'Where's the beef?' - Ardern tests her mettle

“It feels like a huge amount has happened in that time.” - Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Labour are polling at their highest levels in years, driven by the new face of the party Jacinda Ardern. As part of our election coverage, Newsroom talked to Ardern yesterday about showing her sterner side as leader of the opposition and why being compared to an old hamburger by Winston Peters is water off a duck’s back.

It's the last day of Parliament before the election, and Jacinda Ardern is almost bouncing off the walls.

She’s just returned to her office after a fluent adjournment speech where she called out the Government for not doing all they could for the country’s children.

In the next major poll - due out a few hours after our interview - Labour is expecting a huge lift (which it did get, at the expense of the Greens).

It has, so far, been a fairytale three weeks for both the party, and Ardern, since she took over from Andrew Little as leader.

A powerful display in her first press conference sent media fawning, while the next day she created headlines after calling out breakfast host Mark Richardson for misogynistic comments about pregnant women in the workplace.

New billboards with her gleaming smile were quickly ordered and a campaign slogan (let’s do this) hastily drawn up, while she coolly asserted her power on the left by informing the Greens their then co-leader, Metiria Turei, would have no part to play in any government she formed.

Even a Trans-Tasman diplomatic snafu that threw doubt on the eligibility of Australia’s deputy-prime minister Barnaby Joyce failed to dent the armour.

Indeed, Ardern came out of the affair looking stronger after standing firm against Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop’s claim she would struggle to work with Labour because of the awkward role MP Chris Hipkins played in the scandal.

“Our relationship with Australia is critical, it goes beyond just diplomacy. It’s much, much deeper than that, so when I saw the strength of the message we heard from the minister in Australia it was really important for me to convey a really strong message back,” Ardern says.

“Those are the things that come with the job, I’ve certainly worked around politics long enough to see that at any given time you’ll have something thrown at you that’s unexpected and people’s measure of you will be how you deal with that.”

So far, so good for the new rockstar of New Zealand politics. But has the transition really been so smooth behind the scenes?

A seamless transition?

It’s hard to believe Andrew Little was the leader of the opposition only three weeks ago.

Just how quickly he’s faded from memory in the bright lights of Jacindamania perhaps says it all, but leading up to the change the mood was bleak within the party.

Leadership changes can be brutal things, with different factions fighting it out and the fallout often disastrous.

But Ardern says the changeover has been unbelievably smooth.

Within 72 hours the campaign had been refreshed, and donations and offers of support, from both the public and former Labour staffers, came pouring in (more than $500,000 has been donated since the leadership change).

Little is now back to being justice spokesman and has been keeping a low-profile around Parliament (although he has been spotted wearing his trademark spectacles again).

He is, however, sitting pretty at third on Labour’s list – something Ardern swears was her idea, not a demand from Little.

“For me that was a given, he’s straight into being an enormously important member of the front bench and playing a really strong role in our senior team.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Andrew, I saw how hard he worked as his deputy and then I saw him grapple with the decision in the face of some tough polls and through all of that it was all just about what he could do on behalf of Labour.”

A tougher edge

Since that fateful day on 1 August the New Zealand public has seen a harder edge to Ardern.

It is, of course, natural for the leader of the opposition to be front and centre on issues.

But the public was immediately given a taste of the sterner Ardern during her AM Show appearance when her non-infamous finger wag emerged.

Ardern says there has been no conscious change in her personality, and she does not feel that as a woman she has to act tough to be taken seriously.

“Most people who watched that will know that that wasn’t an issue I took particularly personally but when I was sitting and watching that interview I just thought in my mind I need to really respond to that.

“There was no calculated decision about it, it was just ‘that doesn’t feel right to me and I’m going to say something’. That’s just who I am.”

New Zealand politics is a small world, one Ardern believes best works when people are themselves.

She says having an instinct you can trust is perhaps the most important trait, and something she will continue to rely on as the public get to know her better.

“The fact that I still consider myself a pretty positive and optimistic person, the fact I still like to do politics differently hasn’t changed, perhaps what people have seen is when a hard issue comes my way I’m going to be firm and hard on it, but that’s who I am as well.”

The tax party?

National has so far avoided personal attacks on Ardern.

Instead, a plan seems to be forming about targeting Labour’s perceived love of taxes and the uncertainty of what exactly might be introduced if elected.

So far the party has only confirmed two new taxes; a royalty on bottled water and irrigation and a regional fuel tax for Auckland.

But others have been signalled as possibilities.

In June Kris Faafoi said Labour were finalising their policy around a tourist tax, that would likely be used to fund industry infrastructure, while Ardern has re-opened the door on introducing a capital gains tax in her first term depending on the findings of a working group.

She would not give her thoughts on other proposals such as a broad-based land tax, but said if elected by the time the working group was set up and reported back New Zealanders would have a good idea of where they were heading and would have a chance at the next election to either support them or vote for someone else.

“We have been clear, I think people if they’ve heard me talk about...we’ve been clear we don’t think our taxation system in New Zealand is fair and that it’s not fair that someone, for instance, who works a 40 hour week doesn’t have their income taxed in the same way as someone who makes a profit off multiple home ownership who moves them on.”

In the past few weeks Labour’s plans to charge for water have become quite charged themselves.

The spectre of the Foreshore and Seabed Act has reared its ugly head, with some commentators seeing echos of the past in the party’s plans.

National assert nobody owns the water, Labour thinks everybody does.

Just how the issue will be thrashed out is unclear, with both the major parties saying the details will have to largely wait until after the election.

But Ardern thinks her party has been far clearer with the public than the Government.

“We’ve made very clear in our view everyone has a stake in water, everyone has an interest in our waterways being cleaned up. Consent holders and Maori, yeah, may have more of a stake but let's resolve that. This is not a question of ownership and this does not open us up to renegotiating Treaty claims.

“My challenge to the Government would be 'what’s your plan?' Because there has been some acknowledgement from their side that there’s an argument for water pricing but they’ve kicked it off to a technical working group who aren’t going to tell us what they’re going to do until December. I don’t think that’s right. I’m happy for them to criticise us, but they need to be open about what they’re going to do.”

Making a government work

To do all this, Labour will need to not only form a government but get it running smoothly.

If Ardern and the party want it to work, they’re going to have to deal with NZ First and its rambunctuous leader Winston Peters.

In a soon to be published interview with Newsroom, Peters said he had no opinion of Ardern as there was nothing to form one from.

“The very love fest that [the media] are engaged in, sooner or later somebody’s going to be asking the question like that famous hamburger ad in the United States – where’s the beef? Where’s the substance?”

He’s referring to a 1984 commercial from Wendy’s that became associated with the American presidential election when Democratic candidate Walter Mondale used the popular phrase to sum up an argument.

So how will she make a partnership work with Peters?

Ardern says she learned a lot during her time working for Helen Clark, particularly how run a coalition government.

“She (Clark) sweated the small stuff and that was important, she wanted to know the basis of everything they were doing, why, and she was always values-driven when making those decisions but evidence-based was always important so that’s something that I carry with me from that time.”

Fair enough. But how would she describe Peters, if asked the same question he was?

“Seasoned, if we’re sticking with the burger theme.”