might be a hole. She said she wanted to talk about insulation, not a hole. The press demanded: "Is there a hole?"

Advertisement

Three days later, when she asked if it had been damaging to have to defend Joyce's unverified but repeated sightings of a hole, she said, "It's so hard to know what people take from that. Someone can make a claim, and even though they know it's misleading, and even though it's shown to be false, the claim hangs out there, and you wonder what people are left with . . . It's very frustrating."

The royal carriage left Penrose that day and headed for the old television studios in Shortland St in downtown Auckland. Her entourage chose it to set the mood: they wanted a suitable venue to rehearse for that evening's live TV debate on Newshub. She was thrown strange and random questions for two hours in an attempt to expect the unexpected from debate moderator Patrick Gower. The session lasted for more than two hours. When she turned up that night at the Manukau Events Centre, she felt prepared, ready, calm; before and after the first debate, held the week before on TVNZ1, she was in a state of something resembling shock of the Colmar-Brunton poll result, released that afternoon, which showed Labour in the lead over National for the first time in 12 years. "I was still trying to process it," she said, "at 4am."

There was a full moon and the planes departing the airport flew low over Manukau. Inside the events centre, a man hired as a warm-up act roamed the stage in black sandshoes and no socks. Mary English sat in the audience. Patrick Gower stood in the shadows.

Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern visits the Western Community Centre in Hamilton's suburb of Nawton during the labour campaign trail. Photo / Nick Reed
Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern visits the Western Community Centre in Hamilton's suburb of Nawton during the labour campaign trail. Photo / Nick Reed

When his name was called out for the show to begin, he took a deep breath, blew it out and marched towards the light. It was a very long evening and at the end of the debate a panel of men and women who are interested in politics sat on bar stools with their backs to the audience and were filmed sharing their views. They had a lot of views and they are almost certainly sharing them now and forever.

The woman was relaxed. Bill English was relaxed. In the commercial breaks, they wandered around the front rows, and had relaxed conversations with strangers.

Throughout the debate, the woman turned to face English, tried to engage him in conversation, called him by his name; but English avoided looking at her. He stared down at his shoes. He glanced to the side at the warm-up man's shoes, and took an intense interest in the bare ankles. But there was only so much about feet to hold his attention and at other times he simply closed his eyes. It seemed eminently possible he had been given instructions that to make eye contact with the woman would prove fatal, would strike him like a lightning bolt and leave him in a pile of ashes on the floor.

Advertisement

Afterwards, Gower sat in his dressing room with his dad, a cousin, a mate from university, and colleagues from Newshub, and drank deep from a crate of Steinlager. Moderating a live televised debate between the two leaders had been a mountain to climb and now he was taking the first wearying steps of his descent. He had taken off his tie and his jacket, and was talking loudly. He checked his phone. The woman had sent him a text from the back seat of the BMW. She wrote, "You did a good job."

She got home and examined some of the debate. She didn't much enjoy watching herself and found fault in this answer and that answer. "But I think the main thing about a debate is to give people a sense of who you are." But there was something opaque about her - "ethereal", as Audrey Young wrote in the Herald, "vague" as Bill English said in a context of her policies, although it also worked as a character assessment. What was really going on with this beaming, drippy queen of hearts, who cared for the people, and chanted: "Kindness"? There was no mystery to her, she said. "My friends all say I'm an over-sharer."

In any case, she didn't do self-reflection. After viewing the debate, she drifted off into a contented sleep about midnight, and got up again at 5am.

DAY TWO began with a round of interviews in the morning, in downtown Auckland, and she grabbed a small quiche to go at Elk Eatery in Graham St before heading south to the ploughed brown fields of Pukekohe. The earth was heating up in the spring sunshine.

There were roadside sales of daffodils for $2 a bunch, and 0800DOGTUCKER was advertising good prices for that all-year favourite - unwanted or injured livestock.

The BMW parked on a steep driveway. A house was under construction. The point of the visit was to talk about Labour's commitment to incentivising trade apprenticeships. The house was on a hill. It had views of Rangitoto Island and the Coromandel ranges. Closer to hand, it had views of a healthy crop of potato plants.

Advertisement

The woman met building apprentice Megan Young-Cath, 18, and asked her, "What was your pathway?" She replied, "I like making things and that." The woman said brightly, "I was the only girl in my metalwork class. So yeah. Anyway!"

She also spoke with Joseph Galloway, 24, who was actually starting his first day as a building apprentice. He signed forms on the bonnet of a car. His own pathway was kind of crooked. He had a steady job manufacturing paint for roofing tiles. It paid well, $1000 a week after tax.

"But I wasn't happy," he said. "Same thing every day. Then they gave me a chemist, and I had to look after him. It was too much work for one man. So I thought, 'Well, I may as well be happy.' I took a drop of $6 per hour to do this. All the boys at work couldn't understand. I didn't even tell the missus; I just did it."

He had short red hair, and wore a singlet. He was a man with a plan. He'd been saving to buy a house for seven years. It was all with KiwiSaver. The idea was to buy the cheapest land he could, maybe up north in Ahipara, and if it had trees on it, then he'd mill for timber to lay down a floor and build the house himself.

He represented the possibility of keeping alive the Kiwi dream of owning your own home. But later that day, the woman toured Te Puea marae in Mangere, and sat down to a meal of roast vegetables and chicken in the kitchen with four homeless families who had been offered sanctuary at the marae.

Dolly Paul, 65, was across the road at the kohanga reo with her mokopuna, Sandii-Lane, aged 3. The little girl played shops with potted herbs. Dolly was small and wore a black beanie pulled over her eyebrows. She recalled the morning last year when it first became known that Te Puea was helping homeless families.

Advertisement

"I was in my dressing gown," she said, "and I went down to get the mail. Well, I tell you. A big truck pulls in, and a Pakeha fellah leans out and says, 'Can you please give this to the marae?' It was a big fat envelope stuffed with money.

Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern visits the Western Community Centre in Hamilton's suburb of Nawton. Photo / Nick Reed
Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern visits the Western Community Centre in Hamilton's suburb of Nawton. Photo / Nick Reed

"More and more cars arrived, all bringing food and clothes and money. It was overwhelming. We were inundated. I didn't have time to change out of my dressing gown.

But I tell you. I was very moved. It's part of our history now."

The ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate had been waiting out the front for the woman to finish her meal and talk to them. She arrived in the fading light. The tide was out on the Manukau Harbour. An eastern rosella parrot flew into the top of a phoenix palm on the marae, and crawled behind leaves for the night. The woman arrived and told the press she had spoken to a family forced to live in a motel for weeks. Then she was asked about the latest studies that seemed to establish there was not and never had been a hole.

RAIN SET in on the road to Hamilton. It raised the river, and the red light at the top of the Huntly power station chimney stack glowed in the dark. The woman knew this neck of the woods well, in fact was born in Dinsdale, in Hamilton. Her earliest memories were of her mum coming home with a perm for the first time, and frightening her. She played with Renee Wright down the road. "You know. The weathergirl." Her dad walked her to her older sister's kindergarten; she was jealous because her sister got to make plaster pies.

Dinsdale was close to Nawton, the Hamilton suburb that hosted her first event on Wednesday, an 8am address at the Western Community Centre. A man had got there early and was asleep on a couch in reception. Volunteers were setting out pastries and teacups in the kitchen. A 500-piece jigsaw, Afternoons in Tuscany, was set out on a table.

Advertisement

There was standing room only for the woman's speech. Vonnie Anderson, 65, a tall, striking Maori woman with a slight limp, found the last seat. She said she had been going to vote for the Maori Party, but was won over by the woman: "I'm coming back to Labour."

She left during Helen Clark's stand on the seabed and foreshore. "That was such an insult. Devastating."

Vonnie had led an eventful life. "I'm transgender," she said. "I came out as a gay boy in the late 60s, and drifted to Sydney. The only way we could make a living was prostitution.
I got into the drug scene, was mainlining heroin . . . I thought one day, 'I'll die if I keep doing this, and I'll be buried a pauper."

Vonnie made it back to Hamilton. She fell off a horse, and had her leg amputated. She raised her cousin's second of nine children, a girl, who got pregnant at 16, and then turned gay. "Well," said Vonnie, "I live a secluded life now. I've done the naughty bits."
Joy Frearson, 85, was even more impressed by seeing and hearing the woman: "She's going to be the next Prime Minister, you mark my words!" Joy was about to ride her mobility scooter back home in the rain. "I'm in a little one-room place out the back of a lady's garage. It's just me and my little dog. I've got two heaters going all the time. But better days are ahead! I'm with the Church of the Latter Day Saints, and I went to the Temple. Well, I saw this white-haired American man who was in charge there, and I said, 'I want a house.'

"He said, 'It just so happens we have a house, and we've been wondering what to do with it for six months.'

"I said, 'The Heavenly Father has been keeping it for me.'

Advertisement

"He said, 'It could be so.'

"Well, I move in on September 23. Election day. The day we'll have a new Prime Minister. She's quite beautiful, isn't she?"

The woman stopped for wholemeal toast at Scott's Epicurean on Victoria St in downtown Hamilton, and then addressed a Grey Power audience further down the street. Again, standing room only. Christopher Kennedy, 48, was thrown out by police. He had been swearing and yelling incoherent things. "Plus they saw me swigging out of my cask wine," he said on the pavement. His face was red and he had numerous missing teeth. "People call me Sir Drinkalot. That's fair."

James Brodie, 21, sat in the back row and asked the woman a question about her policy towards "mentally unusual people, such as myself". He explained later, "I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was little. I had a major anxiety attack in my first year of college; I whacked my head against a tree, and it took five of my friends to restrain me. But now I'm in an interesting position. I use music as my therapy. I'm due to perform in Europe - I'll be in London, Paris, Luxembourg, Munich. I perform my own songs on a loop pedal on my electric guitar. Ed Sheeran does the same thing."

Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern visits The Meteor theatre to talk to Grey Power members in Hamilton. Photo / Nick Reed
Labour Party Leader Jacinda Ardern visits The Meteor theatre to talk to Grey Power members in Hamilton. Photo / Nick Reed

Seeing the woman, he said, has fired him up. "It sucks that National have done sweet f***-all to treat people with mental illness as normal human beings. But she will. I've made sure I can register my vote before I go."

The theatre had been packed - sitting room only, on the floor, in front of stage. But a massive crowd of 800 at the next stop, beside the lake at the Waikato University campus, was something else, a pandemonium, and a clear and present danger for her diplomatic protection squad. A walkabout had been planned but it was impossible to move. Lyam Buchanan, 20, the co-editor of student magazine Nexus, said it was the largest crowd he'd ever seen on campus. "Even bigger," he said, "than at the height of O Week." That she had drawn more numbers than a wild student party filled him with awe.

Advertisement

Jonah Franke, 17, a Year 12 student at nearby Hillcrest High, had come with a bunch of friends. Blond, with fine features, he could speak fluent French and German, and was intent on studying political science at the University of Amsterdam. He said of the woman, "She's melded her rural heritage with an internationalist vibe. It's appealing to the student cohort."

Hard rain set in on the road to Tokoroa. Her next appointment was to meet workers at the Kinleith mill. It used to employ 3000, now just 500; the vast plant felt like a ghost town, and there was that same feeling in Tokoroa, too. There was an abandoned primary school, the windows boarded up. There were two cars parked outside the rooms of the Redwood Lodge Motel. The forest seemed to close in around the town.

At the Kinleith mill, the ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate who had their minds pulped by the crashing blade that fell 28 times a minute at the Pink Batts factory in Penrose were now following the woman around as she was shown the manufacture of pulp. Huge bales of recycled paper are pulped, mixed with water to wash out contaminants and clay, and then mixed with wood fibre to make cardboard boxes.

Afterwards, she talked with workers at the staff cafeteria. About 10 people were expected to take time off work but 47 showed up, including Bill Palmer, 58, a wide-shouldered man with marble-blue eyes. "I'm a rigger," he said. "Year by year, we are disappearing. It's a dangerous job - heights, heavy loads - and you need to know your way about. But every training campaign for apprentices in the past 20 years has fizzled out. I like her ideas about trade apprenticeships, but I don't want riggers to be forgotten about."

The woman had been up since 5am. The first teleconference of the day was at 7am. She had been too busy to watch The AM Show, where first Duncan Garner and then Patrick Gower beat up on Steven Joyce and the curious case of the hole that wasn't a hole. She laughed when told about it. She seemed in high spirits the whole time of those three days.

"This will go down," she said, "as the most extraordinary period of my entire life."

Advertisement