Admired abroad, New Zealand leader faces hurdles at home

By Associated Press 25 September 2018, 12:00AM

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Last Thursday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the high-profile interviews she'd be doing this week in New York, where she's attending the U.N. General Assembly. Among her appearances: the Today show, the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour. She also exchanged tweets with the singer Rihanna about the importance of investing in education.

But by Thursday afternoon, Ardern was appearing somber at a hastily called news conference in Wellington, New Zealand's capital. She was firing a lawmaker from her ministerial role following an altercation the lawmaker had with a staff member that some people say turned physical.

In the year since she took office, Ardern, 38, has enjoyed unprecedented global attention for a leader from this nation of fewer than 5 million people. Yet at home, she's faced political pressure as she tries to keep control of a coalition government that sometimes threatens to come apart.

Internationally, Ardern in many ways offers a counterpoint to President Donald Trump: She is young, liberal and espouses an empathetic approach to leadership. She's also pushed the boundaries for women by becoming just the second world leader in modern times to give birth while in office.

Ardern will meet with other leaders at the General Assembly. On her agenda are combating climate change, promoting global trade and supporting the rights of women and children.

She's traveling with her partner, Clarke Gayford, and their 3-month-old daughter, Neve. Gayford joked in a tweet Monday that Neve had kept them awake until 3:45 a.m., without any regard to the changing time zones.

Ardern is certain to attract more attention than some of her predecessors. In 2013, New Zealand's then-prime minister, John Key, was photographed by the European Pressphoto Agency joking with his British counterpart at Nelson Mandela's funeral. The caption? "British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) laughs with an unidentified guest ..."

Back in New Zealand on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was filling in for Ardern. Peters, 73, is known for his contrarian streak and political combativeness. Asked his thoughts on a proposal to change the name of a local university, Peters said he had an opinion but wasn't telling.

"Otherwise you'll be saying Winston Peters is going rogue," he told reporters. "And you're not going to get that chance again."

Keeping her government on the same page has been a constant issue for Ardern, who needs not only the support of her Labour Party to govern, but also the support of two smaller parties: Peters and his more conservative New Zealand First Party, and the environmentally focused Green Party.

Ardern has also faced problems from within her own party. Communications Minister Clare Curran resigned as a minister earlier this month after a series of blunders, including not disclosing meetings she held with industry figures.

And then on Thursday, Ardern removed Meka Whaitiri as minister of customs after the altercation. Whaitiri disputes what happened, and Ardern says she's not going into details until an investigation is completed.

Opposition lawmaker Judith Collins said she was supportive of Ardern getting positive attention abroad because it was good for the image of the country as a whole.

"It's really hard in New Zealand getting any coverage overseas at all, for anything that doesn't involve a black shirt," Collins said, referring to the country's world-beating All Blacks rugby team.

But asked for her assessment of Ardern's performance at home, Collins offered just two words: "Pretty dire."

Despite the political obstacles, Ardern's government has passed a number of measures over its first year in office. It has raised the minimum wage, increased support to low-income families and new parents, banned most foreigners from buying homes, and announced an ambitious policy to combat climate change by making the country carbon neutral by 2050.

And during Ardern's tenure, the economy has kept growing at a steady annual rate of 2.7 percent, despite some surveys indicating a downturn in confidence among businesses and consumers.

The last leader to give birth while holding office was the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who gave birth to her daughter Bakhtawar in 1990.

"I accept that by being in office and being the second woman to have a child in office that that's interesting, that's unusual," Ardern told Television New Zealand when asked about the international attention she's getting.

"There will be a day when it's not anymore, when it won't be seen as an extraordinary thing, and I look forward to that day. But for now, it is what it is," she said.

By Associated Press 25 September 2018, 12:00AM
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