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Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s 37-Year-Old Leader, Rolls Up Her Sleeves

22 minute read

The executive wing of New Zealand’s parliament is nicknamed—for reasons immediately obvious to anybody who has seen its exterior—the Beehive. And fittingly, three days after its newest occupant has moved in, the ninth floor is buzzing.

Bubble-wrapped possessions and cardboard boxes clutter many of the rooms now inhabited by aides to Jacinda Ardern, who, on Oct. 26, and at the age of 37, became the world’s youngest female leader. The new prime minister is in the process of personalizing her Cabinet Room. Several books by Robert Fisk lie on the shelves, along with a child’s history of New Zealand, a string of cowrie shells, a portrait of Michael Joseph Savage—who led New Zealand’s first Labour government from 1935-40 (Ardern heads the sixth)—and a ukulele.

“I have a collection of ukuleles,” she tells TIME, flashing a smile that is Obamaesque in its breadth and warmth. “I meant to graduate to the guitar but I never did.”

Close by is an 1897 edition of Women Who Win: Or Making Things Happen—and on the face of it, Ardern appears to represent a stunning feminist victory. She is aware of what her appointment could mean to women. “If I can give a sense of hope that there is a path, that you can find yourself in these wonderful situations … it’s a simple message, but I hope it’s one that just my presence conveys,” she says.

But there is a hint of the passive voice there—because the “wonderful situation” of being her country’s leader is something that Ardern really did just find herself in. The election was not a decisive, feel-good, generational shift—or a routing of the patriarchy—but rather more nuanced than that. The manner of how she came to power—as the head of an alliance with a populist right-wing party on whose support she critically depends—says much about democracy in our time. It also says something about a country on the edge of the Pacific that the global imagination constructs as a pristine, inaccessible Eden—the epic, widescreen backdrop of Lord of the Rings—but which, in reality, is grappling with the same sort of woes that the whole planet faces.

Ultimately, the present state of Middle Earth tells us that nowhere is remote. New Zealand is in the grip of a desperate housing crisis and has the worst rate of homelessness in the 35 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. There are polarized views on immigration, huge dairy and farming industries that are degrading the environment for which the islands are famous, and shocking levels of child abuse and youth suicide.

From the Cabinet Room, all is beauty and repose. The green hills that are one of the defining features of New Zealand’s capital can be seen encircling its other—a serene, blue-gray harbor. Affluent weatherboard homes in white and gray climb the slopes, which in parts are so vertiginous that well-off residents install private cable cars to carry them from roadway to front door. It’s an astonishingly pretty sight, at least in the sunshine. (Locals, who know the capriciousness of the city’s weather, say with loving sarcasm that you can’t beat Wellington—on a good day.)

And yet, out there, are problems that would test a veteran leader, never mind Ardern, who has only been in a shadow cabinet. For the time being, it is all so new.

“I must work on my bookcase,” she says, taking in the empty shelves. “We’ve only just moved in.”

A crowd awaits the arrival of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Parliament House in Wellington on Oct. 26, 2017.Hagen Hopkins—Getty Images

‘Making this coalition work is the greatest challenge’

In numerical terms, Ardern actually lost the election, and by a considerable margin. Labour got just 37% of the 2.63 million votes cast, compared to the 44% won by the incumbent center-right National Party—or the Nats, as many call them.

To be sure, she came late to the fight. After suffering record-low poll ratings, Labour leader Andrew Little resigned on July 31, saddling his then deputy Ardern with the leadership just weeks before the general election on Sept. 23.

She fought hard. In fact, she became so focused on the tactical campaign that she remained unaware of what a fabulous story she was becoming. A week after her inauguration, when TIME tells her she is the world’s youngest female leader, Ardern is taken aback. “The fact that you just shared with me that piece of information, and I was completely unaware, I think probably demonstrates that, for me, it’s been a matter of just getting on with it,” she says. “You know, as soon as I came in as leader we had seven weeks to an election, so we had to be entirely focused on the job we had in front of us.”

That focus didn’t win Labour a majority, however. Neither did Ardern’s undeniable charisma, quick intelligence, or flair for social media. What the papers quickly called “Jacindamania” was good enough for making major gains at the expense of the relatively staid Nats—a party satirized by one disgruntled voter as being made up of “white guys who used to be policemen.” But in the end, the 14 new seats Labour picked up brought their total to just 46 compared to the 56 seats held by the National Party, who found themselves 5 short of a majority.

That meant that the balance of power lay in the hands of two minor parties—the Greens, who won eight seats, and the far-right New Zealand First, which won nine. The latter is headed by the crotchety Winston Peters—a 72-year-old populist with a loathing of the media, anti-immigration views, and a penchant for racial gaffes. Coalition negotiations began and, on Oct. 19, with the dramatic flair of a man who has played kingmaker on more than one occasion in the past, Peters announced which side he was backing—without informing Ardern, or National leader Bill English, first. Reportedly, he made the decision on a sort of macho impulse, 15 minutes before announcing it to the nation.

So it was that Ardern only learned from watching television that she was to become her country’s youngest prime minister in 150 years. (The Greens also came onboard as silent partners.) In return for his support, Peters, her ideological and philosophical opposite in almost every respect, extracted a substantial price. He was to become both her deputy prime minister and foreign minister (roles he has held in previous governments) and New Zealand First was to be given four cabinet positions—not bad, for a party with only nine lawmakers in parliament.

Defenders of the New Zealand style of democracy will argue that Peters is a complex and misunderstood figure and not the huffy old crank that ignorant foreign journalists depict him as. The Labour-New Zealand First alliance is, according to this view, a pragmatic coming together of two patriotic organizations with the interest of the common, working New Zealander at heart; Peters is a sort of éminence gris with a twinkle in his eye, giving gruff assent to Ardern’s iconoclastic youthfulness. Helen Clark, the former Labour prime minister and Ardern’s mentor, goes as far to say that “There will be a feeling internationally that the old New Zealand, with its social consciousness, interest in peace and climate change, is back.” Whatever this is, it is not a take over by the far right. How dare you even suggest it.

But Ardern and Peters are a fantastically odd pair. She is so moved by the plight of poor children that she has, besides the prime ministership, taken on the ministerial portfolio of child poverty reduction. Peters, on the other hand, leads a party that has frequently called for a repeal of laws that prevent New Zealand parents from hitting their offspring (this in a country where a child is admitted to hospital every other day with injuries from assault, neglect or maltreatment).

She is a single-malt-loving sophisticate (18 year-old GlenDronach, if you want to get into her good books), a sometime DJ with musical tastes that run from drum ‘n’ bass to Sid Vicious and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. He opposes LGBT rights and once said that New Zealand was in danger of becoming “an Asian colony.” In 2014, while launching an attack on overseas buyers of New Zealand land, he actually said “two Wongs don’t make a white”—a remark labeled by the country’s race relations commissioner as “shameful.” Kenneth Wang, the deputy leader of New Zealand’s ACT party, said at the time: “Every time Mr. Peters stirs up anti-Chinese feeling, he gives racists in the community encouragement to attack Chinese. I have reports of Chinese women being abused in the street [and] young louts going into Chinese shops to abuse shopkeepers.”

“Making this coalition work is the greatest challenge,” says Jennifer Curtin, an associate professor of politics and international relations at the University of Auckland. But, she adds, “Even if [Ardern] does not serve nine years, she’s going to go down in history.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford arrive at Parliament after a swearing-in ceremony at Government House in Wellington on Oct. 26, 2017.Hagen Hopkins—Getty Images

‘I was both Mormon and the sober driver’

“Behold, I am Jesus Christ, I created the heavens and the Earth,” booms a recorded voice in an incongruously American accent. It emanates from behind a 10-foot stone messiah at the Visitors’ Center of the Mormon temple in Hamilton, New Zealand. The city of 165,000 on the North Island lies under infamously sullen skies, and its western suburb, Dinsdale, is Ardern’s birthplace. Hamilton is also the country’s Mormon capital.

According to Tiki and Temple: The Mormon Mission in New Zealand, 1854-1958, a scholarly history by Marjorie Newton, New Zealand has been on the Mormon radar almost as long as there has been a Mormon church. In 1832—just two-and-a-half years after the church had been organized—the editor of a Mormon newspaper, William Phelps, was much taken with a descriptive passage he had read about the indigenous Maori (“to think that such a people exists upon the Islands of the sea”) and called for their conversion. This was long before the Latter-day Saints, still facing persecution, had even thought about foreign missions. But, wrote Phelps, “The Lord will not forget [the people of New Zealand]. The Isles are to wait for his law.”

In 1958, that law was given concrete form (literally) by the Hamilton New Zealand Temple. Like a Parthenon reimagined by Stalinist architects, the temple’s angular whiteness looms over the countryside, the only man-made structure of note on the horizon. This is the spiritual home of New Zealand’s 112,366 Latter-day Saints. Inside the visitors’ center, a friendly international group of young female missionaries, chaperoned by a genial American Elder, will seat you at the feet of the Lord and play you his recorded exhortations. Afterward, they are happy to talk about covenants with God, the centrality of family life, or even the New Zealand church’s most notorious apostate. That would be the new prime minister.

Everyone knows the Arderns here. In 1989, Richard Hunter, then a 21-year-old missionary from Australia, was sent to the congregation in Morrinsville—a town of 7,000 souls just 30 minutes down the road. During his three-month stint, he recalls, fellow Mormons Ross and Laurell Ardern used to host him for Sunday roasts, where their 9-year-old and 11-year-old daughters, Jacinda and Louise, would play the ukulele and sing “You Are My Sunshine” to him. “You don’t get serenaded by a future prime minister that often,” he says.

Ardern was raised in the church. Her father was a police officer, and her mother a canteen worker. She attended congregations in Hamilton and in Morrinsville, growing up amid a verdant flatness dotted with enough cows to inspire its sobriquet: “Cream of the country.” Morrinsville’s main street—with its colonial brick buildings, barbershop, bakery, and gas station—is exactly the kind of place that the mind conjures up when phrases like “New Zealand heartland” get uttered. Ardern’s former science teacher and neighbor, Alison Dawson, happily drives the visitor around the local points of interest. Here’s the old family house, its wraparound porch overlooking a lawn where, Dawson says, a young Jacinda used to collect lost golf balls from the neighboring course. There’s the Golden Kiwi, the fish-and-chip shop where Ardern got her first job at the age of 14. And within walking distance of both is her old high school, Morrinsville College.

“She was always positive, enthusiastic,” says Dawson. “Always willing to go to the nth degree to understand.”

The Hamilton New Zealand LDS Temple on Nov. 2.Aidyn Fitzpatrick

Ardern describes herself as the serious, teetotal Mormon girl among her peers. “It was how my friends identified me,” she laughs. “I was both Mormon and the sober driver—that was the benefit they saw from my [church] membership.”

She left the church in her early 20s while living with three gay friends in Auckland—unable to reconcile a religion where “sexual relations are reserved for a man and woman who are married” with her belief in marriage equality. But the parting had been long in coming.

“I’ve got to say that it was pretty obvious to me, as her teacher, that the feminism and Mormonism were going to clash,” says Gregor Fountain, 44, one of Ardern’s teachers. At Morrinsville College, she was involved in just about everything—the student council, the school newspaper, the debating team, and the human rights action group. She won a science award for identifying a bacterium to kill off bowling green fungus, and led a campaign calling for female students to be given the right to wear trousers.

“You could see the start of feminism shaping her worldview,” says Fountain, recounting a project she did on the New Zealand feminist and legislator Marilyn Waring. There was little written information on Waring available, but Ardern was undeterred, Fountain remembers. “She just rang her.”

This was the paragon who graduated from the nearby University of Waikato in 2001, studying politics and public relations—an odd combination, but one that partly explains the Prime Minister’s Blairite flair for being on-brief and on-message. As her professors tell it, her career at Waikato was stellar. “We teach students, but there are some students we learn from as well, and I would say that she was one of those students,” says her former communications professor, Debashish Munshi, 59. “The simple things like humility, social consciousness—you can see what a great communicator she is.”

His colleague Kay Weaver, 53, the university’s postgraduate pro vice chancellor, adds with a proud chuckle: “We don’t have to use Obama’s speeches anymore in class. We can use Jacinda’s.”

From Waikato’s diversified campus (the school has the highest Maori enrollment of any in New Zealand), Ardern’s trajectory followed that of the social-democrat Bright Young Thing. Working as a prime ministerial researcher in Wellington and London. Getting elected as the president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Becoming a Labour MP at the age of 28 (she was the youngest lawmaker in Parliament at the time).

Apparently, this is sort of thing that precocious New Zealand kids just do. “You know, that is New Zealand,” says Ardern of her early resume. “One of the things I’m so determined to preserve and restore is the fact that you can be the kid who was born in Dinsdale and find yourself working for the British government in the U.K., to being prime minister.”

Certainly none of it was a surprise to her peers. In the Morrinsville College 1998 yearbook, the student nominated most likely to become prime minister was—well, there are no prizes for guessing.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern attends an awards show in Auckland, New Zealand, on Nov. 16, 2017.Phil Walter—Getty Images

‘We know we can be better than this’

New Zealand is so stunningly beautiful, and so very laid-back, that first-time visitors refuse to believe that there can be anything wrong with it. You’re not supposed to use your car horn between 11 pm and 7 am, and unless a flight is boarding, airport screens display the friendly enjoinder: “Relax.” In the heart of the capital, the sound of birdsong can sometimes be louder than the traffic.

This is a place where you can see a dozen rainbows before dinnertime—where rivers have such potent, palpable energy that they are given the same legal status as people. In the course of a day, you can watch the morning sun gild the mist of silent valleys, stand on a black-sand beach while the surf roars and an almighty southwesterly blows straight into your soul, and then drive up to the snow-covered slopes of an active volcano.

Come back to New Zealand, though, on a second, third, or fourth visit—when you’re more accustomed to those rainbows—and not all appears well beneath the widescreen skies. Why is that bedraggled couple ahead of you in the checkout line behaving so oddly? They’re high—among the thousands in the grip of the country’s meth crisis. What about those mystic rivers that flow like molten gold across the valley floors at sunrise? Most of them are unfit to swim in because of pollution from agribusiness. Or that quaint, ramshackle house at the end of the street that looks as if it could be abandoned? Peer through the broken windowpane into the blackness, and you see a family with children, attempting to make it a home. The talk on your motel room TV is of alcoholism or suicide. The latest Maori film is about a young boy who has died as a result of abuse.

Middle Earth is unwell. One third of its children live below the poverty line. It has the highest youth suicide rate (ages 15-19) in the developed world, and one of the worst rates of domestic violence. On average, a child is killed here every five weeks.

“These are markers that I think New Zealanders wouldn’t want to be known for,” Ardern concedes. “We know we can be better than this.”

Then there is the housing crisis, which many see as inseparable from all the others.

“Housing and drugs and abuse are all connected,” says Quentin Tuwhangai, 50, an addiction counselor in the old riverine city of Whanganui. “I’ve seen it manifest its ugly head in the area in which I work. When you take away somebody’s ability to have healthy living, then they have nothing.”

Poor housing has had a profound impact on public health. “We’ve got people living in really low-quality houses—they can get damp and cold and people can’t really dry them out properly,” says Claire Kathro, 48, a nurse in Kerikeri in the country’s far north. “They can’t afford to heat them, and they certainly can’t afford to have the dehumidifiers going. So we get kids ending up in hospital for days and days with all sorts of chronic respiratory problems.”

Prices of homes are meanwhile soaring. Now averaging about $410,000, the cost of a Wellington house rose 21% in just the last year, surpassing even the growth rate of Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city and ranked the fourth most expensive in the world for housing after Hong Kong, Sydney, and Vancouver. Home ownership has hit record lows, with many would-be first-time buyers simply priced out of the market.

“My brother moved to Auckland earlier this year and for a while he was sleeping in his car,” says Olivia Leckner, 21, a communications student at the University of Waikato, like Ardern before her. “He was employed full time but he couldn’t find somewhere to live.”

Many blame “foreign buyers” for this state of affairs. The term tends to be a euphemism for mainland Chinese investors—and indeed New Zealand is ranked sixth on their list of their desirable buys—but this is equally the bolt-hole of wealthy American survivalists and fugitive Internet moguls. At the same time, data is very sketchy: there are no registers of foreign buyers or of foreign shareholders in companies buying local property, and not everyone agrees that carpetbaggers in Shanghai or Silicon Valley, phoning in their bids to the Auckland auctions, are responsible for driving up prices. Michael Rehm, a senior lecturer in the department of property at the University of Auckland Business School, argues that overseas investors are, in fact, “the epitome of the marginal buyer.”

And yet many have a story to tell about them. Abdul Azam, 39, is a vehicle inspector turned taxi driver living in Hamilton. He immigrated from Fiji 14 years ago, and now—heralding an epochal shift in this Mormon capital—heads the fundraising committee for the city’s first mosque. He says that he, his wife, and their 12-year-old son wanted to upgrade to a bigger, better home. They recently went to an auction hoping to land their pick for a maximum of $550,000 New Zealand dollars (about $377,000). They lost out as soon as the bidding began.

“Straightaway this Chinese guy raised his hand and said ‘Five-fifty,’” says Azam. “I looked at my wife and said ‘Let’s go.’”

Ardern’s solution has been to announce the drafting of legislation to ban nonresident foreigners from buying local homes. She has also halved immigration. These are policies that play well with heartland voters and her right-wing coalition partner (“a political win,” Rehm calls it, “particularly [for] New Zealand First”). They also prompted USAToday to call her a “Trump-like leader.” The Wall Street Journal tweeted that she was “like Trump on immigration.”

Such comparisons baffle her (particularly as somebody who joined an Auckland march for women’s rights in the wake of Trump’s inauguration). “I welcome the opportunity to confront [the comparisons] head-on,” she says. “I would be loath for anyone to describe New Zealand or New Zealand’s leadership in that way,” she adds, pointing out that the country has doubled its refugee quota at the same time as cutting immigration.

To Ardern, restraining foreign speculators, and being choosier about immigrants, is about preserving the safe-haven aspect of New Zealand that makes it so attractive in the first place. “We’ve had a debate about immigration in New Zealand for some time,” she says. “Now what we’re trying to champion in that conversation is a recognition that New Zealand has been built off immigration. I myself am a third-generation New Zealander. [We need to make] sure those who choose to call New Zealand home are given the best opportunities possible. We have a housing crisis. We have not built the infrastructure we need. We need to do that so that we don’t offer a false dream to those who make an extraordinary effort to upheave their lives to come here.”

So far, so sensible. But Ardern is inexperienced. The markets view her with suspicion. Large sections of the population have not bought into Jacindamania (conservatives dismiss her appeal as “stardust” and jeering farmers have called her “Tinker Bell” and a “pretty communist”). Her coalition with Peters doesn’t look like a long-term bet. She has talked about her reluctance to lead (but now says “It’s never been about me, but what we can do as a collective”), and been open—disarmingly, it must be said—about her anxiety (“Making sure that we’re a country that talks about our wellbeing, talks about looking after one another, talks about mental health, is a conversation that needs to be had”).

But if not what, New Zealanders knew exactly who they were getting when the young prime minister from Morrinsville told reporters that she went home to her Wellington studio and “ate a pot of noodles” after concluding negotiations for a coalition government. Or when she had several members of the popular local band Fat Freddy’s Drop jam at parliament following her inauguration, before warning the crowd that “There will be good days and there will be bad days.” After the festivities, she hopped not into a limo but a chartered bus home, posting a giddy picture of the ride to her Instagram.

Says Fountain, her former high school teacher: “There’s not a public, private, or political persona. There’s just Jacinda.”

With video by Helen Regan

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