Election 2020: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on her big win and big plans

When the seemingly endless election campaign finally ended, Jacinda Ardern marked the result with a magnanimous victory speech in the Auckland Town Hall, and a quiet glass of whisky at the end of the night.

But the celebration continues as she comes across new gems for Labour in the result.

“We won Morrinsville!” she says with sheer delight about her old home town.
“It is probably the most historic thing that happened that night that has yet to be reported,” she jokes.

“We won Morrinsville! We won it by 2171 votes to National’s 2138.”

In 2017, after the infamous Waikato farmers’ protest and “pretty communist” placard, Labour polled a paltry 24 per cent to National’s 58 per cent in the rural town.

“It’s quite a big change – very satisfying,” Ardern says with classic understatement in an interview about her party’s win and her plans.

With 49.1 per cent of the vote, Labour can already govern alone with 64 MPs, and the special votes could take it even higher.

So when did Ardern have an inkling it might be a landslide?

“I didn’t,” she said.

Labour pollster UMR had the party maintaining high support throughout.

“But because in my own mind, everything about this election was so different, in a way I also convinced myself that it might be different in the way it played out on election night,” she said.

“I don’t think I ever allowed myself to think we would have a result like that.”

The extent of the result really hit home on Monday night at a caucus dinner in the old Public Trust building on Lambton Quay.

Earlier in the day Ardern met up with Labour’ s new intake of 22 MPs at their induction course in Parliament and told them that the reality might take some time to hit them.

“And when I walked into the dinner that night, I think that’s when it really occurred to me just the size and diversity of the caucus.

“Just seeing the two long empty tables, it felt like I was at a wedding because there were so many seats.”

Taking a group photo was not a simple task for one of her advisers.

“When Rob Salmond went to take that photo of the caucus, he put down a seat and he stood on it to take a photo and realised we didn’t fit, so he slid the seat [back] and stood up on it again.

“He did it three times so he could get everyone in.”

Labour now has more women MPs than men. The new intake is 16 women and six men, and there are no straight white males among them. Of the new faces, only half are Pākehā.

Ardern said it was the result of a deliberate effort by the caucus, party president Claire Szabo and the New Zealand Council.

“We’ve really worked together to make sure we had a good crop of people coming through and it has made the difference.”

Some of them, particularly Ayesha Verrall and Barbara Edmonds, come in with big reputations in health and tax law and are tipped for an accelerated path to ministership, possibly even some time this term.

Like many politicians, Ardern is having her first weekend off with family for a long time.
She and fiance Clarke Gayford got engaged at Easter last year and they will probably get married this term, she says when asked.

“I would expect so- but I might have expected to last term,” she says.

“We haven’t set a date. I don’t know. It’s no one’s fault. It’s obviously pandemics and elections aren’t great environments to plan these things.”

When Ardern returns to the Beehive next Tuesday, she will resume talks with the Green Party over how they will co-operate this term.

And she will continue to work on the shape of her Cabinet before “cracking on” with the work plan.

She has not yet decided whether it will be the standard Cabinet of 20 or if she will keep a couple of free seats as she did before the election, but if she did, it would not be for lack of talent.

“I can see merit to both, so I think I could reasonably do either,” she said.

“That is something I am still mulling over a bit. But for me, if we have any fewer, it will not be because we don’t have the people to put in, but in part, I do have my mind to good succession planning.

“I think we do ourselves and New Zealand a disservice if we are not constantly thinking about nurturing talent, bringing new people through, giving people opportunities and actually, it is always much easier to slot people into vacancies than it is to move people out.

“That’s just something I am thinking through a little bit, about how I’ll do that but we’ve operated without 20, no problem, so I don’t see that as a talent question. It is a strategic question.”

Ardern wants to keep the Child Poverty Reduction portfolio and, not surprisingly, the one that every Prime Minister holds, National Security, especially with the Royal Commission into the Christchurch terrorist attack due to report back soon.

The one portfolio she seems set to hand on to a dedicated minister is Arts and Culture.

Ardern remains dedicated to getting better results in Child Poverty Reduction and also to getting more timely data.

The current time lag was what she called “crazy, absolutely crazy”.

“Basically what we had for this election just gone was 18 months of data from the first half of our term, so you end up getting pummelled for not even the full picture.”

Child Poverty Reduction was a flagship policy of the last election campaign and it was part of the 17 priority measures of the first 100 days – a campaign device usually preserved for a change of government.

By the first 100 days – February 3, 2018 – the new Government had introduced legislation to set child poverty reduction targets and to change the Public Finance Act so the Budget was required by law to report progress on reducing child poverty.

There will be no 100-day programme this time.

Ardern explains: “100 day plans, I think, are a very useful device, particularly for the public service, when you are new. When we first came in, because of the 100-day plan, the public service were able to sit down with us and say ‘okay, this is how we are going to roll this out for you’ and it sped up the transition.”

But right now, she is looking for the public service to accelerate work on existing plans.

“Now I want them to speed up the New Zealand Upgrade work, the infrastructure investment, the PGF [provincial growth fund] roll-out that we’ve already had, the infrastructure programme across schools and health, jobs for nature which we have to keep rolling out.”

Instead of a 100-day plan, she will prioritise certain work to be done before Christmas – and one of those will be one of the Covid-19 assistance measures for small business.

“There are some things I do want to kick off before Christmas … I will absolutely make the amendments to the small business loan extension before Christmas.”

Labour promised during the campaign that the scheme, due to end this year, would be extended for another three years.

Unlike 1999 and 2008, when Labour and National respectively undid many of the other’s workplace laws, Ardern is not in a rush.

She wants work started, but she is not into pushing controversial measures through in a triumphal way – even though she could on issues such as doubling the statutory entitlement to sick days from five days to 10 days.

“There are ways we can make progress but also making sure we are hearing people,” she said.

“There are some areas that are Covid-specific and Covid-related that it makes sense for us to crack on with but I do want to have good engagement with the private sector because the design work over, for instance, sick leave and accrual will be really important.”

One thing she will be mindful about in forming her ministry, is giving Māori a stronger voice – nearly 25 per cent of the Labour caucus is Māori.

She regards calls for separate institutions for a Māori voice as a sign of failure in current ones.

“That just seems to me because we have failed at using the positions that we have now so I am always thinking about how I can do a better job at that.”

Stronger representation of Māori was reflected in government appointments last term.

“We have started that work in the judiciary. We started that work on the appointments to our [district health boards], finally giving Māori seats at the table where health decisions are being made, so that is something I am constantly being mindful of too.

“It is one thing to have the representation. It is another to give decision-making to and voice and different roles.”

She is a little too preoccupied with putting together her own Government to have considered using former Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters in any way after his New Zealand First Party was voted out of Parliament.

“I haven’t given too much thought to that because actually he is always going to be his own man and he is going to decide what he does next,” she said.

“I do think he has something to offer New Zealand but I haven’t really thought too much on that.

“The conversation we had was very much acknowledging the past three years and I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity – and actually I think our relationship is still pretty solid.”

In Ardern’s victory speech last Saturday, she pledged to govern for all New Zealanders.
She believes that is what she did in the first term as well.

“They didn’t vote for an imaginary version of us – they voted for us because they’ve seen us and they know who we are, how we govern,” she said.

“That consensus-building, that collegial style of working, just getting on with things even if there’s a bit of distance in our opinion, in a way that brings as many people with us as possible, that’s what I mean by governing for everyone.

“We won’t always agree but the way we worked together is really important to me,” she said.

“You know some of the messages I got on election night and the day after were from our farming leaders who we have built really good relationships with, as much as they were from the CTU.”

As Ardern might say, very satisfying, and definitely something worth celebrating.

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