Jacinda Ardren: youngest Female Prime Minister of New Zealand

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New Zealand’s third female PM, and at 37 youngest leader since Edward Stafford in 1856, Jacinda Ardern had the most meteoric rise to power of any New Zealand PM – three months prior to being sworn in, she was not even leader of her party.

After graduating from the University of Waikato in 2001, Ardern began her career working as a researcher in the office of Prime Minister Helen Clark. She later worked in the United Kingdom as a policy advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In 2008, she was elected President of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Ardern became a list MP in 2008, a position she held for almost ten years until her election to the Mount Albert electorate in the 2017 by-election, held on 25 February. She was unanimously elected as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party on 1 March 2017, following the resignation of Annette King. Ardern became Leader of the Labour Party on 1 August 2017, after Andrew Little resigned from the position following a historically low poll result for the party. In the general election of 23 September 2017, the Labour Party won 46 seats (a net gain of 14), putting it behind the National Party, led by Bill English, which won 56 seats. After negotiations with National and Labour, the New Zealand First party chose to enter into a minority coalition government with Labour, supported by the Greens, with Ardern as Prime Minister.

Ideologically, Ardern describes herself as both a social democrat and a progressive. She is the world’s youngest female head of government, having taken office at age 37. Giving birth to a daughter on 21 June 2018, Ardern became the world’s second elected head of government to give birth while in office.

Ahead of the 2008 election, Ardern was ranked 20th on Labour’s party list. This was a very high placement for someone who was not already a sitting MP, and virtually assured her of a seat in Parliament. Accordingly, Ardern returned from London to campaign full-time. She also became Labour’s candidate for the safe National electorate of Waikato. Ardern was unsuccessful in the electorate vote, but her high placement on Labour’s party list allowed her to enter Parliament as a list MP. Upon election, she became the youngest sitting MP in Parliament, succeeding fellow Labour MP Darren Hughes, and remained the youngest MP until the election of Gareth Hughes on 11 February 2010.

Opposition leader Phil Goff promoted Ardern to the front bench, naming her Labour’s spokesperson for Youth Affairs and as associate spokesperson for Justice (Youth Affairs).

She has made regular appearances on TVNZ’s Breakfast programme as part of the “Young Guns” feature, in which she appeared

alongside National MP (and future National leader) Simon Bridges.

Ardern contested the seat of Auckland Central for Labour in the 2011 general election, standing against incumbent National MP Nikki Kaye for National and Greens candidate Denise Roche. Despite targeting Green voters to vote strategically for her, she lost to Kaye by 717 votes. However, she returned to Parliament via the party list, on which she was ranked 13th. She maintained an office within the electorate while a listed MP based in Auckland Central.

After Goff resigned from the Party leadership following his defeat at the 2011 election, Ardern supported David Shearer over David Cunliffe. She was elevated to the fourth-ranking position in the Shadow Cabinet on 19 December 2011, becoming a spokesperson for social development under new leader David Shearer.

Ardern stood again in Auckland Central at the 2014 general election. She again finished second though increased her own vote and reduced Kaye’s majority from 717 to 600. Ranked 5th on Labour’s list Ardern was still returned to Parliament where she became Shadow spokesperson for Justice, Children, Small Business, and Arts & Culture under new leader Andrew Little.

On 19 October 2017, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters agreed to form a coalition with Labour, making Ardern the next Prime Minister. This coalition will receive confidence and supply from the Green Party. Ardern named Peters as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. She also gave New Zealand First five ministerial posts in her government, with Peters and three other ministers serving in Cabinet.

On 20 October, Ardern confirmed that she would hold the ministerial portfolios of National Security and Intelligence, Arts, Culture and Heritage, and Vulnerable Children, reflecting the shadow positions she held as Leader of the Opposition. However, as of 25 October 2017 her position as Minister for Vulnerable Children had been replaced with the role of Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, and New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin took on the role of Minister for Children. She was officially sworn in by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy on 26 October, alongside her Cabinet. Upon taking office, Ardern said that her government would be “focused, empathetic and strong”.

On 5 November 2017, Ardern made her first official overseas trip to Australia, where she met Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for the first time. Relations between the two countries had been strained in the preceding months because of Australia’s treatment of New Zealanders living in the country, and shortly before taking office, Ardern had spoken of the need to rectify this situation, and to develop a better working relationship with the Australian government. Turnbull described the meeting in cordial terms: “we trust each other…The fact we are from different political traditions is irrelevant”. Ardern flew to Vietnam on 9 November for her first visit to an APEC summit.

On 19 January 2018, Ardern announced that she was pregnant and that Winston Peters would take the role of Acting Prime Minister for six weeks after the birth. Following the birth of a daughter, she took her maternity leave from 21 June to 2 August 2018.

On 2 February, Ardern travelled to Waitangi for the annual Waitangi Day commemoration; she stayed in Waitangi for five days, an unprecedented length. Ardern became the first female Prime Minister to speak from the top marae. Her visit was largely well-received by Mori leaders, with commentators noting a sharp contrast with the acrimonious responses received by several of her predecessors.

On 20 A p r i l , Ardern attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 in London, where she was selected to deliver a toast to the Commonwealth at a state banquet of world leaders. She also had her first private audience with the Queen.

On 5 September 2018, Ardern travelled to Nauru, where she attended the Pacific Islands Forum. Media and political opponents criticised her decision to travel separately from the rest of her contingent so that she could spend more time with her daughter. Critics charged that the additional flight would cost taxpayers up to NZ$100,000. Ardern had earlier rebuffed suggestions that she should not attend the Forum, citing tradition; she would have been the first New Zealand prime minister since 1971 to not attend the Forum outside an election cycle. She was later criticised for not meeting refugees in Nauru.

On 24 September, Ardern became the first female head of government to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting with her infant present. Her address to the General Assembly on 27 September praised the United Nations for its multilateralism, expressed support for the world’s youth, and called for immediate attention to the effects and causes of climate change, for the equality of women, and for kindness as the basis for action.

Published in Melange Intl. Magazien in October 2018.

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