She describes herself as “youth adjacent” and by all accounts, Jacinda Ardern’s rise to become Leader of the Opposition at the tender age of 37 is meteoric.
But defiant against anyone who questions whether her age counts against her as potential Prime Minister material, she has a point.
She’s two years younger than Emmanuel Macron, and he’s President of France. And on experience, Ardern is no newbie to Parliament.
With the sudden resignation of Andrew Little, one hour later Ardern took her place in Labour Party history as the 17th leader – the sixth in nine years – with a careful mix of focus, vigour and the right amount of reluctance so as not to drag her predecessor further under the bus.
Unlike Little’s ascension – which happened primarily with the backing of the powerful union votes rather than through caucus support – Ardern’s popularity is more universal.
Her rise has been speculated on for years, and without much in the way of prodding or behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt that has precipitated the leadership ambitions of her forebears before they made their moves.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a mongrel streak.
It’s apparent in interviews where she’s artfully straddled the line between giving full support for her leader, without diminishing her own ambitions.
“For me it’s been about saying whatever’s best, whatever’s needed,” she carefully told Stuff the morning after steam-rolling the competition to win the Mt Albert by-election in February.
She was already being talked up by others to replace veteran Annette King at that point. It would only be a matter of days away, though she batted away speculation to the end.
“It’s not about whether you’ve got ambition or not, it’s just being mindful of the collective and being willing to just roll with the punches,” said Ardern.
She rolled with them then, not wanting to (or having to) say much to push her star ahead. And she’s rolled with them now.
But Arden has also voiced her doubts about whether she can personally cope with the pressure of the job – and that was as deputy leader.
“I hate letting people down. I hate feeling like I’m not doing the job as well as I should. I’ve got a pretty big weight of responsibility right now; I can’t imagine doing much more than that,” she said in a recent interview with Next Magazine.
In the space of 24-hours, she found herself in the hot-seat. Not just standing slightly behind and to the right of Little, but in his place and tasked with turning around his mess with just seven weeks lead-in to an election.
She is her own harshest critic
It’s an unenviable position and Ardern is likely to be her own harshest critic.
Provided the party can capitalise with a bump in the poll numbers, they’ll give her leeway and time to settle into the job – even if Labour lose at the polls.
But despite her general popularity, Ardern has faced criticism from some quarters – questioning what she has achieved in Parliament. She would be the first to argue against claims she hasn’t earned her spot.
Ardern is younger than most, but more experience than many in her caucus and has a reputation for working very hard – even if she hasn’t landed the public hits against the Government in the same way her deputy Kelvin Davis has.
She entered Parliament as a list MP in the 2008 election, pre-conditioned for a political life from her previous work as a researcher for party stalwarts Helen Clark and Phil Goff.
Ardern has also spent time in London as a senior policy advisor and ahead of her entry into Parliament was elected President of the International Union of Socialist Youth.
Questioned on Tuesday whether she felt up to the task of negotiating with the Green Party and NZ First post-election she said: “I used the be the President of an international youth organisation that had members from Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. I think I can do this.”
A more literal translation might be: “Please, I got this”.
Indeed, Ardern’s appeal has been as much about her confidence that has never come across as aggressive. She’s self-deprecating in a way that few politicians are, but that former Prime Minister John Key was one who had it finely tuned.
The Morrinsville native is proud of her rural upbringing – the daughter of former policeman Ross Ardern, now High Commissioner to Niue.
Talking to media in her first conference as leader, Ardern pointed to her roots in describing what she brought to the leadership and her ability to relate to New Zealand on a scale Little struggled with.
In her nine years as an MP, Ardern has also had a wide range of senior portfolios. She’s held youth affairs, justice, corrections, police, social development, children, arts culture and heritage and small business.
Indicative of her reach into areas not typically associated with Labour, Ardern has also held respect as someone who listens and is willing to be collaborative with many in the business sector.
It’s that type of reach that Labour is banking on to save them from an election-day massacre and certainly, there’s little in Ardern’s personal political history to suggest she’s prone to failure.
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