When we first started talking with Jacinda Ardern’s people about the possibility of sitting down for an interview with the Prime Minister in her local cafe, Crave, it was a toss-up whether it was the PM or Lorde who could lay claim to being Morningside’s most famous patron (not that either of them ever would).
Just 18 months on, however, there’s no debate. Jacinda has become one of the world’s most famous faces, globally lauded for her response to the March 15 terrorist attack in Christchurch last year, and pretty well beloved, overseas at least, for her leadership of New Zealand during the COVID-19 pandemic. On the very day the PM came to Crave to be interviewed, news had broken that she had been placed no.2 on a list of the world’s best thinkers by the UK “intellectual” magazine Prospect. The Atlantic magazine, in April, said she was possibly the most effective leader on the planet. In recent months she has been recognised as the world’s most eloquent leader and in June, the UK’s Vogue magazine praised her “different kind of leadership, one that puts kindness at the top of the agenda”.
Despite all this global adulation, the daily pressure of managing a country through a one-in-100-year health crisis, leading the Labour Party through a vital election campaign, fronting the media almost every day of the week, and still finding time to let Facebook followers connect with her in the context of her domestic and family life, Jacinda made time to talk with journalist and author DAVID WILLIAMS on behalf of the Under the Hood series for Crave. He started off by pointing out how generous it was of her to give up 30 minutes for an interview that was, in the scheme of things, pretty low in priority. True to form, Jacinda argued that it wasn’t generous at all … in fact, it was the whole point.
David: It is generous of you to do this — but also you are generous with your self, whether you're taking people into your home, on Facebook, or answering questions the way you do with journos. You come across as very generous and I wondered, have you always been like that?
Jacinda: Isn’t it funny because I wouldn't have thought of it as generous, as you put it, as much as it is that I feel like the reason I got into politics was to make a difference to people and their daily lives and the only way that you can really get a sense of whether you're making that difference or get a sense of the things that you need to be doing on behalf of people to be fulfilling your ambition for why you’re there is if you feel close to people, and the benefit of politics in New Zealand is that proximity. The last thing I would ever want to lose, no matter where I was in the job, was that sense of proximity to people.
David: You’ve fought to maintain that, obviously.
Jacinda: The good thing, in a way, is that it's almost built into the New Zealand system because we're a small country, but I have been very conscious about it. People seem to think, I think sometimes, that you go into this job and then suddenly you become very cut off. But it's the opposite. You have more excuse to be around people in lots of different walks of life and lots of different situations. And what I'm conscious of is never losing that. Social media as well for me is maybe a bit different because, you know, I was on social media before I became a politician, and so it wasn't a device for politics, it was a device that was just the way I communicated with my friends and it never felt like anything I put much thought into, the idea of doing a Facebook live at home — why wouldn't I? Why wouldn't I just use the tool to talk to people? That's what it's there for.
David: I know from my experience of politics in Australia that people can enter politics with idealistic intentions and have those intentions crushed. You seem to be saying it’s quite different here.
Jacinda: I do think politics in New Zealand and Australia and even within the Labour parties in New Zealand and Australia is different. I think actually, probably in New Zealand it matches our way of doing politics. So people in New Zealand don't particularly like the attack politics. They don't particularly like the negativity. And thankfully we don't have factions within the Labour Party, whereas they’re built in in Australia, and so not only do you have that tension between political parties, you have it within the party you’re in.
David: You don’t have that?
Jacinda: No, no, no, no. I think I'd find that exhausting. It's hard enough. So I always give them a ribbing about that as well. But also I have had a particular philosophy in politics. I don't think it has to be that way. I don't think it has to be adversarial. I do think that we can keep it about ideas without it being about personality. And I've fought very hard to maintain that standard for myself and tried to create that culture in our party as well.
David: The news today of you being listed as the second best thinker in the world by Prospect … what I thought was interesting is that they’ve recognised how you've landed your kindness philosophy in action. I'm wondering how you translated an idea like kindness into actions that actually benefit people. And also how your ideas filter through the system so that the person on the end of the phone at IRD sounds like they’re on your side.
Jacinda: You give people permission to do that and that's where it stops just being a philosophy and it has a practical application. And I hope that people who are using Work and Income services would have experienced the same in the transformation over the past few years, where simple things like, for instance, redesigning the front of house at Work and Income so that they are friendlier places to be, so that they have space for kids and toys — simple, simple little changes that then feed right through to the way that we treat people one on one, when we're interacting. And so that culture change program at Work and Income, I see as being as valuable as anything that we could do to our benefit regime itself, because often the products are there — it's about making sure people are accessing what they need and doing that in a way that treats them as a dignified human. And so yeah, it's not just a word.
David: But you would almost be forgiven for allowing it to be just a word, with the excuse that you’re too busy to see how it filters down. But just the fact that you are aware of what you’re doing at Work and Income ...
Jacinda: We were very deliberate about it. It was a part of our culture change program when we came in. We saw that was something that had changed and that doesn't make it a nice environment for people to work in either. And so those changes, they might seem subtle, but I think they're powerful. And then it's also what we do in reaction to events. My personal view about March 15 and New Zealand's reaction, was the reaction that the community of all New Zealand wanted to share in the face of something so horrific. It was ultimately just channelling what I think is a belief that we have a shared humanity and New Zealanders are acutely aware of that. We are a very diverse country, but we know that we've got a set of values that we fundamentally, by and large, mostly share and in our reaction to something so horrific, that's what came through.
David: We've all watched the pandemic updates, the press conferences, every day, and they seem to be getting more adversarial. I'm interested in how you cope, and considering your kindness philosophy, does it break your heart that it’s so adversarial?
Jacinda: This might surprise you when I say it, but actually, it's no different than it was for me two years ago, three years ago. All that’s happened is that people are tuning into it. Usually, I do a minimum of four stand-ups in a week. Minimum. Sometimes two a day. And so I'm used to it and that's just the way they are. They don't feel like they've actually changed for me. They've always been like that. If anything, COVID changed the tone, because they became about public information. But that was the unusual, that was the difference. So it was different when you tuned in. Whereas what I'm used to is them being like that all the time. And often. I mean, it's one of the parts of the job. It's very frequent, I’m with the media a lot.
David: You brought Stephen Colbert to Kind last October. Was that because it's called Kind?
Jacinda: It's because it's my local. Literally, it is the place on a Saturday where if I've got a morning off, we’ll put Neve in the pram and we’ll walk around and grab a coffee and then walk home. It's just a part of our little routine when we're here. I literally took him to my local. But I do love the philosophy of Kind and Crave, I do. My local is my local because of its philosophy as well.
David: How do you do “neighbourhood” when you're constantly moving between two, Morningside and Wellington? How do you invest in the community when you’re constantly split between two?
Jacinda: Yeah, it's a good question. I think the principles of being a good neighbour, though, still apply, whether you’re a frequent neighbour or not — whether you're present all the time or part of the time, I think those philosophies of always trying to support your neighbourhood, that’s buy, play, experience, you know local. Those simple philosophies. Trying to just be a good neighbour. Our neighbours are great. They’ll mow our berm when we’re not there. Or likewise, Clarke might do theirs when he's out or pulling in each other's rubbish bin. It's just the little things, just like normal neighbours. But when it comes to my wider neighbourhood, I think it's just about being aware that whether I'm in Wellington, whether I'm here — and I do feel much more connected here, partly because Premier House, it just doesn't have quite the same proximity within its own neighbourhood. But I keep talking about how I want to open it up a bit more. And so when there’s a market that happens down Tinakori Road, and every year we open up the car park to be part of the market. We put in the Christmas tree in the front room of Premier House for the kids. And we opened it up for the historical groups to do walks and tours. So we try, but it has a particular feel about it. It is, by its nature, cordoned off. You know, big fences, security, that becomes a bit of a block. So I'm always looking for active ways that we can feel more (connected). We have an Easter egg hunt. I've started a Christmas Party for Barnardos every year. And so we’re just trying to find ways, even though we’re behind, to open up our home in Wellington as well. But here, I just live in a suburb with everyone else, so it feels easier.
David: Do you have to pay particular attention to some community type things like, where Neve is going to go to school?
Jacinda: She's going go to the school at our back door, which is Balmoral. Same as anyone else.
David: In a way it’s a silly question but you’ve become one of the most famous faces in the world …
Jacinda: Oh, I don't feel that way. I'm still just a politician.
David: But you’ve been so different to the norm that it’s elevated who you are globally — so some of these community questions are around how you’re able to do the normal stuff without all of that changing you?
Jacinda: As you can probably see from me, I don't actually really believe that is particularly real, and maybe that's why my … even if it is, probably if that has happened, it's probably been the whole endeavour. I've always had to just be normal in this job and live a normal life, whilst having the privilege of being in a job that very few people get to do. But I just think for us as politicians the more that we can continue that normality, the better connected we are to our communities, and need, and what fundamentally needs to change. And so I see normality, as much as we can, as being really key. It's part of building empathy and having that kind of awareness. I just wouldn't be able to do my job if I didn't have it. Again, it all comes back to that proximity — you know, the things that you pick up just from walking down to your local dairy or doing your supermarket shopping and having those normal experiences of the logistics of managing a two-year-old and family life. All of that changes the way I think and feel about the job I do, and the policies we write, and that helps me do my job. Big countries you don't have that, it’s harder. Maybe it's a cultural thing as well. Kiwis are inherently quite grounded. Part of it is probably a bit of the “never get too ahead of yourself”. You've got all these people keeping you in check. We've all got that — that's just inbuilt through our culture. I hear it often when I'm overseas and I'm working with people who engage with New Zealand businesses or invest in New Zealand businesses. And they’ll say, You guys are amazing, you're such hard workers, your ideas are incredible, but my gosh, you really undersell yourself and your confidence is not what it needs to be on the world stage. And yet at the same time that makes us who we are, and it often makes us work harder. And it makes us humble. And it also helps us to succeed in a lot of ways. But those are just philosophies and traits that I see, in business, that I see in politics. I see it in our people, and there’s positives and there’s negatives to that.
David: It feels like post-COVID we’re going to need community initiatives like Crave and Kind, the way two guys were able to change and impact a neighbourhood. How do we rebuild from the ground up?
Jacinda: Yes, in fact, as part of our child wellbeing and the child poverty work we've been doing, I've been really interested in this notion of community hubs. Wherever you go in the country you will find versions of it in different ways. Sometimes it will be centred around cafes, places where we meet and eat, and sometimes they'll be centred around the beginnings of social services. But what I'm interested in is how do they start, and what makes them successful. And then, rather than government ever trying to replicate that or create a formula for that, what's our place in growing and supporting the seeds of it to generate itself? Because I don't think they would ever be as successful if we ever came in with some kind of pre-formed idea of how they need to start, grow and support community. And so in the end, after doing a bit of work on these different variations that exist, I’ve asked Poto Williams, our Minister for Community and Voluntary Sector, to pick up this work and just see what role, if any, do we have to play in supporting community to meet need in whatever form, whether it's social supports, whether it's community networks, whether it's physical spaces. We’re small enough that we can do that thinking, and think about how we can network and support community in that way. So it's not fully formed yet, but I get that it's not always us starting. Sometimes it's just us supporting.
David: Your leadership, particularly around communication, was a masterclass during the first lockdown. How did you know what we needed? Because from the very first moment that you stood up and talked us through everything, we were ready to follow. Were you following a particular leadership model?
Jacinda: One of the toughest things about COVID is that there was no model. Yes, we had a pandemic plan, but that’s very focused on public health and what needs to be done there. There were a couple of things. Firstly, I was trying to scan over what actually is the most successful approach we can take from a health perspective first and foremost. And talking to experts and scientists was really key for me. I have a chief science advisor called Dr Juliet Gerrard and I speak to her multiple times a day, and still do. She really helped inform our response. So those were the real foundation pieces, and then the next thing that became really clear to me is that it's one thing to have a comms strategy, you have to have a plan. You have to know how you're going to manage this long-term difficult environment and health crisis. And when I was one day sitting down, you’ll remember the whole world for a while just was talking about flattening the curve. Flattening the curve was what everyone was pushing for. Someone modelled for me one day what flattening the curve would mean for us in terms of possible hospitalisations, possible loss of life. And it was clear to me that actually flattening the curve was not going to be a good outcome for New Zealand, that actually we needed more than that. And so we started talking about how we could move to a strategy that would possibly keep these small waves manageable — that meant the system would always be available for whoever needed it. Sometimes squashing the curve might mean that you didn't get the hospital care you might need. And when we started looking at this, that's when it struck me that actually, it's a bit like water restrictions or fire restrictions — when you need to get into a period of higher alert and you need to ramp up your restrictions. We need to be able to communicate that to people, and when we come back down we need to communicate it to people. And so that's when we said, on a Wednesday afternoon, I remember saying to the team we need an alert level. We need to be able to say to people, we’re here now and this is why and now we’re here and this is what you need to do. And so we, within a three or four day period, created an alert level framework — which we tweaked as we went and as we learned — but that became really key. But we could only have that because we had a plan as well that was attached to it.
David: But you were also acutely aware that the community needed to be with you.
Jacinda: Yeah, I remember when we started talking about just doing that midday address, it felt like a pretty significant moment. Here we were breaking into programming. I just remember thinking, people rightly are going to be afraid and so the best thing that we can do is just tell them everything we know — what our path is, that we're all in it together. And that's what we did.
David: On the fear and the mental health, what have been your vulnerabilities through this whole period? We’ve all experienced some fear, some anxiety, maybe depression, some lethargy. Do you give yourself space to feel those vulnerabilities?
Jacinda: I just feel the same emotions as everyone else, because it's what helps me know what people are feeling and what I should be talking about because I feel it too. I knew how everyone would feel when we had cases come back because it was a blow for all of us. But I will always have hope. No matter what, no matter how everyone else is feeling, I will always have hope that we’ll be OK. Because I believe it too. It's not misplaced hope, I have genuine hope. I know we will be OK. I know it’s going to take us a bit of time, but the scientific community is pulling together in one direction and quickly. The expectation is a vaccine next year. We're preparing ourselves to roll it out very quickly. We just have to hang in and I know we can.