Doing This: an interview with the Prime Minister

Who is the new PM? Working Life visited the ninth floor of the Beehive to meet Jacinda Ardern, the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand and youngest ever leader of the Labour Party, who has formed a Government with New Zealand First and the Green Party.

Prime Minister scene 1Congratulations, you’re the Prime Minister of New Zealand! What does that feel like on a personal level? As a child, did you ever even consider the possibility that you could one day be PM?

No! I remember joking about it, but never realistically at all. People ask me what I used to aspire to be and I never ever had even MP on the list, and yet I was political from quite a young age. My most realistic aspiration was that I thought I would be a policewoman, and I thought about it seriously right into my twenties. I remember going home and talking to Dad about it when I was working in Phil Goff’s office. I’d on and off talked about it, asking him what it was like and trying to figure out if I could hack it.

You’ve been PM for about a month now. Do you have a sense of the magnitude of the challenges ahead for your Government over the next three years?

We always had a sense of the magnitude of what we wanted to try and change. When we looked at some of those headline figures around homelessness and the cost of housing, and the number of people who weren’t properly able to access healthcare, issues in the education system… we all knew it would be a big task. I have been surprised, though, by the magnitude of it all now that we have access to all of the information. The hole is bigger than we thought. Those who work in the public sector will know that, and we knew that… it’s just bigger than I thought.

Many of our members say they’d felt underappreciated and under-resourced over the last nine years of the National Government – particularly those in the public service and DHBs. How do you believe your Government will make life better for working people in New Zealand?

Acknowledging that upfront is a good start. The first thing we need to do is recognise and acknowledge and talk about our public service and our public servants, because we have a group of people who dedicate themselves to serving New Zealanders and working under the government of the day, and they do an exceptional job. And I just think we should acknowledge that much more often than we do. The second thing is acknowledging the underfunding there has been, particularly in health. We campaigned on the specific policies we wanted to introduce but actually just plugging the gap meant making sacrifices in other areas, but we were committed to doing that. The third thing is actually listening to their experience and their expertise, and being much more collaborative in the way we try to solve those problems.

What is your view on the role of unions in workplaces? In general, would you like to see union membership grow during your term in Government?

Prime Minister profileYes, because I see that as a way of employees having a voice and forming a strong relationship with employers. There’s been a tendency to see these relationships as combative, when I think that they have potential to drive real gains for employees and employers. How do I view union membership? Well, I joined a union when I was in my first non-small business workplace… I would have been about sixth form and I joined the National Distribution Union – now First Union – because I worked at Progressive Enterprises as a checkout operator. My second union was the EPMU when I worked in here [Parliament], and then I joined the Service and Food Workers’ Union as well – now E tū. So I’ve always believed in the important role they play.

You’ve previously said that you “will not rest” until we have pay equity in New Zealand. Why is this so important to you and what are the first steps towards making it a reality?

I don’t know whether or not it’s because there just aren’t as many women in politics, or whether it’s something else, but I have a real sense that we have a duty to send a message to the next generation and to young women that they should expect nothing less than to be paid fairly for the work they do. And I just don’t accept that a young woman in New Zealand should grow up knowing that they may not be fairly paid for nothing else other than their gender. It should bug all of us, but it particularly bugs me. So on pay equity, one of the first things we did was dump that legislation. Looking at how we saw the Terranova case finally conclude, to then draft a piece of legislation that would mean essentially we’d just never see that again felt really wrong. So that’s gone, and we’ve got to start rebuilding based on the work that the Joint Working Group did.

What are you planning to do to manage the stress and pressure of being PM? Is there some kind of outlet for you?

Well… this is a strange one… everyone needs a bit of a mental break and you know, for some people it might be reading a book. But I can never spend enough time completing a book; I’m always reading briefings… so, sometimes I just look at peoples’ happy lives on Instagram. I’ll just scroll through a couple of pictures, see that there are people outside enjoying the sunshine, live vicariously and then restart my work, you know? There’s lots of other ways – calling my friends or my family, and reminding myself that not everyone is in that constant bubble of politics, which can be a very intense place.

What’s something you enjoyed about your private life prior to being PM that you will make a concerted effort to maintain despite the demands of the job?

I always enjoyed cooking. Clarke [Gayford] does the bulk of it now, but he’ll sometimes say to me: “do you wanna cook something? I’ll get the stuff.” So just trying to cook from time to time is going to make me happy. I like trashy crime shows… like, real trashy… like SVU. Anything that’s totally formulaic and predictable.

Is there anything that’s surprised you so far about the role of being PM?

No, not in the day-to-day… I knew the magnitude, the scale of the reading and the work because I watched Helen [Clark]. I worked just around the corner from here. One thing is that I read the newspaper, and I feel responsible for everything in it. Well, not everything… the Warriors are not my fault! But you can always see that we have the ability to do something differently here, and that’s the lens I read everything through now.