The Prime Minister wandered along the street, earbuds in, talking earnestly on the phone. White shirt, white singlet, jeans. She stood outside the cafe for quite a while, solving who knows what affair of state or maybe talking to her mother. I'm guessing she wears her serious face for both.

She bought the coffee because, she said, she had to buy something for Clarke as well. A scone to take home for him when she left. Clarke Gayford gets the PM to do his morning tea errands.

We sat and she talked, long and hard and enthusiastically. She grinned a lot. She has a thing she does, of being earnest and excited at the same time, and she does it quite naturally. Three days after her "historic" visit to Waitangi, she was still floating.

Did she think she'd come down anytime soon?


She said there was nothing to come down from. "I don't float. I don't believe I float. I'm always grounded."


"Mmm, really."

Right. At Waitangi she told us all to hold her to account. In her big speech she said, only you can say when we have done enough. I asked her what that meant, when many of the biggest problems might not be fixable.

How are they going to raise wages when we're addicted to buying cheap goods? Don't most companies believe holding down wages is essential to remaining competitive?

She talked about support packages like Working for Families.

But that's wage supplements, not wage rises.

"That's true, but it's important. Most OECD countries have similar programmes."


She talked about upskilling the workforce. She said the main purpose of providing a year's free tertiary education was to boost numbers in trade training programmes, and it was unfortunate the debate had been focused on university education.

And she said wages themselves had to be addressed. Fair pay would help, so would labour relations reform and so would living-wage targets in core Crown services, which act as "an exemplar". Although, she added with a shrug, it wasn't clear if exemplars were effective.

Is this issue, creating a higher-wage economy, going to be the hardest of all to resolve? "It's one of them for sure."

What about regional development? How do you do it when most of the time the economic measures suggest enterprises should be based in Auckland?

PM Jacinda Ardern cooking breakfast at Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Photo / Michael Cunningham
PM Jacinda Ardern cooking breakfast at Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Photo / Michael Cunningham

"Change the measures."

She said Finance Minister Grant Robertson has been talking up Treasury's work to develop new criteria for success. "Like social wellbeing." She's keen on that.

What about housing? It's blindingly obvious that if every child grew up in a warm, dry and safe home, we would be living in a radically better country. And also obvious there's no easy way to do it. How is she going to produce tens of thousands more houses when there aren't enough builders or tradies, or finance or land, or scaled-up new building techniques to lower the cost?

"There's a target we can meet of 16,000 over three years and it will rise sharply after that." She was talking about KiwiBuild, which hasn't produced any new homes yet.

How will they reduce the prison population? Most people in prison have mental health issues and/or addiction issues, and as she has said herself, prison is not a good place to deal with problems like that.

She said they needed to open up different ways of dealing with the issues, and praised the Drug and Alcohol Courts, where offenders don't escape sentencing but get concerted therapeutic help.

The trouble is, after five years of operation and widespread acclaim, those courts are still in the "pilot" stage. The new Government could change that.

"Look," said the PM, "with all these issues, I think it's better to try, than to say they're too hard. Why not be ambitious?"

I reminded her that John Key, at the same early stage of his prime ministership, was fond of the same word.

"Yes but he was 'ambitious for New Zealand'. I'm more specific. I'm ambitious to reduce poverty and build homes. We've got more specific targets."

You don't think the rhetoric is the same?

"We're taking risks. I don't think John Key took many risks. Why not try?"

At Waitangi she told the Iwi Leaders Forum their focus on Treaty of Waitangi issues like water rights should not be at the expense of measures to reduce poverty.

I asked her how big the gap is between the Government and the forum.

"Well," she said, "poverty is a Treaty issue. Those things are interlinked. And I think the iwi leaders agree with that."

She met twice with the iwi leaders over the Waitangi period and at one of the meetings, she said, they put up a diagram on a whiteboard. Two big overlapping circles, to show they had a lot in common. She agreed with that.

"Besides, there are 7000 commitments we have to meet in the existing Treaty settlements. At least, that's the number Kelvin [Davis] has given me. We're obviously committed to Treaty issues."

At Waitangi she used the distance from the whare runanga to the nearby Treaty House as a metaphor for the gaps between Maori and Pakeha. But she avoided the phrase "closing the gaps". Why?

"It's non-productive," she said. "It's a phrase that takes us back to Don Brash and 2004 sentiments. We're moving on."

There's been debate about whether the Government has specific policies to address Maori deprivation or whether Maori will be the biggest beneficiaries of policies to address deprivation generally.

"Yeah, I know," she said, flapping her hands as if at the silliness of it all.

But, I asked, what happens if you turn it round? Won't policies that help Maori necessarily help all of us?

"That's what I said at Waitangi," she said. "It's what the Ngapuhi speakers said too. Lift Maori and you lift everyone."

What frightens her?

"I'm not frightened."

There's nothing about the job that's scary?

"No. Scary sounds like you can't get out of bed in the morning. I would say it's challenging. Not frightening. Challenging."

Jacinda Ardern has her smile at the ready for a photo with Olivia Bogaers, 6, of Paihia. Photo / Peter de Graaf.
Jacinda Ardern has her smile at the ready for a photo with Olivia Bogaers, 6, of Paihia. Photo / Peter de Graaf.

Most politicians feel they have to talk like that. The headline must never be, "PM frightened by the job".

She grinned at me. Actually, she hardly stopped grinning at me.

She said, "I've got to stop being so Pollyannaish."

Oh? Why?

"Oh, because ..." she trailed off.

I said I thought it worked well for her. You bring your best and brightest self and chances are so does everyone else. Isn't that what's happening between you and Winston Peters?

She spoke at length about the respect with which she treated Peters.

Is there a grandfather thing going on?

"No. I treat him with respect."

I asked her which other governments she drew inspiration from, but she didn't want to be compared to or associated with anyone.

Something Scandinavian? She said her Government wasn't like any others and she preferred to think they were doing their own thing. She did say, "It's progressive."

What about social democracy, the term Helen Clark used to favour? She didn't like it. She thought it probably didn't mean anything to most people.

What about socialism?

She shrugged. The same.

Who was she inspired by? Obama?

Nup. Even he didn't get her going. Was it because he was a self-professed careful incrementalist?

"I'm a pragmatic idealist."

Okay. Who did she read? She said sadly she had no time left for personal reading.
"I've got Piketty by the bed. It's been there for ages, I've read this much." She held up finger and thumb about half a centimetre apart. Thomas Piketty's 696-page book Capital in the 21st Century is the defining modern work of economics for a social democratic world.

"And Tony Judt, I was really impressed by him." Tony Judt's book Ill Fares the Land is a history of postwar Europe written as a polemic against neoliberalism.

"Something is profoundly wrong," Judt argues, "with the way we live today." Ruled by "pygmies", we have watched the resources of the world being "consumed by the shamelessly greedy". Judt offers hope that there is a better way, and he labels it social democracy.

"It's beautifully written," she said. "And full of head-nodding moments."

What will you take back to Waitangi next year?

"You mean besides a baby in a front pack?"

Yes. Did she think Waitangi might become a time for a more formal reckoning with the nation?

"I think it's always seen like that. Every year there's a taking stock."

But this time, had she set up an expectation of something more?

She said they would need some kind of report card. That implies specific targets and grades for success or failure. Not easy, when your targets for reducing poverty have 10-year timeframes and you can't build houses in a hurry or lower the prison population anytime soon either.

"That's true, but I know when I go back I'll have to have something to say."

I asked her again, after the euphoria of Waitangi, was reality a little harder to get used to?

"You know," she said, "we haven't had a honeymoon. Did you realise that? Nobody gave us a honeymoon."

Well, nobody until she went to Waitangi.

Now she's back to it. Grounded? If she says so. Still grinning? Definitely.