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Jacinda Ardern: Everything you need to know about the once-Mormon feminist

The Weekly’s Juliet Rieden sat down with the 37-year-old mum-to-be and soon discovered there’s much more to this politically trail-blazing New Zealand PM than her positive pregnancy test...

By Juliet Rieden

When Jacinda Ardern, 37, announced her pregnancy last month, it sparked global debate. How could the new Prime Minister of New Zealand have a baby and still run the country? But the gutsy, likeable, keenly principled politician was quick to silence her critics. "I am not the first woman to multi-task! I am not the first woman to work and have a baby.

I know these are special circumstances, but there are many women who have done this well before I have," she quipped, instinctively sweeping aside centuries of sexism with a mere flick of the wrist.

What's more, she added, it would be her partner, Clarke Gayford, the 40-year-old TV host of an increasingly popular fishing show, who would be putting his day job on hold to hunker down into stay-at-home-dad role, with Jacinda taking just six weeks out. "After that I'll be coming back on deck. And Dad will be taking over duties," she said with a cheeky smile, clearly enjoying the gasps from traditionalists.

But behind that smart, confident, generation Y exterior, I suspect, is a lot of furious paddling. This is Jacinda's first pregnancy and she tells me she was just as shocked as everyone else by its timing. "We'd been told we'd struggle to have kids without help, so it was a genuine surprise, but an exciting one," she shares as we discuss the parameters of what will be a challenging year for the couple.

"I was really conscious I needed to balance making sure I had recovered enough with baby, while also needing to fulfil the job I've been elected to do as Prime Minister."

Be yourself

In the lead-up to the discovery that she was going to be a mum, Jacinda had been spearheading a passionate pitch by Labour, the party she had only weeks before become leader of, to overturn their disastrous poll results and win as many seats as possible in the election. Jacinda's campaign was pure and positive and in record time – to the shock of her opponents and delight of her fans – she started achieving the impossible.

A can-do attitude tempered with cluey pragmatism and innate old-fashioned decency is how Jacinda approaches politics. And when I speak to locals from all sides of the political divide they are in agreement: Jacinda Ardern is that rare thing, a politician who says what she genuinely believes.

In broad strokes Jacinda's ethos is simple: she wants to help the disadvantaged, fix child poverty, tackle climate change – and she wants to get it done now!

"Of course in politics your job is to hold another party to account, especially when you're in opposition. When you're in opposition for nine years, that shapes you a bit. I wanted the chance to say in this next seven weeks people want to hear how we'll be different.

"That was the kind of campaign I wanted to run, and I remember when I said it was going to be mostly positive, that's just because that's who I am," Jacinda says.

"I don't think there's a nasty cell in her body but she can be very firm," explains veteran political commentator Colin James, who claims he knew Jacinda could go all the way to the top right from her first speeches in Parliament.

"It is not firm and nasty; it's firm and fair about what should and shouldn't be." Jacinda's high-school teacher, Gregor Fountain, agrees. "Jacinda is a person of heart and I think one of the things that makes her so effective is that she is so authentic," he says. "There's not a private and a political Jacinda. There's just Jacinda."

Jacinda's baby is due to be born in June.
Jacinda's baby is due to be born in June.

Of course in the midst of trying to win over the country, becoming a parent couldn't have been further from her thoughts. "I found out after the election," she explains, "but while we were in the middle of quite intense negotiations to see if we would be able to form a government. To be honest, I put the pregnancy news aside in my mind a little bit. I was excited but also incredibly aware that these things can be a bit fragile in the beginning."

Clarke was just as flabbergasted. "It's something we had hoped would happen, but had no idea it would be so soon," he says. "So once the shock wore off I was very happy."

Six days later in an unexpected finale to the election, New Zealand First party leader Winston Peters, whose populist policies had previously always found a natural home with the Right, announced in a dramatic televised address that he was joining Labour in a coalition that would see 37-year-old Jacinda as Prime Minister – and all just nine years after she'd first become a Member of Parliament.

It was a piece of unabashed political theatre from veteran Maori politician Peters. The rookie Labour leader had no advance warning. In fact, she was watching it on TV, biting her nails, along with her colleagues and the whole country. "The moment I had a sense was during his speech. I thought 'oh my word, I think he's going with us!' It was quite emotional," Jacinda tells me.

Baby talk

Just seven hours after she became Prime Minister, Jacinda famously admonished a TV host for quizzing her about plans to start a family. "It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace," she retorted.

"It is a woman's decision about when they choose to have children and it should not predetermine whether or not they have job opportunities."

We're sitting in the modest brick and tile house in Point Chevalier, Auckland, that Jacinda shares with Clarke. Although she spends some nights in the grand PM's residence Premier House in Wellington, this is her home and she says this is where she'll be as a new mum.

The only clue to who lives here is the security detail parked outside, but when I ring on the doorbell it's Jacinda who answers. She's barefoot, beaming and more than happy to talk about that TV outburst. "I've always chosen to be open about that [the issue of being a mother while also being Labour leader] so it didn't bother me to be asked because I'd made that decision to answer. But the idea that any woman should be asked really bristled with me, really bothered me," she says.

"I was sitting on the side of the studio and I was watching this conversation and I turned to my press secretary and I said, 'I think I'm going to have to say something'. He looked a bit shocked and panicked. I didn't really plan it, I just said what I thought, and then when I looked back I thought, 'oh no, I've pulled out the finger'. It was a wagging finger," she chuckles, waving her finger in the air.

Adding to the emotion of the moment was no doubt the fact that Jacinda was actually pregnant and nobody around her knew. It became a beautiful secret between Jacinda and Clarke, who dodged the media as they went through that precarious early pregnancy period.

"There were things we had to go through to keep it quiet and that included seeing specialists late at night in places that looked perhaps not like a clinic and more like a home," Clarke revealed in an interview following the pregnancy announcement. "I remember walking in with a bottle of wine just in case someone saw us. I even had to Google 'sunset times' to work out when it got dark to make sure nobody saw us."

Meanwhile, Jacinda was also in a state of constant cover-up as she battled "the badly named 'morning sickness'". Badly named, she tells me, because she was sick all day long!
Clarke's decision to be primary carer was a no-brainer.

"We weighed it up and we decided that her job was possibly slightly more important," he laughs. "It was always on the cards to work out that way. I've always been completely supportive of Jacinda and I believe in what she's trying to achieve for New Zealand. So, it was easy for me to make that call. There are plenty of males out there that do that."

That said, he confesses he's only just coming to grips with the realities of their new world. "Life will change in ways I can't even begin to imagine," he says. "However I have lots of nieces and nephews and plenty of sisterly advice will be on its way."

Mormon childhood

The pregnancy is the latest challenge in a tumultuous 12 months for the girl from Morrinsville, the 8000-strong town in the Waikato region of New Zealand's North Island, where Jacinda and her sister, Louise, were raised in the Mormon faith.

"It was a typical small town, a community, knowing everyone," describes Jacinda. "My mum worked at my school cafeteria. My dad was a policeman. When I was young we had a small orchard that we worked on in the holidays and after school I learned to drive a tractor and a motor bike," she reminisces.

"I was a tomboy. I get a bit of a disconnect when I see myself described in particular ways now because I still feel like a tomboy, and yet when I get characterised somehow as this [glamorous] city person it doesn't feel like who I am."

Elder sister Louise, who now lives in London with her Columbian-born husband and two children – the youngest born on the day Jacinda was sworn in as the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand – also recalls a "really happy childhood".

"We were fortunate enough that Mum didn't work till we were in college so she dedicated a lot of time to our upbringing. In Murupara we got close to nature and would go on family hikes in the bush."

Jacinda in action.
Jacinda in action.

The Ardern family belonged to the local Mormon church, although Jacinda and Louise did not attend the nearby Mormon Church College, actually the only Mormon school in the country, which closed in 2009.

"It would have been a rural bus ride of about 35 minutes to get there," explains Jacinda. "We had a really good local school that I walked to. Also, my uncle was the principal of that school, so my parents probably saw that as more of a deterrent."

The sisters were the sole Mormons in the playground, but both agree the only thing that set them apart from their school friends was that "we were the only ones who didn't drink alcohol" says Louise. "I was their sober driver," adds Jacinda.

While she accepts some of the social justice and community support elements of the faith definitely shaped her values, Jacinda left the church in her teens when her interest in social activism presented an awkward road block. "There's no doubt that when you're raised in a church and a religion it has influence," she explains.

"I can't distinguish between whether or not I have this overwhelming sense of wanting to ensure people who are vulnerable are looked after, whether that came from the social justice bent I got through my mother and whether that was a faith-based thing or whether it's just who I am," she says.

"What I do know is that there were elements of the church that didn't sit well with me and a lot of that was about questions of equality and social justice, so that was what ultimately led me to leave."

Jacinda was living with three gay friends and the Mormon condemnation of homosexuality proved to be her line in the sand. "Civil unions came up as a debate and it was something I started campaigning for. I thought, 'this is a little bit contradictory'."

"I was still a member of the church and at some point I probably had to confront the fact that I had these two competing sets of beliefs. I believed ultimately in people's right as someone who identified as homosexual to be able to have the same legal status of their relationship as anyone else, and that overrode anything I'd been brought up with, because that was very visceral. It was a gut thing. So I left."

Her teacher Gregor Fountain recalls Jacinda struggling with her faith and says "it was pretty clear to me that the Mormonism and the feminism were going to clash".
I ask Jacinda how her parents reacted to her departure from the church they still belong to. "I didn't really talk to Dad much about it at all, but I did talk to Mum. She knew that it was not something I took lightly and she knew I was struggling, so it didn't surprise her."

Meanwhile, at school Jacinda was a typical swot. "I was quite hard on myself academically. I always saw my sister as the smart one. She's a scientist. Because she was older than me I always felt like I needed to be as good as her."

Gregor was in his first years of teaching when he met Jacinda and says she was "a very memorable student; curious and enquiring and she had a really strong sense of community which I think marked her as someone who was going to do some really awesome things".

Jacinda laughs when I tell her this. "I was an angsty teenager. Tree hugging. I set up a human rights action group with Gregor and I remember stuff would bother me.

Now, when I think back on it, it's a bit ridiculous, but I worked at Countdown [supermarket] and I had a nose stud and the boss there decided that I wasn't allowed to have my little tiny nose stud and work on the checkout. She told me I had to get rid of it. I didn't understand why this was a policy when the girl in the deli had a nose stud. This became this great issue of conscience for me, to push back.

I was polite, I was fast at my job, I packed people's groceries, what was the problem? Ultimately the nose stud came out, but I would put this little piece of clear plastic in there every shift I worked, so that I still had a nose hole but you couldn't see my glinty diamante."

Jacinda joined Young Labour not because she wanted to be a politician but because "Labour's my team and I wanted to help". Looking back now it seems inevitable she would end up running the show.

No Tinker bell

But life at the top hasn't all been plain sailing. As a woman – and a young woman – in politics Jacinda has faced many slings and arrows. While so-called "Jacinda mania" gripped the younger generation, she was called "lightweight" and a "pretty communist" by her detractors and even dismissed as a "Tinker Bell" by the dairy farmers.

Jacinda had watched on in horror when Julia Gillard battled ingrained misogyny when she was Australia's Prime Minister. "But it's not nearly as bad here," she muses. "I've observed women in Australian politics and I have a huge amount of admiration.

"When I came into politics I thought some of the comments about looks or anything superficial to do with being a woman would upset me. It hasn't. I remember even right at the beginning someone sending me this pet food clipping. It was a dog with ginormous over-sized teeth; somebody had cut it out and written, 'Why do you look like this?' and put it in an envelope and sent it to me.

I was amazed someone would waste the postage on something like that. If you'd said to me whether that stuff would cut I probably would have thought it would, but I kept it in a little file to have a laugh about it later. The thing that gets to me is if someone says I'm not doing my job well."

Jacinda confesses that despite appearances, she suffers from "imposter syndrome". "Gregor was the first one who taught me about impostor syndrome. I was a high- school student and he said he had it. Here was the best teacher I'd ever been taught by telling me he didn't think he was good enough at what he did. That meant from then on whenever I felt I was suffering from that same thing, I realised that lots of good people have the same problem and if they ever held themselves back from doing the next thing, what a waste that would be."

"Because I suffer from impostor syndrome, I prepare more, I'm constantly wanting to be across everything I'm doing. It makes me push myself."

As she runs past her first 100 days as Prime Minister Jacinda is flying pretty high in her own country. She is constantly bending Malcolm Turnbull's ear about New Zealand's long-standing offer to give refuge to Australia's asylum seekers, and is already changing laws to tackle child poverty. "She is a different generation and they have a different way of thinking," says Colin James.

"I don't like the word 'mania', but certainly there's a Jacinda effect on people. She looks at you and those eyes go right into you, even through a television screen. Young people flock around her but she's not a revolutionary, she's reformist. You don't get a whole new ball game out of her, but you do get different shots."

Jacinda says their baby will be raised not just by them but by New Zealand, and she and Clarke do have one more secret up their sleeves. They know the sex of their baby and they're going to try really hard not to tell.

And will they marry? "Never say never. It's fair to say we've done quite a few things in reverse up till now," says Jacinda with a knowing grin.

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