It wasn’t so long ago that Jacinda Ardern was behind the counter, taking orders at the nautical-themed takeaway joint. Now, the 40-year-old New Zealand Prime Minister is one of the world’s most recognizable leaders.
The big question isn’t whether she will win a second term for her party, which now seems all but certain, but if her party will make New Zealand history by becoming the first to secure a majority under the current political system.
But Ardern is not without her detractors. Her critics say she has done little in her first term to deliver the transformational government she promised three years ago. And some of her opponents are here in Morrinsville, where she grew up.
A prophetic yearbook in Morrinsville
Morrinsville is better known for producing milk than Prime Ministers. Driving into town, lush green paddocks dotted with dairy cows slowly give way to one-story weatherboard houses behind short wooden fences, which in turn become farming supply stores and tractor outlets.
On the main street, colorful cow sculptures grace the sidewalk — a cow outside a pharmacy has a medicine bottle painted on its side, while another outside the veterans’ association has a gun attached to its back. A shiny Holstein Friesian — or “Morrinsville Mega Cow” as it’s known — looms over the main stretch, as tall as a two-story building.
In the 1980s, Ardern’s family moved 160 kilometers (100 miles) away to Morrinsville, where her grandfathers had dug drains and farmed. Ardern’s father worked as the town’s police officer and her mother as a cook at the local school. As a 14-year-old, Ardern landed after-school shifts at the Golden Kiwi fish and chip shop. “She was always a very good talker,” said Morrinsville farmer John Walsh, as he waited one chilly Friday night for takeaways outside the shop, where he used to be served by the young Ardern.
It was her aptitude for speaking that scored Ardern her first political victory as a schoolgirl in the 1990s.
Ardern was the student representative for the board of trustees at Morrinsville College, a small high school with colorful murals and a large grassy field dedicated to rugby, New Zealand’s national sport. In that role, she managed to convince the board to change the uniform rules so that girls could wear shorts — “ghastly corduroy trousers,” as Ardern’s former social studies teacher Gregor Fountain remembers them — not just skirts. “My recollection is that we were ahead of our times,” said John Inger, who became principal of Morrinsville College while Ardern was at school, and who is still the principal more than two decades later. “No doubt in a very conservative rural community like ours that would have raised a few eyebrows.”
Inger remembers the teenage Ardern as intelligent, articulate, cheerful, and persuasive, with a strong sense of social justice. She was a keen debater, a frequent speech competition winner, and a member of the school’s Amnesty International group, which advocated for human rights. When pushed on whether there was anything she was bad at, Inger reluctantly points to her lack of sporting ability — but even then, she gave it a go, he says.
Unlike many of her peers, she didn’t drink, Inger says. She was well respected and “walked around with a big smile on her face all the time,” he says. “She had no enemies that I’m aware of.” Fountain agrees: “At school, she was popular but not like the total cool kid. There were cooler, trendier people.”
When Ardern left high school, she graduated with the second-highest grades in her year. The real tell for what was to come was in her high school yearbook, where classmates voted on each others’ likely futures.
In the Morrinsville College 1998 yearbook, there’s a prophetic phrase written in Comic Sans: “Most likely to become Prime Minister … Jacinda Ardern.”
Morrinsville isn’t where national leaders are made. For that, Ardern needed to go to New Zealand’s capital.
It was in Wellington that Ardern, after graduating from Waikato University with a degree in communication studies, began working in the office of Labour leader Helen Clark, the country’s first-elected female Prime Minister.
At 28, Ardern was ready to move into the political spotlight. She returned from the gray stone buildings of London to stand as a Labour candidate in the farming region of Waikato, which included Morrinsville.
But there was no hometown advantage. Waikato is so blue — the color of the National Party — that it hasn’t elected a Labour Party representative in nearly 100 years.
In 2014, she lost to Kaye again — this time by 600 votes.
Finally, in February 2017, she won a safe Labour seat — a seat once held by former Prime Minister Clark — in a byelection triggered by the resignation of Clark’s successor.
It was only the start.
An unprecedented election
Two months before the September 2017 national election, New Zealand’s Labour Party was in the doldrums. A slew of middle-aged male leaders — four in less than a decade — had failed to ignite enthusiasm in voters, and the party was heading toward its fourth crushing election defeat in a row.
At 37, she was Labour’s youngest-ever leader and in line to lead the country, if the party could hustle enough votes.
And when the election was held in September 2017, her party took home 37% of the vote — well up on the 25% it had received the election before, but still less than National’s 44%.
As neither major party had the 50% of votes needed to lead the country, both had to pair with minor parties. For a month, there was no victor. Then Winston Peters, the charismatic — and often contrarian — leader of the conservative New Zealand First Party, announced he would partner with Labour and the liberal Green Party.
Fountain remembers hearing the news and says his first thought was concern over how Ardern would wrangle her coalition partners and hold the government together.
That night, as he put his kids to bed, he heard his former student on the radio.
“I was like, oh my god, she is the Prime Minister,” he said. “She just sounded like the Prime Minister.”
The first baby
On January 19, 2018 — less than two months after she was sworn in as Prime Minister — Ardern posted on Instagram. That in itself wasn’t unusual — she had harnessed social media throughout her political campaign. But this particular image reverberated around the world.
In the lead up to the 2017 election, Ardern had been asked on one of New Zealand’s biggest television channels about whether she planned to have a child. She told the broadcaster that it was fine to ask her that question as she had opened herself up to it, but she made it clear that other prospective employees shouldn’t be put on the spot.
After Ardern revealed she was expecting a baby, her critics — at least in New Zealand — were silent. By and large, it quickly became an accepted reality in New Zealand that their leader was having a baby.
In part, that was thanks to the way she worked to normalize her pregnancy. Other women held down jobs while pregnant and balanced motherhood with their work — so why couldn’t she?
In June, media kept wait outside one of Auckland’s main hospitals. It was more like a royal birth than a political event. No other New Zealand leader had ever given birth in office. In fact, Ardern was only the second in the world to do so.
On June 21, 2018 — still less than a year into her first term — Ardern gave birth to Neve Te Aroha Ardern. Her first name, Neve, means “bright” or “snow” — a nod to being born in the Southern Hemisphere winter. Her middle name — which means “love” in New Zealand’s Indigenous language, Māori — is named for Mount Te Aroha that looms above Morrinsville’s lush farmland.
Christchurch, White Island, coronavirus: A term of disasters
The first year of Ardern’s leadership was a breeze compared with what was to come.
On March 15, 2019, a White supremacist killed 51 people in the first terrorist attack on New Zealand soil. As New Zealand — a country where gun murders are infrequent — reeled from the attack, Ardern responded in a way that once again catapulted her into international headlines.
Hours after the shooting, Ardern announced that gun laws would change. She called the gunman a terrorist and said she would deny him the notoriety he wanted by never mentioning his name. And, in striking images that went around the world, she wore a hijab as she mourned alongside the Muslim community.
“She certainly excels in times of crisis,” said New Zealand political commentator Ben Thomas. “What was really needed was the expression of empathy … her enormous wells of empathy are very genuine and she can project them probably more effectively than anyone on the world stage.”
Under New Zealand’s lockdown, Ardern appeared alongside the country’s top health official in daily briefings broadcast on national television where she reiterated the importance of listening to medical experts. She had already been popular — but during the coronavirus pandemic, with the whole country on lockdown, Ardern’s daily televised updates became a ritual for many.
“She’s seen variously as every voter’s sister or best friend or mother or girlfriend,” Thomas said.
“There’s no public and private Jacinda, there’s just Jacinda,” says Fountain. “And she’s always been like that. I just feel like it’s genuine authenticity.”
“It’s very much New Zealand, you could be anywhere and anybody — a neighbor — could decide to stand for Parliament,” said Ethel Riddle one afternoon in May, as she sat with her high-spirited Morrinsville knitting club. When Ardern had baby Neve, the Knitter Knatters made her a white waffle-knit blanket with the Morrinsville Mega Cow in the middle. “It’s not a very major difference between them and us.”
Just because her image might be cultivated doesn’t make it inauthentic, said Thomas. “There’s never been any suggestion that there’s a secret, calculating Jacinda,” he said.
But Ardern’s personal popularity and exceptional response to the country’s crises can only take her so far. And beyond those, some say Ardern’s first term has been less successful.
Why some people won’t vote for her
In a muddy paddock surrounded by mooing cows, lifelong Morrinsville farmer Lloyd Downing describes Ardern as “charismatic,” “intelligent,” and approachable.” He knows her family — he even went to her grandfather’s funeral.
“I guess we’d have to be proud of her,” he said.
But Downing — like many others in Morrinsville — won’t be voting for her.
“She’s a pretty special person, and she’s very popular overseas,” Downing says. “Her and her party we could probably wrap up (in a package) and send over there.”
Unlike in other countries, where politics has become increasingly polarized, Ardern’s opponents have plenty of positive feedback. They admire how she has handled the three crises during her term — the Christchurch massacre, the White Island volcano eruption, and the coronavirus pandemic. And they like her as a person.
“I look at the way she handles my mother, who is definitely not a Labour voter, and my mother thinks she walks on water,” says Alison Dawson, the mother of Ardern’s high school friend, Virginia Dawson.
But beyond that, some say her policies pose unnecessary economic risks.
Downing thinks Ardern and her party have attacked the rural community, creating strict environmental controls to clean up New Zealand’s polluted waterways that make life harder for farmers. He also worries that Labour has no business expertise: “She’s throwing money around like drunken sailors, there’s money going everywhere.”
Her detractors — some of whom have labeled her “Taxcinda” due to what they see as her party’s apparent proclivity for taxing — argue that her party doesn’t have the economic chops to handle the country’s pessimistic post-Covid outlook.
“She’s a very good Prime Minister, but I think the spending is just too much, it’s going to send the country broke,” said Morrinsville tennis coach Clem Apted.
“(Ardern’s skill) matters during Covid, when you’re trying to get people to buy into this idea of solidarity and caring for each other,” said Thomas. “In terms of getting 100,000 houses built, it doesn’t really matter whether you deliver 400 houses with kindness or with diffidence — you’ve still totally failed to deliver.”
In some ways, Ardern faced an uphill battle to bring in significant policy shifts. As coalition leader, she needed the support of not just Labour’s more natural ally, the Green Party, but also the more conservative New Zealand First Party for any changes in the law — and that was not always forthcoming.
Thomas said it was hard to say how much Peters had constrained Ardern during her first term. “There’s certainly a mix in there of New Zealand First providing a real handbrake on some things and also being a convenient excuse on others.”
This election, polls show Ardern’s Labour Party is on track to increase its share of the vote — and could even obtain more than 50%.
If that happens, it would be unprecedented. Since New Zealand’s current political system was introduced in 1996, no party has ever won more than half of the votes — they have always formed coalition governments with other parties. Ardern herself has played down the possibility of a record-breaking victory — and has refused to rule out partnering with Peters in any future coalitions, despite the apparent difficulty he has caused her government.
If Ardern wins a majority, she’s in a position to push through more transformational policies. For now, her legacy is likely to be limited to the deft handling of multiple crises, said political commentator Thomas.
Ardern’s former teacher Fountain sees it differently. To him, Ardern’s style of leadership — her emphasis on kindness and wellbeing — has already had an impact on New Zealand’s society. “There’s a small town warmth that she has really carried with her.”
The question now is whether she can parlay her popularity into transforming New Zealand in other ways.
Illustration: Max Pepper
Graphics: Sarah-Grace Mankarious
Video: Ben Foley
Editors: Hilary Whiteman and Steve George