Six months in a (not so) leaky boat

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is preparing for a busy year after her first three months as Prime Minister. Photo: Shane Cowlishaw

With her first six months as Labour leader and her Government’s 100-day plan coming to a close, Jacinda Ardern spoke to Shane Cowlishaw about her preparations for the real battle ahead.

They say a week is a long time in politics, but for Jacinda Ardern the past six months have felt like a lifetime.

“It really does feel like a lot longer than that,” the Prime Minister muses while sipping on her morning cup of tea.

She drinks from one of the biggest mugs you’ve ever seen, one that is surprisingly never filled with coffee despite her hectic workload.

Her life has changed dramatically after becoming Labour's leader 185 days ago.

It sparked a frenetic rise to the most powerful position in the country, one where her every move and decision is watched and critiqued.

Despite this, Ardern feels she is yet to make a serious stuff-up since becoming Prime Minister, although she worries about the inevitable first one.

“Everyone has things you worry about and in this job you can imagine the list is quite long. Things keep me awake at night if I feel like I’ve really stuffed up, but if I feel like I’ve genuinely done my best, then I’ll sleep.

“I will make mistakes, of course I will, and there have been little minor things along the way where I’ve thought, ‘Oh I could have made that a bit easier for everyone’, but I will make mistakes and to a certain extent I do feel a huge weight of expectation so I worry about that day, but at the same time I hope at least I’m willing to front mistakes when I make them and I hope people will see that.”

There’s a good chance that first mistake could come in the next 12 months as the Government moves from its initial 100-day plan to a more substantial body of work.

All eyes on wages, job growth

While Ardern and her Government’s Teflon sheen seems to be holding, National has clearly decided to focus its attacks on one main area.

During English’s State of the Nation speech earlier this week, he announced a “Protect New Zealand Jobs" campaign, warning the Government’s industrial relations plans could derail the economy.

It’s an area that has always been a focus for Labour - it’s right there in the party’s name.

This Government is no different, planning a suite of changes which have been given a soft rollout in the first 90 days.

These have included an announcement that the minimum wage will rise gradually to $20 an hour and a partial reversal of the 90-day trial period, albeit one that was softened during negotiations with New Zealand First.

English said that when National was in Government it received official advice that boosting wages to such a level would cost thousands of jobs.

Ardern argues that while they will be receiving similar official advice during every minimum wage bump, at the moment predicting the effect of a jump to $20 in by 2021 is “highly hypothetical”.

Labour had raised the minimum wage in the past when in power and had always been warned it would lead to job losses, but that never happened.

She described the claims of damage to the economy as “scaremongering”, particularly around the Fair Pay Agreements that are due to be revealed later in the year that would see pay rates and benefits negotiated at an industry level.

"Our concern is where we’ve been going in recent years means we have people working longer and harder who are having to rely on subsidies from the state for their incomes to be decent. How sustainable is that?"

It has been suggested that individual businesses would have little input in what they paid their workers under the new scheme, but Ardern scoffs at this.

“That would be down to whether or not they have truly representative bodies speaking on their behalf, so that shouldn’t be a problem.

“I think at the moment there’s an attempt to make it sound like every single business operating in New Zealand (will be affected): let’s keep in mind the majority of New Zealand businesses are SMEs, what we’re talking about here is the ability, ultimately, to see a greater share of productivity gains going into people’s wages because actually, when we start lifting wages we all benefit from that.”

Ardern says all this while sitting in her ninth-floor Beehive office, which offers a sprawling view of downtown Wellington.

During the weekday rush she can see workers streaming to and from their jobs, a product of the bustling economy New Zealand currently enjoys.

So what if Labour’s changes did damage this? Would she admit the policies were wrong and reverse them?

“That’s just a hypothetical I don’t anticipate. Yes, we have huge ambition about where we want to go but we’re also pragmatic. Our concern is where we’ve been going in recent years means we have people working longer and harder who are having to rely on subsidies from the state for their incomes to be decent. How sustainable is that?

“I think they would want us to ask the question, 'How come we have seen productivity increases and yet the share of that going to the people who have worked for them isn’t increasing?'”

‘I’ll meet the Dalai Lama’

For any new world leader, how to deal with China looms large.

The delicate balance of keeping a check on their human rights record and increasing soft-influence while keeping the all-important trade relationship humming can be tricky.

Both Helen Clark and John Key tiptoed around the issue, with Clark in particular stressing that signing up to the groundbreaking free trade agreement with China wouldn’t hamstring New Zealand from standing up for what it believed in.

So what route will Ardern take on the relationship?

She says it will be similar to her predecessors, but dodges around several questions about what exactly her view on the country’s human rights record is.

“That’s what countries with close relationships do. If you’ve got a robust relationship you are able to do that and we use our opportunities and bilaterals both to express the areas of cooperation and what we can gain together but of course express areas where we have concerns, and that hasn’t changed.”

One unique decision that Ardern may face during her tenure is whether to take a meeting with the Dalai Lama.

It seems innocuous enough, but meeting with the Tibetan spiritual leader often draws the ire of Chinese officials.

In 2007, Clark passed on the opportunity to meet because she had already bumped into the Dalai Lama for 10 minutes previously at Brisbane Airport, while Key also declined to meet in 2009 because he “wouldn’t get a lot out of that particular meeting”.

For her part, Ardern says she would take the meeting if he was in the country.

“New Zealand always acts in its own interests and from our own perspectives.”

Leadership no sure thing

Since Clark's reign finished in 2008, the leadership of the Labour Party has been a sometimes shambolic revolving door.

Figureheads including Phil Goff, David Shearer and Andrew Little all failed to gain the support of the public, while the party was borderline dysfunctional under the helm of David Cunliffe.

When Little decided the game was up six months ago, that it was time to step down and let yet another person lead, almost everybody thought it would be a case of recent history repeating.

Turns out they were wrong.

Ardern led Labour back into government, is now the public’s preferred Prime Minister and leads a caucus that, so far, appears to be free of the usual squabbles.

In another reversal, it is now National who is mired in leadership speculation as it comes to grips with life in opposition.

Ardern, having spent almost her entire political life seeing such turmoil first hand, knows what it’s like to deal with internal power struggles.

“Trauma, trauma,” she sighs when asked her thoughts on the topic.

“The thing that you learn from that is it’s always different from the internal perspective, that sometimes absolutely nothing somehow, somehow, turns into something and how hugely frustrating that can be, and at the same time how demoralising it is and how it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, so I know that well.”

“I think the approach we’ll have to take is plan for the worst and hope for the best."

It’s even harder when those involved are friends and the issues play out publicly.

But as far as her opponent’s current problems are concerned, she is diplomatic.

“Of course this is politics and it happens to both sides but this is their issue, I’m not here to revel in it or stoke it, it’s their issue. We’ve got enough stuff to deal with.”

She’s not wrong, as her government gears up for a larger plate of work.

The reality is though that at least some of that change she wants to drive, such as reducing child poverty and making progress towards being a carbon neutral country, will require the support of her opposition.

Early signs of English’s willingness to engage on such issues don’t seem positive.

Following the Government’s announcement on its child poverty bill he criticised what he deemed a lack of consultation and a symbolic approach to bipartisanship.

So does Ardern think she can succeed on such big-ticket items without cross-party support?

“I think the approach we’ll have to take is plan for the worst and hope for the best," she says, with a slightly wry grin.