The small-town takeout store worker who won over New Zealand – and the world

Morrinsville, New Zealand CNN  — 

It’s Friday night in the small town of Morrinsville and a handful of locals are waiting at the Golden Kiwi on the main street for a greasy parcel of fish and chips.

It wasn’t so long ago that Jacinda Ardern was behind the counter, taking orders at the nautical-themed takeaway joint. Now, the 40-year-old New Zealand Prime Minister is one of the world’s most recognizable leaders.

Throughout her three-year term, she’s attracted headlines – for being an unusually young Prime Minister, for giving birth while leading a country, for her empathetic handling of the Christchurch mosque attacks, and lately, for her swift, effective action against the coronavirus pandemic.

That’s given her an outsized profile for the leader of a country of 5 million people. She’s graced the covers of Vogue and Time magazine and hosted American TV personality Stephen Colbert at her suburban Auckland home. Last year, she topped a survey of most trustworthy politicians – in Australia. And, as she heads into this year’s New Zealand’s election on October 17, polls put her as one of the country’s most popular leaders ever.

The big question isn’t whether she will win a second term for her party, which now seems all but certain, but if her party will make New Zealand history by becoming the first to secure a majority under the current political system.

But Ardern is not without her detractors. Her critics say she has done little in her first term to deliver the transformational government she promised three years ago. And some of her opponents are here in Morrinsville, where she grew up.

new zealand prime minister
A look at Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's profile
02:41 - Source: CNN

A prophetic yearbook in Morrinsville

Morrinsville is better known for producing milk than Prime Ministers. Driving into town, lush green paddocks dotted with dairy cows slowly give way to one-story weatherboard houses behind short wooden fences, which in turn become farming supply stores and tractor outlets.

On the main street, colorful cow sculptures grace the sidewalk – a cow outside a pharmacy has a medicine bottle painted on its side, while another outside the veterans’ association has a gun attached to its back. A shiny Holstein Friesian – or “Morrinsville Mega Cow” as it’s known – looms over the main stretch, as tall as a two-story building.

Many of the town’s 8,000 locals are dairy farmers, contributing to one of the country’s biggest export industries. Historically, farmers tend to vote for the pro-business National Party – and Morrinsville is no exception. It was in this National Party stronghold that Ardern – who has gone on to become a darling of progressives around the world – had her formative years.

Born in 1980 to Mormon parents, Ardern spent the first years of her life in Murupara, a small, economically depressed forestry town in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. Ardern – who declined to be interviewed for this story – said in her maiden speech to parliament that her passion for social justice was sparked by what she saw in Murupara. Unemployment was widespread and some turned to suicide. The girl who babysat her and her sister “turned yellow from hepatitis,” a virus more common in developing countries.

In the 1980s, Ardern’s family moved 160 kilometers (100 miles) away to Morrinsville, where her grandfathers had dug drains and farmed. Ardern’s father worked as the town’s police officer and her mother as a cook at the local school. As a 14-year-old, Ardern landed after-school shifts at the Golden Kiwi fish and chip shop. “She was always a very good talker,” said Morrinsville farmer John Walsh, as he waited one chilly Friday night for takeaways outside the shop, where he used to be served by the young Ardern.

It was her aptitude for speaking that scored Ardern her first political victory as a schoolgirl in the 1990s.

The Golden Kiwi, a takeaway joint in Morrinsville that Ardern worked at when she was a teenager.
Ardern when she was at Morrinsville College.

Ardern was the student representative for the board of trustees at Morrinsville College, a small high school with colorful murals and a large grassy field dedicated to rugby, New Zealand’s national sport. In that role, she managed to convince the board to change the uniform rules so that girls could wear shorts – “ghastly corduroy trousers,” as Ardern’s former social studies teacher Gregor Fountain remembers them – not just skirts. “My recollection is that we were ahead of our times,” said John Inger, who became principal of Morrinsville College while Ardern was at school, and who is still the principal more than two decades later. “No doubt in a very conservative rural community like ours that would have raised a few eyebrows.”

Inger remembers the teenage Ardern as intelligent, articulate, cheerful, and persuasive, with a strong sense of social justice. She was a keen debater, a frequent speech competition winner, and a member of the school’s Amnesty International group, which advocated for human rights. When pushed on whether there was anything she was bad at, Inger reluctantly points to her lack of sporting ability – but even then, she gave it a go, he says.

Unlike many of her peers, she didn’t drink, Inger says. She was well respected and “walked around with a big smile on her face all the time,” he says. “She had no enemies that I’m aware of.” Fountain agrees: “At school, she was popular but not like the total cool kid. There were cooler, trendier people.”

When Ardern left high school, she graduated with the second-highest grades in her year. The real tell for what was to come was in her high school yearbook, where classmates voted on each others’ likely futures.

In the Morrinsville College 1998 yearbook, there’s a prophetic phrase written in Comic Sans: “Most likely to become Prime Minister … Jacinda Ardern.”

02 Jacinda Ardern New Zealand election
01 Jacinda Ardern New Zealand election

Political losses

Morrinsville isn’t where national leaders are made. For that, Ardern needed to go to New Zealand’s capital.

Home to less than 300,000 people, the windy city of Wellington sees itself as not only the country’s political hub, but also its arts and culture capital. It’s a liberal place where almost every cafe has a vegan option, and where public servants include their preferred pronouns on their email signatures.

Wellington was a far cry from Morrinsville, where it was unusual for teenagers to be interested in politics at all – never mind being a center-left Labour Party supporter, according to Fountain. “In Morrinsville, it was totally countercultural,” he said, of Ardern’s decision to join the Labour Party at 18.

It was in Wellington that Ardern, after graduating from Waikato University with a degree in communication studies, began working in the office of Labour leader Helen Clark, the country’s first-elected female Prime Minister.

Ardern began questioning the Mormon church’s stance on LGBT people, she later told local media. At the time, Ardern was living in a flat with three gay friends, and increasingly felt that her beliefs contradicted with her religion. “I could never reconcile what I saw as discrimination in a religion that was otherwise very focused on tolerance and kindness,” she told the New Zealand Herald in 2017.

Next, Ardern went to London – a well-trodden move for university-educated New Zealanders in their 20s – where she worked for the United Kingdom’s Government Cabinet Office. Fountain, who became Ardern’s friend after she left school, remembers meeting up with her while he was over there for a school trip. She took him to a spot where former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill watched films during World War II. “It was this lovely moment of student-turned-teacher,” he says.

At 28, Ardern was ready to move into the political spotlight. She returned from the gray stone buildings of London to stand as a Labour candidate in the farming region of Waikato, which included Morrinsville.

But there was no hometown advantage. Waikato is so blue – the color of the National Party – that it hasn’t elected a Labour Party representative in nearly 100 years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ardern didn’t win. But thanks to New Zealand’s electoral system, which allocates 49 of its 120 seats based on the proportion of party vote, she got into parliament anyway, becoming the youngest sitting member.

The following election, in 2011, she stood in Auckland Central against the National Party’s Nikki Kaye in a face-off that was chauvinistically termed the “battle of the babes.” Both were young, ambitious women who appealed to youth voters. But Ardern lost by 700 votes – or two percentage points. Once again, she got into parliament anyway.

Although she wasn’t the elected lawmaker for Auckland Central, she became a well-known figure in the city. And not just for politics – outside of Parliament, she dabbled in DJ-ing, including at a major summer festival on Auckland’s waterfront alongside alternative music favorites.

In 2014, she lost to Kaye again – this time by 600 votes.

Finally, in February 2017, she won a safe Labour seat – a seat once held by former Prime Minister Clark – in a byelection triggered by the resignation of Clark’s successor.

It was only the start.

An unprecedented election

Two months before the September 2017 national election, New Zealand’s Labour Party was in the doldrums. A slew of middle-aged male leaders – four in less than a decade – had failed to ignite enthusiasm in voters, and the party was heading toward its fourth crushing election defeat in a row.

Then, in a surprise move, then-Labour Party leader Andrew Little stood down after polls made it clear there was no way he could win. After years of telling media that she didn’t want to be Prime Minister, Ardern was appointed in his place.

The whole thing happened so quickly that her partner Clarke Gayford, a music television host turned fishing show presenter, who had been out on the water in Australia, found out about her new role well after everyone else. “Have been underwater filming all day off Sunshine Coast, I miss anything?” he quipped in a tweet.

At 37, she was Labour’s youngest-ever leader and in line to lead the country, if the party could hustle enough votes.

Weeks before the election, excitement grew among left-leaning voters who felt re-energized by Ardern’s upbeat, fresh approach. Papers covered Ardern in glowing terms and, within three weeks of taking over, Labour’s polling had soared by 15 percentage points. Local media coined a new term: “Jacindamania.”

And when the election was held in September 2017, her party took home 37% of the vote – well up on the 25% it had received the election before, but still less than National’s 44%.

As neither major party had the 50% of votes needed to lead the country, both had to pair with minor parties. For a month, there was no victor. Then Winston Peters, the charismatic – and often contrarian – leader of the conservative New Zealand First Party, announced he would partner with Labour and the liberal Green Party.

Ardern found out alongside everyone else: She was going to be Prime Minister.

She was New Zealand’s youngest leader in more than 150 years, and one of the youngest heads of state anywhere in the world.

Fountain remembers hearing the news and says his first thought was concern over how Ardern would wrangle her coalition partners and hold the government together.

That night, as he put his kids to bed, he heard his former student on the radio.

“I was like, oh my god, she is the Prime Minister,” he said. “She just sounded like the Prime Minister.”

The first baby

On January 19, 2018 – less than two months after she was sworn in as Prime Minister – Ardern posted on Instagram. That in itself wasn’t unusual – she had harnessed social media throughout her political campaign. But this particular image reverberated around the world.

“Clarke and I are really excited that in June our team will expand from two to three, and that we’ll be joining the many parents out there who wear two hats,” she captioned the photo of two large and one small fish hook – a nod to her partner’s passion for fishing.

In the lead up to the 2017 election, Ardern had been asked on one of New Zealand’s biggest television channels about whether she planned to have a child. She told the broadcaster that it was fine to ask her that question as she had opened herself up to it, but she made it clear that other prospective employees shouldn’t be put on the spot.

After Ardern revealed she was expecting a baby, her critics – at least in New Zealand – were silent. By and large, it quickly became an accepted reality in New Zealand that their leader was having a baby.

In part, that was thanks to the way she worked to normalize her pregnancy. Other women held down jobs while pregnant and balanced motherhood with their work – so why couldn’t she?

“I’ve always maintained that I’m pregnant not incapacitated,” she told state-owned broadcaster 1 News. “The one disclaimer I would give is that it does remove your ability to put your shoes on.”

In June, media kept wait outside one of Auckland’s main hospitals. It was more like a royal birth than a political event. No other New Zealand leader had ever given birth in office. In fact, Ardern was only the second in the world to do so.

On June 21, 2018 – still less than a year into her first term – Ardern gave birth to Neve Te Aroha Ardern. Her first name, Neve, means “bright” or “snow” – a nod to being born in the Southern Hemisphere winter. Her middle name – which means “love” in New Zealand’s Indigenous language, Māori – is named for Mount Te Aroha that looms above Morrinsville’s lush farmland.

A few months later, Ardern made history again. She became the first leader to bring her baby to the United Nations General Assembly. “I wish I could have captured the startled look on a Japanese delegation inside UN yesterday who walked into a meeting room in the middle of a nappy change,” Gayford said as he tweeted a photo of their daughter’s UN security pass featuring a rather unusual title: “New Zealand first baby.”

Christchurch, White Island, coronavirus: A term of disasters

The first year of Ardern’s leadership was a breeze compared with what was to come.

On March 15, 2019, a White supremacist killed 51 people in the first terrorist attack on New Zealand soil. As New Zealand – a country where gun murders are infrequent – reeled from the attack, Ardern responded in a way that once again catapulted her into international headlines.

Hours after the shooting, Ardern announced that gun laws would change. She called the gunman a terrorist and said she would deny him the notoriety he wanted by never mentioning his name. And, in striking images that went around the world, she wore a hijab as she mourned alongside the Muslim community.

“She certainly excels in times of crisis,” said New Zealand political commentator Ben Thomas. “What was really needed was the expression of empathy … her enormous wells of empathy are very genuine and she can project them probably more effectively than anyone on the world stage.”

Later that year, she faced another crisis. An active volcanic island frequented by tourists erupted, killing 21. Once again, Ardern was quickly on the ground in Whakatāne, hugging first responders who had tried to rescue the people on White Island.

Then this year, like all other world leaders, Ardern has faced the coronavirus outbreak, the world’s worst pandemic since the Spanish flu more than 100 years ago. And while other leaders faltered, Ardern won international recognition for shutting borders early and imposing a strict nationwide lockdown, even when the country had very few cases. That’s meant that New Zealand has reported 25 coronavirus deaths, even as other parts of the world battle fresh waves of infections.

Under New Zealand’s lockdown, Ardern appeared alongside the country’s top health official in daily briefings broadcast on national television where she reiterated the importance of listening to medical experts. She had already been popular – but during the coronavirus pandemic, with the whole country on lockdown, Ardern’s daily televised updates became a ritual for many.

“She’s seen variously as every voter’s sister or best friend or mother or girlfriend,” Thomas said.

That only added to her regular-woman appeal. Despite her international star power, Ardern continues to present herself as no different from anyone else. While in Auckland, she lives in a modest house with a back deck that was built by Gayford. On Instagram, sandwiched between numerous political posts, she shared a Neve artistic masterpiece, a homemade rabbit-shaped birthday cake, and a makeshift desk at her parents’ house that no one would have guessed was a world leader’s office.

“There’s never been any suggestion that there’s a secret, calculating Jacinda.”Ben Thomas

“There’s no public and private Jacinda, there’s just Jacinda,” says Fountain. “And she’s always been like that. I just feel like it’s genuine authenticity.”

“It’s very much New Zealand, you could be anywhere and anybody – a neighbor – could decide to stand for Parliament,” said Ethel Riddle one afternoon in May, as she sat with her high-spirited Morrinsville knitting club. When Ardern had baby Neve, the Knitter Knatters made her a white waffle-knit blanket with the Morrinsville Mega Cow in the middle. “It’s not a very major difference between them and us.”

Just because her image might be cultivated doesn’t make it inauthentic, said Thomas. “There’s never been any suggestion that there’s a secret, calculating Jacinda,” he said.

But Ardern’s personal popularity and exceptional response to the country’s crises can only take her so far. And beyond those, some say Ardern’s first term has been less successful.

Why some people won’t vote for her

In a muddy paddock surrounded by mooing cows, lifelong Morrinsville farmer Lloyd Downing describes Ardern as “charismatic,” “intelligent,” and approachable.” He knows her family – he even went to her grandfather’s funeral.

“I guess we’d have to be proud of her,” he said.

But Downing – like many others in Morrinsville – won’t be voting for her.

“She’s a pretty special person, and she’s very popular overseas,” Downing says. “Her and her party we could probably wrap up (in a package) and send over there.”

Lloyd Downing at his farm in Morrinsville, New Zealand.

Unlike in other countries, where politics has become increasingly polarized, Ardern’s opponents have plenty of positive feedback. They admire how she has handled the three crises during her term – the Christchurch massacre, the White Island volcano eruption, and the coronavirus pandemic. And they like her as a person.

“I look at the way she handles my mother, who is definitely not a Labour voter, and my mother thinks she walks on water,” says Alison Dawson, the mother of Ardern’s high school friend, Virginia Dawson.

But beyond that, some say her policies pose unnecessary economic risks.

Downing thinks Ardern and her party have attacked the rural community, creating strict environmental controls to clean up New Zealand’s polluted waterways that make life harder for farmers. He also worries that Labour has no business expertise: “She’s throwing money around like drunken sailors, there’s money going everywhere.”

Like other countries around the world, New Zealand has taken on more public debt this year to cope with the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. New Zealand’s debt is forecast to rise from 19% of GDP in 2019 to 43% this financial year – and as high as 55% of GDP in 2024. Labour says the debt is needed to cushion the economic downturn, but National has questioned how Labour plans to repay it.

Her detractors – some of whom have labeled her “Taxcinda” due to what they see as her party’s apparent proclivity for taxing – argue that her party doesn’t have the economic chops to handle the country’s pessimistic post-Covid outlook.

“She’s a very good Prime Minister, but I think the spending is just too much, it’s going to send the country broke,” said Morrinsville tennis coach Clem Apted.

The other key criticism of Ardern is that, beyond her successful handling of crises, she hasn’t achieved her promise of leading a government of “transformation.” In reality, says Thomas, her government has been defined by incremental changes – and has actually failed in key areas.

One example is the government’s flagship promise to build 100,000 high quality, affordable homes in 10 years – to address homelessness and dampen the overheated property market that had priced out first home buyers. In September 2019, Ardern’s government announced it would abandon the target, and by July 2020, the government said it had sold just 613 KiwiBuild homes, around 2% of its original goal.

“(Ardern’s skill) matters during Covid, when you’re trying to get people to buy into this idea of solidarity and caring for each other,” said Thomas. “In terms of getting 100,000 houses built, it doesn’t really matter whether you deliver 400 houses with kindness or with diffidence – you’ve still totally failed to deliver.”

Ardern’s legacy

In some ways, Ardern faced an uphill battle to bring in significant policy shifts. As coalition leader, she needed the support of not just Labour’s more natural ally, the Green Party, but also the more conservative New Zealand First Party for any changes in the law – and that was not always forthcoming.

After years of campaigning on a capital gains tax aimed at dampening the overheated housing market, Ardern announced last year that Labour would rule out introducing it under her leadership. At least part of the reason for the reversal appeared to be her coalition partner, Peters. “I could not get the support of New Zealand First,” Ardern told state broadcaster Radio New Zealand.

“There’s a small town warmth that she has really carried with her.”Gregor Fountain

Thomas said it was hard to say how much Peters had constrained Ardern during her first term. “There’s certainly a mix in there of New Zealand First providing a real handbrake on some things and also being a convenient excuse on others.”

This election, polls show Ardern’s Labour Party is on track to increase its share of the vote – and could even obtain more than 50%.

If that happens, it would be unprecedented. Since New Zealand’s current political system was introduced in 1996, no party has ever won more than half of the votes – they have always formed coalition governments with other parties. Ardern herself has played down the possibility of a record-breaking victory – and has refused to rule out partnering with Peters in any future coalitions, despite the apparent difficulty he has caused her government.

If Ardern wins a majority, she’s in a position to push through more transformational policies. For now, her legacy is likely to be limited to the deft handling of multiple crises, said political commentator Thomas.

Ardern’s former teacher Fountain sees it differently. To him, Ardern’s style of leadership – her emphasis on kindness and wellbeing – has already had an impact on New Zealand’s society. “There’s a small town warmth that she has really carried with her.”

The question now is whether she can parlay her popularity into transforming New Zealand in other ways.

Illustration: Max Pepper
Graphics: Sarah-Grace Mankarious
Video: Ben Foley
Editors: Hilary Whiteman and Steve George