Jacinda Ardern: My story as told to Elisabeth Easther

The Prime Minister talks about Christmas rituals and her early ambition to help people.

My mum will hate that I’m sharing this, but my earliest memory, I’m sitting on the floor of our home in Hamilton. We lived there till I was 3 or 4, and Mum came home with this tight, short perm. It was the early 80s, when perms were the done thing, but I wasn’t quite able to compute what I saw. She looked completely different and, as I was processing it, I wondered, was she still my mum? It certainly gave me a deeper appreciation of the shock on Neve’s face when Clarke got rid of his beard.

I started school in Murupara. Dad was running the police station, and we were there for the Edgecumbe earthquake. My teacher was holding a boom box, and the earthquake was so strong she dropped it. I obviously hadn’t yet nailed the rules of what to do in an earthquake either, because we all ran to the windows to watch the kids in the swimming pool. I don’t remember being afraid – and I don’t remember any of the things I’d be most intrigued about now – all I remember was seeing these kids sloshing around outside in the pool.

By the time I was 8, we were living in Morrinsville. Dad was a detective with the CIB in Hamilton, and I have a series of memories of Dad’s work dotted through my life. Mum still reminds him that he missed my first birthday because of the Springbok tour. Because police did shift work, there were Christmases we had to wait till Dad came home, before our Christmas rituals could begin. One summer holiday ended early because of a terrible homicide. Dad was always careful not to talk about work around us, but he spent long hours poring over cases, like the murder of English tourist Margery Hopegood. I very rarely felt fearful of Dad’s role although when I was a teenager, I saw on the news there had been an armed robbery in Hamilton and that evening Dad came into the house with a gun on his belt. I’d never seen that before.

All through childhood, on and off, I thought I’d be a policewoman one day, because I wanted to do what Dad did. I put that ambition aside for university, then after graduation, having worked for a year, I went home one weekend and talked to Dad about his experiences. I got as far as filling in the forms and training for the entry exam. Probably the biggest hurdle for me would’ve been the physical. As I got older, Dad did encourage me. He thought it was a good career, with a lot of diversity within it. All the things I imagined I’d be when I grew up, including becoming a psychologist, they were all connected to helping people.

I had a lot of jobs through school and university. I worked at a fish and chip shop, a supermarket, The Warehouse, a gift shop. I was briefly at the only music shop in Morrinsville. I job-trained young people with physical and intellectual disabilities, so wherever they had a job, I’d go with them and offer support. They had roles cleaning in a hotel, working at KFC, Bin Inn, Briscoes. I learnt a huge amount from those young people. One summer, I demonstrated Tefal products at Farmers. I had a little stand, and on any given day I’d either be using the benchtop stir fryer, or the steamer. Some days I’d be cooking and ironing at the same time. One day a man approached and said I’d make someone a good wife. I remember feeling so angry I didn’t have a quick comeback.

At university, I wanted to pay my fees up front, and not have to rely on a loan, so I worked really hard. I learnt that from Mum. She taught us from a young age about the value of work and money. We had $20 pocket money a fortnight and from that we had to buy our own lunches, presents for friends, clothes and that taught us how to budget. It was important to her. When I was 12, my sister and I found all these dumped leaflets by a forest near our house. We came home with this massive box of flyers, and Mum found out who was in charge of distribution. Clearly, the person who was meant to be delivering them wasn’t doing it, so the run was given to us. That’s how Mum set us up with our first job.

My nana was a staunch Labour Party supporter. Her mum died when she was 8, and she came out here from Scotland with a child, a violin and a pistol, which we still have in the family. Nana’s husband, my grandad, ran a drain-digging business in Te Aroha, Ardern & Sons, and my nana ran the household. She had seven children, including two sets of twins under 5, and she was also chair of the local Labour Party committee. She passed away when I was 12, but my aunt saw I was quite political and passionate about big issues, so she got her local politician, Harry Duynhoven, to call me at the tail end of high school, during the lead in to the 1999 election. He asked me to volunteer, so I’d drive down to New Plymouth in the holidays and volunteer in his campaign. He had wonderful people who took me in and taught me, and got me involved. I often think, if it wasn’t for that phone call from Harry, where I would be today.

I went on my OE in 2005 after a year working in Parliament as a researcher. I’d been away for three years when I was standing on a train platform in Fulham when I get a call from Phil Goff. I have this vivid recollection of a bunch of Aussies trying to get on a train with a barbeque. I’m talking to Phil, and he’s saying I should come back and run for Parliament. I’m having this classic ex-pat moment, watching these Aussies struggle with their barbeque, and I’m thinking why would I leave? I’m having such a wonderful time. Also, I wasn’t sure Parliament was right for me at that time – I didn’t see myself as particularly thick-skinned – so I said no. There was another phone call closer to the election, and that time I agreed to consider running for the list, staying in London but using it as a way to get New Zealanders in London to enrol. It would be my way of contributing and staying connected to Labour. I was living in Brixton when I got a call to say they’d put me in at number 20 on the party list. I came home. weeks before the election, and I drove into Morrisonville where I was asked to run, and I saw these signs with my name on them. That made it seem very real.

You go in to Parliament knowing that the debating chamber, in the traditional Westminster system, is part of the job but it’s only a small element. There were times, in the beginning, when something would happen to throw me a bit, but you acclimatise and learn to focus, to look through the distractions. I’m also lucky I’m not someone who needs a lot of time on their own. I love people and on the rare occasions I’m feeling a bit flat, the team will send me out to events, to see some people, because that usually recharges me.

When you go to large forums, like the East Asia Summit, or APEC, they often hold all the leaders in a room before The Leaders’ Retreat. This is one of the few times we’re not accompanied and we’re just with other leaders. The first time, I thought, it was just a holding room, but you soon realise it’s an important part of those forums, it gives you a chance to have informal conversations because that is so rare. When I travelled to APEC in Vietnam in 2017, I’d just been sworn in as PM and I was off on the road. I was standing in a room, when President Putin walked in. That’s a very vivid memory. I was also pregnant at APEC, and it was a time of Zika. But I couldn’t tell anyone I was pregnant, so no one knew why I was so vigilant with the Deet. I’d get up in the morning, eat crackers to try to keep everything down, then cover myself in Deet. I was in The Philippines at one point, and there was a mosquito in the car and I was pinned to the back seat watching this mosquito, thinking someone from the travelling party was sure to wonder why I was being so odd.

I’m an optimist by nature. That’s a good thing for what I do. I’m also constantly aware of risk but still a positive person, which is possibly an odd but helpful combination. So when I look out at the people who feel strongly on both sides of the pandemic-related arguments, I still see a common theme, that both sides think that what they are doing is best for everyone. They’re trying to protect people. Unfortunately, some of those people are fuelled by misinformation, or disinformation. But if you strip it back, you’ll see we’re all fighting for the same thing. They’re just coming at it from a very different place. But even when I see those protest movements at their very angriest, I remind myself we all want the same things.

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