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New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern: More than just ‘the woman who gave birth’

“…even if I only create that sentiment or that environment or even create a little bit of solidarity for other women, that is something.”

Written by New York Times | September 11, 2018 11:18:26 am
Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, at her home in Auckland Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, at her home in Auckland. (Source: Mark Coote/ The New York Times)

She was going to be able to run a country and nurse a baby at the same time — without a nanny or a wedding ring! Why had it taken us so long to realize how seamless it could all be, writes Maureen Dowd.

At first, the skies were cloudless in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

When she took office last October at 37, Jacinda Ardern was celebrated with sunny abandon as New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in 150 years and only the second world leader (after Benazir Bhutto in 1990) to give birth and the first to take maternity leave. (Six weeks.) Vogue ran a piece christening Ardern the “Anti-Trump,” with a picture of the prime minister in a cream trench coat on a craggy beach that was so dramatic and glamorous that some on the internet mistook it for a publicity still for a TV detective show. She is part of the club of young, progressive leaders, along with Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, trying to counter President Donald Trump’s ugly impulses against the environment and multilateralism. In a sartorial triumph, Ardern wore a feathered Maori cloak to meet Queen Elizabeth at a black-tie dinner in London.

“It was highly coveted among the princesses at the dinner,” Ardern’s partner, Clarke Gayford, told me. “They made a beeline for her, and I’m surprised she managed to leave wearing it, to be completely honest.”

As “Jacindamania” swept the globe, Ardern was hailed as an exciting avatar of women’s future in politics. In the United States, where a stampede of women — including young mothers — is seeking office in 2018, it seemed almost a preview of what could be possible, albeit one with much better scenery.

She was going to be able to run a country and nurse a baby at the same time — without a nanny or a wedding ring! The boyish and charming Gayford, the 40-year-old host of a TV fishing show who smiles with delight no matter how many times he is asked “Is Jacinda your greatest catch?” would be the stay-at-home dad who would show the way for modern men.

Why had it taken us so long to realize how seamless it could all be?

Then Ardern took her first official trip since she gave birth to her daughter, Neve, 11 weeks ago and the fantasy of easy equality evaporated.

She has been forced to justify abbreviating her trip to the Pacific Islands Forum on the island of Nauru from three days to one, flying separately from her foreign affairs minister, Winston Peters, on an Air Force jet — at a cost of about $50,000 in U.S. dollars — so that she could breast-feed her daughter. Neve was too young to get the vaccinations necessary to go along. Even though Ardern had to fly there in the middle of the night and fly back a day later in the middle of the night, she wanted to attend because all Kiwi prime ministers consider it a can’t-miss; and also because she didn’t want to seem like she was shying away from an ongoing debate with Australia, as she tries to rescue refugees from the hideous holding facilities in Nauru, the shame of Australia.

Critics said Ardern should have gone for the whole three days or just stayed home and left the duties to Peters, who was “more than capable of holding court with all the local leaders over a drink at happy hour,” as morning TV host Duncan Garner huffed.

Never mind that in a nation dependent on tourism, Jacinda is the biggest thing to hit here since Frodo dropped the ring into Mount Doom. Her ministers had to defend her.

“This is an aircraft and a crew who would be working anyway,” Grant Robertson, the finance minister, told the press. “We allocate a certain amount of money to them each year, so it’s either this flight or another flight.’’

And Peters told me that he knew of an instance when a man in government here “with less authority and status who did that and no media beat him up. She should ignore the craven, cowardly trolls.”

But she is not ignoring the trolls. When I met her at her gray frame bungalow, a few hours after she got home, she was handing off her big black briefcase to an aide at the door, breast-feeding her daughter and anguishing about what she calls her “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” moment.

“What surprised me the most is how hard I took that, being given a hard time for going, but actually it did upset me a bit,” she said, wearing jeans with holes in the knees and a maternity pullover, kicking off her fuzzy leopard slippers and sitting in bare feet on the floor of the living room. Gayford stood in the kitchen, cradling the beautiful baby in a blue-and-white striped blanket. (In a cosmic wink, Neve was born on Bhutto’s birthday.)

“In New Zealand, we’re really careful about excess,” said Ardern, who bought her maternity clothes at Kmart and frequents secondhand stores. The country even resisted the global pandemic of Starbucks. “I hate the idea of anyone thinking that I don’t put a lot of thought about the cost to taxpayers. I make our ministers travel to events in vans to pool together.” She instituted a salary freeze last month that stopped a 3 percent raise for her and the members of Parliament.

“I want to be a good leader, not a good lady leader,” Ardern said, stretching out her legs. “I don’t want to be known simply as the woman who gave birth.”

I reassure her that in the United States, where we love excess, Trump has cost us over $70 million so far on trips to his golf clubs. When President Barack Obama spent an estimated $72,000 to go to Manhattan for date night with Michelle, he was hailed as a romantic hero. I wrote a column noting that, as a taxpayer, I was “most happy” to contribute to our urbane president’s date nights.

Ardern’s official residence is in Wellington. The Auckland bungalow is surprisingly small and down-to-earth for a prime minister, with knitted items for the baby sent by New Zealanders and toys strewn around. There’s a pink cardboard box full of congratulatory notes from the queen, Prince Charles and world leaders. Gayford has just renovated the deck and is working on the front path. As cyberbullying is to Melania, saving the oceans is to Clarke. Ardern, who intends to teach her daughter Maori, has magnets with Maori numbers from one to 10 on the refrigerator and gave Neve a middle name of Te Aroha.

The couple met when he got in touch with her about a constituency issue — a bill that Gayford worried would erode privacy. They share a love of DJ-ing and a droll sense of humor. She teased him during one joint interview that she could never shield her daughter from the sight of his dad sweater. And when he saw Ardern’s Vogue spread, he tweeted, “Well that’s the desktop sorted.” When a columnist wrote a nasty piece dismissing the First Bloke as a “hipster salty seadog,” he tweeted a picture of himself holding a fish and calling it another bottom feeder.

I ask Ardern if she is surprised that America has not yet had a woman at the top.

“Yes,” she shot back. “But I was equally surprised at the debate about universal health care. That’s not something we question here.”

Despite its beer and rugby bro culture, New Zealand is more progressive than Australia, where female leaders are lining up to call out sexism and bullying. Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand, is celebrating 125 years of suffrage and its third woman prime minister. But Ardern says there’s still work to be done.

“I got this letter today from a young woman that was so lovely, I just scribbled a reply back,” she said. “She got pregnant around the same time as me and she just felt like her boss was more willing to be flexible because he saw this expectation being built around making sure that women could have babies and remain in their jobs. And I thought, well, even if I only create that sentiment or that environment or even create a little bit of solidarity for other women, that is something.”

She wants to show that women can lead with different styles, not cast themselves in the egotistical, brash mold of many male politicians. “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak,” she said. “I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

She calls Gayford Huckleberry Finn, because he often wears shorts, even for interviews, and wanders around with a fishing pole. She grew up in a rural town, the daughter of a police detective and farmer, so she learned how to make tools and drive a tractor. She prides herself on being a “pointy head” and “girlie swat” because she enjoys the thick briefing books she studies every night.

On another day, when I came to interview Gayford, Ardern’s mother, Laurell, is there, helping with the baby. Jacinda was raised as a Mormon but left the faith when she was in her 20s over its stance on same-sex marriage. This year, she became the first New Zealand prime minister to march in a gay pride parade.

Laurell Ardern said her daughter’s optimism flowered early. At 8, she started a “Happy Club” for unhappy girls in her class, with rules about saying nice things to each other. Her sense of social justice developed early as well. Her mother recalled that when Jacinda was 16 and working as a cashier in a grocery store, she dipped into her own wallet when a customer came up short.

Her sunniness is a contrast to the doomsday cult burrowing into her country, which has become a favorite with Peter Thiel and other Silicon Valley digerati obsessing on the end of the world in the land of “Lord of the Rings.” The Parliament just passed a bill to curb foreigners from snapping up existing homes and crowding out local buyers.

Ardern met Trump in November at the East Asia summit in Vietnam. It came out that at first Trump mistook Ardern for Sophie Trudeau. When he realized who she was, he playfully told someone standing near her, “This lady caused a lot of upset in her country.” She retorted, laughing, “No one marched when I was elected.” She did not tell Trump that she herself joined the global women’s march the day after his inauguration.

Ardern is so committed to moral leadership, I wondered what she made of the charge in the explosive anonymous New York Times op-ed piece about Trump’s “amorality” and how his aides are working to ameliorate his habit of roughing up allies and flirting with foes. New Zealand, after all, is part of the Five Eyes intelligence coalition. And while Silicon Valley types might be marshaling bunkers and building panic rooms in New Zealand for the apocalypse, Washington was already in an apocalypse. Doesn’t she ever call the prime minister of Canada and yell, “OMG, Justin! Are you seeing this?”

With classic New Zealand understatement, Ardern replied: “Well, I mean, there was a time when things were a lot more predictable than they are now.” She said she is not fearful because she believes the checks in the American system will hold.

Trump will be presiding over the U.N. Security Council when the General Assembly meets in New York later this month. The prime minister will be trying to combine mothering and traveling again, this time hopefully with less ludicrous commentary. She will be juggling more than 40 events in seven days, with Neve and Gayford as part of the entourage.

I wonder if she worries that she will do something to evoke Trump’s wrath and get a nickname hurled at her.

“I’ve been given so many, it’d be quite hard to come up with a new one,” she said, laughing. “Back in the early days of my political career, I was called Socialist Cindy. I just hate the nickname Cindy.”

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