Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern with (left, dark glasses) her Chief Press Secretary, Andrew Campbell and (right) Labour's Campaign Chair, Meghan Woods, with the media at yesterday's Labour Caucus retreat in Martinborough.

It was a dizzying international year for Jacinda Ardern last year.

Propelled even further onto the global centre stage by the Christchurch massacre she had private meetings with President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump and her voice was sought by, and heard in, almost every major international media outlet.

Her ascendancy ran against an international trend which saw old democracies like the United States and Britain reject the liberal consensus which had guided politics since the second world war.

What she saw happening to herself and to the leaders she met a series of international meetings set her thinking; about why it is that New Zealand seemed to be runnings against the global tide of populism.

She has data on her side.

Like all political parties, Labour polls continuously and its pollsters, UMR, yesterday told a media briefing at the party’s Martinborough caucus retreat that New Zealand was almost unique among western nations with the electorate believing that the Government was “on the right track”.

There is not the negativity in New Zealand that can spawn a trump, Boris Johnson or even a Scott Morrison. For the meantime, it seems we have prevailed over the populism challenge.

Ardern believes that is because there is something intrinsic in New Zealand, in our values that make us different in the world.

When you look at the global environment, there are growing uncertainties,” she told POLITIK.

“There’s a growing sense of tribalism and entrenchment; growing dissatisfaction with whether or not politics is responding to the needs and the demands of our age.


“And amongst that, I see New Zealand as being utterly consistent, regardless of political persuasion.

“ I think that we’ve always seen our role as one that supports institutions that give voice to large and small nations equally.

“That we say actually, we all have collective responsibility to one another.

“And that’s increasingly important in a globalised environment, but we recognise that during the nuclear age. And so whether you apply that to the nuclear age or climate change, that sense of collective responsibility, New Zealand has been totally consistent about that.

“We see our role as providing those sets of values.

“I think now more than ever,  New Zealand’s traditional values in the international environment are just crucial.

“So I see my job as amplifying that.”

But standing up for “values” in today’s increasingly polarised world is not easy for a small country like New Zealand.

At the beginning of last year, Ardern had to deal with what (for New Zealand) was a potential international crisis; the possibility that China would begin to withdraw from its close economic relationship because the Government Communications Security Bureau had refused to approve Huawei’s involvement in Spark’s 5G rollout.

The Chinese believed that this was because of American (and Australian) pressure on New Zealand though the GCSB Director-general, Andrew Hampton, has vigorously denied he bowed to any pressure from anyone.

Nevertheless, comments by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in Sydney in August hinted at the kind of pressure the US was capable of applying when he said: “You can sell your soul for a pile of soybeans or you can protect your people.”

“I feel absolutely secure in the knowledge that our values have stood the test of time and that they are now proving to be the right ones in this environment,” she said.

“And so new New Zealand’s been in a place where we’ve experienced that kind of pressure before to varying degrees.

“I think of Lange, and that would have been an incredibly difficult and tumultuous time.

“Now, I see what we experience is no different.

“But again, we are the ones that have been consistent while the world really changes around us.”

Ardern’s biggest international splash last year came when she joined with France’s President Emmanuel Macron to promote the “Christchurch Call”; a declaration intended to encourage social media not to provide platforms for violent terrorists like the Christchurch gunman.

It was a response to a real 21st century problem.

She will turn 40 in July this year which means she is almost a millennial, so dealing with social media is part of her DNA, but even so, she became a politician just in time to see the impact that the arrival of social media was having.

“In my day it was about how do you find information; how do you use the Dewey Decimal System to find a book in a library?

“Now, it’s not a matter of how do you find information; it’s how you treat it when you find it.

“So these are, I think, challenges of our age.

“How do we how do we respond to that in a New Zealand context, trying to encourage respectful debate, trying not to create this false sense that everything is black and white and trying not to still demonstrate in our politics that we can work collaboratively, that we can build consensus, that you can respectfully debate one another.”

Ardern has first-hand experience of disrespectfully political debate can become. There has been an increasing tide of often violent abuse against her on social media. It has been untruthful, misogynist and often offensive, far more personal than any of the abuse that was directed at John Key or Bill English.

How on earth does she cope?

For a start, she says it’s not new.

I remember still as a staff member during the election in  2005, seeing a rally that Helen (Clark) was in attendance and some of the placards that were held up at their rally were just awful.

“They were just horrible.

“That was so personal and so just cruel, and so whether or not it’s, you know, whether or not 15 years ago it was on a placard or whether or not now it’s a comment on a post on Facebook, to a certain extent, that’s always existed.

“I don’t want to be complacent about it, though, because whilst we’re all taught to be tough and to filter that kind of thing, I don’t ever want it to be indicative of the way we treat each other.”

Quietly, on background, Labour Ministers are now beginning to concede that their first few months in power were chaotic. They were unprepared for Government, and no one was less prepared than the Prime Minister who at the beginning of 2017 was simply a list MP with some relatively minor Opposition portfolio responsibilities.

She had been thrown into the leadership eight weeks before the election and then a month later she was Prime Minister.

She had none of the usual apprenticeship that a Leader of the Opposition experiences; getting to know the movers and shakers in many dimensions of New Zealand; getting to know overseas leaders or even getting used to e a highly recognisable public figure.

She had little idea of the day to day practicalities that a Prime Minister needed to know. But she believes, though it was brutal, it has given her an advantage.

“I think there’s something very freeing about finding yourself in a situation that you didn’t necessarily anticipate.

“So that means from the very first moment that I found myself in the leadership, I just said what I absolutely felt and thought and believed we needed to do on behalf of New Zealand.

“And that’s been my mantra all the way through.

“I don’t consciously sit down and make calculations based on polls or my calculations based on things other than just what I see in front of me needing to be done in the way I feel most comfortable doing it.

“I very consciously decided some years ago that if being particularly ruthless in politics was what was required to succeed, then I would be happier to fail than succeed.

“And so, you know, I guess taken as a whole, that means that I am happy to conduct politics in the most human of ways.”

Ardern is now a major international figure.  And her own party love her. She has brought unity to Labour and is their best hope for maintaining power this election.

But it is clear she wants more than that; she wants to change the way the world does politics. If she can have even a small impact in this age when old certainties seem to be disappearing, she may be the start of a response to the ugly populism that is now spreading across the northern hemisphere.