'You'll never hear me pretend to be superwoman': New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to The Straits Times in an exclusive interview during her first official visit to Singapore on May 17.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during an exclusive interview with The Straits Times' Deputy Foreign Editor Bhagyashree Garekar on May 17, 2019. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - Even if New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern feels impatient with the question that most working woman have been asked one time or another - how do you manage work and baby - she betrays none of it.

Instead, New Zealand's third female prime minister, after Jenny Shiply and Helen Clark, answers with the sincerity that has come to be associated with her leadership. The same quality that the world appreciated when she appeared in a headscarf to comfort the families of the 51 worshippers who were shot dead in two mosques in Christchurch on March 15.

From trade to terrorism to a mother's guilt, she answers simply, seriously and often with a wide smile. Here are excerpts from an exclusive interview with The Straits Times' Deputy Foreign Editor Bhagyashree Garekar on Friday (May 17).

ST: Before arriving here in Singapore, you were in Paris where you were joined by French President Emmanuel Macron to launch the Christchurch Call, intended to stop extremist content from proliferating online. America's declined to participate. How do you plan to take this initiative further?

A: Well, actually, the United States have been engaging with us throughout the process and on the day itself actually issued a statement of support for the principles of what we were doing. I think for New Zealand, from our perspective, one of the most important things, receives the support of the countries who were there but actually the engagement of those tech companies who really have a stake in trying to change the environment that's led to violent and terrorist extremism being available online. So we are being very targeted here around violent and extremist content.

First of all, we've been very, very clear that we want to maintain a free, open and secure Internet. This is not about curtailing free speech and freedom of expression, and the fact the companies have come to the table is a sign that they see that we are genuinely trying to focus on a very specific problem and that those freedoms of expression are very important to us. So we had Facebook, we had Google, and representing YouTube, we even had Amazon, we have Twitter all around the table, and several others, all willing to engage and work collaboratively with us on this issue.

ST: What steps do you see further?

A: So the Christchurch Call is essentially an action plan, it sets out further areas of work. It acknowledges that governments themselves need to take responsibility for their own regulatory framework and press freedoms and so on.

On the tech companies' side, it seeks that they, for instance, review algorithm use in the way that they may be funnelling people towards extremist or violent content... And it essentially asks them to uphold the community standards that they already have but we know of course they haven't always been successful in that, and also ask them to make use of technological developments and try and bring in smaller platforms and others who may be able to assist with finding technological solutions.

ST: At the time of the attacks, you wore the headscarf which captured the world's attention because you stood in sympathy with the Muslim victims of the attack. That became iconic. Now it's two months since that attack, would you care to reflect on that gesture you made then?

A: I've been asked about that in the aftermath and, to be honest, I just remember saying on the Friday as I was thinking about making the journey to Christchurch, there were a lot of things that we were thinking and talking about: first, making sure the police were happy for us to be in Christchurch because it was a very live operation for a period of time, who we would visit and what support we needed to take and ensure was available for the victims and their families. And for me the act of travelling down and wearing a headscarf was just a decision I made, I didn't discuss it with anyone, it just seemed to me to be the respectful thing to do. I did not anticipate it having the impact that it did but, equally, I hadn't anticipated that a month later we would still have women who wear the hijab who would be afraid to leave their homes. And so I think much more now about those issues, about the sense of vulnerability, and if my choice to wear a headscarf on those occasions made any difference, then I'm very pleased I did.

ST: You've been a trendsetting prime minister in so many ways. Here in Singapore and across the world people have been, well, very fascinated with your baby. You're now approaching 1.5 years in office and your baby Neve is turning a year old in a month, I was wondering: how has it been juggling the baby and the country?

A: Hard. Yeah, really hard. And I won't pretend it's not hard because I think that does a disservice to other women who juggle work and family. It's difficult and I've only been able to do it through support and so you'll never hear me pretend to be superwoman. Would I have it any other way? Absolutely not. I feel incredibly, incredibly lucky.

ST: In that respect, if I may ask, congratulations on your engagement…

A: Thank you.

ST: ...but when you look back, do you feel some sense of regret that it's your partner who's been the main caregiver for your baby?

A: There are moments where I feel sad to have missed things. I missed when she first properly started crawling, for instance. But the same day that she properly started crawling was also the day that we started to change our gun laws, and so there's something really symbolic in that for me. I still get to be the best mum that I can be, I still see my daughter as much as I can and, at the same time, I get a chance to be in a really privileged position and make a difference. The fact that I can do a bit of all that I know makes me very lucky.

ST: For women who are looking to do the same - make a difference in the public sphere while having a family - what might be your message? Some tips maybe.

A: That there is never one way to do it, and there's also never a perfect time. People often say: Wait till your family is older. Do it while they're young. Do it when you're older. You know, there's actually never a perfect time, it's just about making it work. And I think no matter what, particularly women, we have a tendency to feel guilty about thing. So just accepting that that emotion is going to exist and trying to move past it as much as possible because it's a wasted emotion. And the world needs women to put themselves into positions of influence and leadership. And so I just encourage, I encourage them to think about politics, think about leadership. They can make a difference.

ST: How do you particularly, if you experienced those feelings of guilt, how do brush them away or how do you deal with them?

A: Actually just knowing that every woman I know feels exactly the same helps a lot.

TRADE'S GOOD BUT KIWIFRUIT WON'T BE CHEAPER

ST: At this point, the world's largest two countries - US and China - are in the midst of a trade war and that shows signs of worsening. So as two small nations, New Zealand and Singapore, what do you think they could do to make sure that the world stays on a pro-trade path that stays open and economic growth continues?

A: Yes. I think there are two things, in particular. One is modelling the benefits of free and open rules-based trade, and we've certainly, as two nations, done that with each other. And, as I describe today, we've also been pathfinders for other multilateral agreements that are proven to be really important.

So by undertaking to upgrade our existing free trade agreement, to modernise it, to extend it into new fields, I think we demonstrate the benefits of those relationships and those agreements. The second thing we can also do is continue to ensure the relevance and support for institutions that uphold that rules-based order. So the World Trade Organisation, for instance, in continuing to make sure that there are allies for working within the system. It may not be perfect and it is in need of reform but that should not be an excuse to either walk away from those institutions or indeed to ignore rules-based trade altogether.

ST: Today you signed an enhanced economic partnership with Singapore along with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. A part of that includes an upgraded free trade agreement with Singapore, what kind of benefits do you see that bringing to New Zealand?

A: The areas now actually go beyond the elements that come under the traditional banner of free trade. So, yes, in that upgrade we have essentially modernised our agreement, which already brought great benefits to both countries, to ensure that it's fit for purpose. So, for instance, digital services and data and so on.

But what it also does is take us into new areas and extends existing axes, particularly around people-to-people. So, for instance, being able to travel visa-free, an extension there... additional recognition of professions such as accountancy, we're doing work still on our working holiday visas, so those people-to-people exchanges are so important in our enhanced agreement.

Alongside that we've got commitments to joint research particularly around food. We've got an agreement around cyber security in particular, we are working collectively there, that enhances our existing defence arrangements, and also arts and creativity, agreements with our National Library, National Museum. That just demonstrates the extent of our relationship. It just goes beyond the purely economic.

ST: You were talking of agreements on food, so can we expect the kiwifruit, which are so popular here, to be cheaper?

A: (Laughs) Well, our premium products will remain our premium products. And obviously Singapore has the aspiration of lifting its food production. And we, of course, have R&D focus, we are a food-producing nation, we see potential there for us to work alongside each other. I think the things that we do well will continue to do well and I hope that we'll still be attractive to Singaporean consumers.

ST: Last year, New Zealand introduced a ban on foreign property purchase but Singaporeans were excluded from this ban, why was that? And, because of that, have you seen more applications from Singapore to buy property in New Zealand?

A: No, I can't answer that second question with specificity but I can tell you that we have seen a considerable decrease as a result of the broader based change in policy to foreign ownership in our residential market. And the reason we did that actually was to bring us in alignment with most countries who have some limitation from overseas purchases buying residential land.

Singapore's exemption was because of our existing agreement. We already had an existing agreement in place around purchasing, and so that was not undermined by our legislative change.

Since that change has come in, alongside a few other changes we've made in our housing market, we've now seen an increase in the percentage of people in our housing market who are first-time buyers, and that was our ultimate goal. So that's gone from a few years ago to being 18 per cent of the market to being 24 per cent of the market and, at the same time...potentially have seen a decrease in foreign buyers in the New Zealand market.

ST: You've seen a decrease.

A: Yes, we have.

ST: I see.

A: Which you would expect during the ban because it had a few exemptions like Singapore.

ST: And you do say it makes a difference to affordability.

A: Well, you know, ultimately, that has been our goal through a number of changes: tax loopholes, the foreign buyer issue also increasing the number of houses built under the government housing programme. We've in fact had a significant number of consent, so the government's now building the most houses they have built since the 1970s. And so, all of these factors I think have contributed to a real softening, a plateau in the Auckland market, in particular, which was really overheated. And now wages, wage growth is actually outstripping the percentage growth in house prices now, which hasn't been that way for some time.

ST: In January there was the tragic death of a reservist from Singapore, Aloysius Pang, in New Zealand while training, are there any concerns regarding any safety aspects from the New Zealand side?

A: Well, and my sincere condolences for Singapore's loss. My understanding of that tragedy, however, was that, yes, it had occurred while in New Zealand but had no involvement of our defence team; it wasn't a joint training exercise, so really that would be a question for the Singaporean Armed Forces.

You know, we recently have experienced our own loss, a New Zealander was lost in a training exercise, so it's a grief that we've experienced and share. And, of course, we'll look at the situation that happened in New Zealand. As I understand, Singapore has also undertaken with that tragedy.

CHINA'S GROWING INFLUENCE

ST: Reports have talked about China making attempts to gain influence in domestic politics in some countries. In New Zealand, there was an opposition MP who was in the news because he used to be a former Chinese Communist Party member. What are your thoughts about such incidents?

A: We take an approach when it comes to our policy and our legislation that is neutral to country but that is not naive to the environment that we are in. We have seen a range of different international actors who at various points have been at least accused of trying to influence and interfere in elections be it in Europe or the United States.

So I think it's incumbent on us that we make sure that we have the systems and legislation in place to protect ourselves from that regardless of where it may come from and regardless of what form.

One thing we've doing at the moment is looking at our electoral financing. After every election in New Zealand, a cross-party select committee process will review the election and make an assessment of everything from advertising to the process of voting itself.

Our Minister of Justice has this time specifically asked that they look into electoral financing and particularly foreign donations, so we are waiting the feedback from that committee as to whether or not our legislation needs any changes in that regard.

ST: So, you are assured that there is adequate protection available?

A: Yes. We, however, keep our systems under constant review because it is a dynamic environment that we're operating in. As I demonstrate with the foreign donations, constantly checking that they are meeting our country's needs and the evolving threats.

FOSSIL CRATER LAKE

ST: A question about a company which is looking to mine a fossil crater lake in New Zealand in order to make some sort of fodder from the fossil, what are your thoughts on that? I believe that the former prime minister Helen Clark joined the opposition to this particular plan.

A: Which one is that?

ST: This is in South Island, yes, it's a 23 million-year-old fossil crater lake.

A: So we have processes in New Zealand around mining corporates, both permitting requirements but also environmental considerations through the Resource Management Act, and also we have the overlay of the Overseas Investment Office efforts involves foreign ownership. So we've a number of considerations that we have around for something like a mining proposal.

I sit back from those decisions and ministers often will have delegation to deal with those decisions or if it's environmental, sometimes it will involve the Environment Court but those are things that I tend to sit back from because we have those robust frameworks in place.

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