Ardern on Trump, and adjusting to life at the top

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has completed her first major international trip in the top job. She spoke to Sam Sachdeva about “uncomfortable” moments in the spotlight, her vision for New Zealand’s role in the world, and speaking out about our big brother.

From touring a Christchurch mushroom factory to mingling with Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau at a glitzy gala, the last few months have seen a marked change in the appointments in Jacinda Ardern’s diary.

Shortly after being anointed as Prime Minister, Ardern told media it would probably take her until Christmas to reflect on how her life had been transformed.

After a week on the world stage at the Apec and East Asia summits, it was tempting to ask whether her time in the spotlight had accelerated that process.

Speaking to Newsroom from the RNZAF 757 that will take her through the skies for the next three years, Ardern said she was trying to keep her feet on the ground – although she admitted that was a difficult task.

“Oh look, I have an absolute focus on the work that needs to be done while I’m doing it.

“I’ll still do quite a bit of reflecting over Christmas, because there’s also something quite just surreal about these international environments, the fact that regardless of how you’d like to be treated, there are things you have no control over.”

"We have a couple of our local security team with us, and they had to tap me on the shoulder a few times and just say, ‘Look I know when you’re at home you tend to stand by windows, but here you’re making the security team very very nervous’."

With a team of six security guards by her side and a motorcade whipping her around the streets of Da Nang, did it make her feel, well...

“Uncomfortable? Yes I did feel uncomfortable, and of course we have a couple of our local security team with us, and they had to tap me on the shoulder a few times and just say, ‘Look I know when you’re at home you tend to stand by windows, but here you’re making the security team very very nervous’.

"We got through it together...I just had to accept that while I was there, I just needed to make everyone’s life a bit easier and just go with the flow.”

Going with the flow sometimes meant an intense mix of the personal and the political, such as when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered his condolences on the death of her cat Paddles.

“Actually, I found that a really humanising moment: regardless of the jobs that we’re all doing and the intensity of the jobs that we’re doing, that he was just a human who recognised something sad in another human’s life, so that was kind of grounding.”

The flow also took her in the direction of Trump, seemingly Ardern’s polar opposite.

While there was some interest before the trip about what sort of diplomatic incident Trump could cause, Ardern revealed it was almost the opposite.

“I was waiting to walk out to be introduced at the East Asia Summit gala dinner, where we all paraded and while we were waiting, Trump in jest patted the person next to him on the shoulder, pointed at me and said, ‘This lady caused a lot of upset in her country’, talking about the election.

“I said, ‘Well, you know, only maybe 40 per cent’, then he said it again and I said, ‘You know’, laughing, ‘no-one marched when I was elected’.

“He laughed and it was only afterwards that I reflect that it could have been taken in a very particular way – he did not seem offended.”

Leading on climate change and nuclear-free

The summits were a chance not only to meet world leaders, but for Ardern to articulate her vision for New Zealand’s foreign policy.

She admitted to having big shoes to fill, with her discussions making clear the respect held for our country on the world stage.

“I’ve always known that to be true, but to see it enforced in these forums...is a real testament to the work that’s been done before, and the work all year round that our representatives do.”

During the election campaign, Ardern described climate change as “the nuclear-free movement of our generation”, providing a hint of how she wants to mix the old with the new in New Zealand’s advocacy.

“We have been strong advocates on issues like nuclear non-proliferation and that is as relevant now as it’s ever been, particularly when it comes to the Korean peninsula, and so playing a role in being consistent advocates, particularly from a position of always taking a really principled stance I think is important.”

At her speech to the Apec CEO’s Summit, Ardern spoke about climate change “lapping at our feet” in the Asia-Pacific, and she said it was an area where New Zealand could speak up for others who could be the worst affected.

“I wasn’t the only one [talking about climate change], but there weren’t many of us, and I do think it’s an issue that needs consistent advocacy because in some of those forums there’s an absence of the groups that are directly affected, but the overall Asia-Pacific will feel its impact hugely and yet have some of the most deprived populations in the world as well.”

Globalising trade and rights

Under John Key and Bill English, New Zealand was an ardent supporter of free trade and globalisation.

While Ardern did sign off on what is now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), there are signs that she may pursue a more nuanced approach to the benefits of trade.

“We absolutely, absolutely support free trade, but alongside that we’ve got the opportunity now within our trade agenda to say alongside supporting free trade, we have the ability to try to create some architecture that means that we also start globalising rights as well.”

That meant ensuring trade agreements didn’t “simply have trade chase or flow into the country with the lowest labour standards and the lowest wages”.

“Actually if we really want to sell the benefits of trade, we have to make sure people start feeling the benefits of trade as well, and that’s the next challenge.”

With social inclusion one of the points of focus at Apec, Ardern said her government was not alone in plotting a new approach.

“What’s clear is that we have started hitting those road blocks where non-tariff barriers and protectionism still exist, and some of the rationale for that is there has been a pushback on trade agendas that haven’t filtered down into prosperity.

“Actually if we really want to sell the benefits of trade, we have to make sure people start feeling the benefits of trade as well, and that’s the next challenge.”

That means more than paying lip service to a new narrative, as Ardern notes: “We can’t just claim that we’re telling the story that hasn’t been told before.”

She points to CPTPP provisions that will allow countries to enforce labour standards – a first for a trade agreement – as a sign of what is possible.

“Basic as they may be, that’s a starting point, and when you start hearing negotiators from countries advocating for their use, because it’s enabled them to start enforcing standards on multinationals operating in their country, where they haven’t successfully been able to pass domestic legislation, then you start seeing the tools that we have in this wider agenda.”

Balancing the US and China

Ardern’s rise to the top job has come at an interesting time for relations in the Asia-Pacific region.

With the United States seeming to take a step back from its role in the region, and Xi Jinping’s China rushing to fill the void, there has been unease about what that means for the geopolitical climate.

Trump has been pushing the idea of an “Indo-Pacific”, as opposed to Asia-Pacific, at Apec, and with the revival of the Quad – a grouping of the US, Australia, Japan and India, in part to counter China – some suspect we may be leaned on by either side, although Ardern seemed unworried about the prospect of rising tensions.

“I think it’s in our interest for us to have an engaged China and an engaged United States in our region, that’s in our interests. Now they may choose to do that through different architecture, but as long as it’s open and transparent, then that’s going to always be our guiding principles.”

Key and others have trumpeted New Zealand’s independent foreign policy in the past, and Ardern said she was in no doubt that could continue.

“We’re a nation that’s always built relationships, important relationships with a range of states, and that’s been in our interest.

“As long as we have a set of principles and values that guide those individual relationships, then that’s the way to go: it’s not about individual countries, it’s about saying we engage with those who share our values, we operate within international law, we take a multilateral approach.”

Jacinda Ardern says she is keen to strengthen ties with India, and has invited the country's Prime Minister Narendra Modi to New Zealand. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Building those ties had served us well in advocating on topics such as the North Korean conflict, she said, while giving us a wide array of potential partners in time of need.

“The thing that I found really interesting is that actually there was an existing relationship with almost everyone I spoke to: either we had development partnerships, strong international education links, existing FTA infrastructure in some form.

“There’s few areas that have been untouched by our diplomacy, even if it might be small in some parts and so that’s something I think we can be really proud of.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t relationships that can’t be improved: Ardern pointed to India as a country where New Zealand could benefit from deeper ties.

“I’d love New Zealand to host Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi, we haven’t had a Prime Minister visit since the 1980s and that would be fantastic for our local community, but also we’re trying to pursue an FTA for years that’s difficult, we’re now trying to use RCEP, so deepening that relationship I think can only be good for us.”

Taking on big brother

While trying to strengthen some relationships, Ardern has also been willing to challenge others, challenging Australia on its handling of the Manus Island refugee crisis.

Her comments that she could “see the human face” of the issue didn’t seem incendiary but triggered a backlash from Australia, although Ardern said she would not temper her rhetoric as a result.

“I could see from the coverage that there’s a strength of feeling in that obviously on this issue we’ve just taken two different perspectives.

“Our job in those situations is to make sure – and it is – that our relationship is strong enough that we can have those kind of engagements and it’s simply a mark of our relationship that we can move beyond it.”

With Ardern having also taken on Australia over a potential hike in student fees for Kiwi expats, she said she was prepared to be more outspoken than her predecessors.

“I do think we need to be assertive: yes we have a close relationship, but we also have our own interests that we need to advocate for.”

Ardern’s advocacy was as one of only three female leaders at Apec, and just two at EAS. Former New Zealand prime ministers Jenny Shipley and Helen Clark have spoken about the challenges of being a woman in the nation’s top job, and Ardern said she was not blind to the small company she found herself in.

“We are obviously a minority. I take the approach that I’m there to do a job: sometimes that job will entail me reflecting issues from a particular perspective, but actually most of the time I’m there to reflect New Zealand values, and regardless of whether I’m doing that as a female leader or not I’m going to do that.”

With stories in New Zealand media about Ardern “jinxing” the All Blacks and “yapping” at Australia, it seems fair to ask whether she had noted any difference in treatment at home from her male predecessors – not that Ardern was willing to give much away.

“I might leave that for my musings when I retire, because...yeah, I’ll save that because I wouldn’t want to deflect from my overall view that we’re well served.

“I might give it a bit of time.”

Diplomacy at work already.

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