New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern: The small-town takeout store worker who won over

It wasn’t so long ago that Jacinda Ardern was behind the counter, taking orders at the nautical-themed takeaway joint. Now, the 40-year-old New Zealand Prime Minister is one of the world’s most recognizable leaders.

The big question isn’t whether she will win a second term for her party, which now seems all but certain, but if her party will make New Zealand history by becoming the first to secure a majority under the current political system.

But Ardern is not without her detractors. Her critics say she has done little in her first term to deliver the transformational government she promised three years ago. And some of her opponents are here in Morrinsville, where she grew up.

A prophetic yearbook in Morrinsville

Morrinsville is better known for producing milk than Prime Ministers. Driving into town, lush green paddocks dotted with dairy cows slowly give way to one-story weatherboard houses behind short wooden fences, which in turn become farming supply stores and tractor outlets.

On the main street, colorful cow sculptures grace the sidewalk — a cow outside a pharmacy has a medicine bottle painted on its side, while another outside the veterans’ association has a gun attached to its back. A shiny Holstein Friesian — or “Morrinsville Mega Cow” as it’s known — looms over the main stretch, as tall as a two-story building.

Many of the town’s 8,000 locals are dairy farmers, contributing to one of the country’s biggest export industries. Historically, farmers tend to vote for the pro-business National Party — and Morrinsville is no exception. It was in this National Party stronghold that Ardern — who has gone on to become a darling of progressives around the world — had her formative years.
Born in 1980 to Mormon parents, Ardern spent the first years of her life in Murupara, a small, economically depressed forestry town in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty. Ardern — who declined to be interviewed for this story — said in her maiden speech to parliament that her passion for social justice was sparked by what she saw in Murupara. Unemployment was widespread and some turned to suicide. The girl who babysat her and her sister “turned yellow from hepatitis,” a virus more common in developing countries.

In the 1980s, Ardern’s family moved 160 kilometers (100 miles) away to Morrinsville, where her grandfathers had dug drains and farmed. Ardern’s father worked as the town’s police officer and her mother as a cook at the local school. As a 14-year-old, Ardern landed after-school shifts at the Golden Kiwi fish and chip shop. “She was always a very good talker,” said Morrinsville farmer John Walsh, as he waited one chilly Friday night for takeaways outside the shop, where he used to be served by the young Ardern.

It was her aptitude for speaking that scored Ardern her first political victory as a schoolgirl in the 1990s.

The Golden Kiwi, a takeaway joint in Morrinsville that Ardern worked at when she was a teenager.
Ardern when she was at Morrinsville College.

Ardern was the student representative for the board of trustees at Morrinsville College, a small high school with colorful murals and a large grassy field dedicated to rugby, New Zealand’s national sport. In that role, she managed to convince the board to change the uniform rules so that girls could wear shorts — “ghastly corduroy trousers,” as Ardern’s former social studies teacher Gregor Fountain remembers them — not just skirts. “My recollection is that we were ahead of our times,” said John Inger, who became principal of Morrinsville College while Ardern was at school, and who is still the principal more than two decades later. “No doubt in a very conservative rural community like ours that would have raised a few eyebrows.”

Inger remembers the teenage Ardern as intelligent, articulate, cheerful, and persuasive, with a strong sense of social justice. She was a keen debater, a frequent speech competition winner, and a member of the school’s Amnesty International group, which advocated for human rights. When pushed on whether there was anything she was bad at, Inger reluctantly points to her lack of sporting ability — but even then, she gave it a go, he says.

Unlike many of her peers, she didn’t drink, Inger says. She was well respected and “walked around with a big smile on her face all the time,” he says. “She had no enemies that I’m aware of.” Fountain agrees: “At school, she was popular but not like the total cool kid. There were cooler, trendier people.”

When Ardern left high school, she graduated with the second-highest grades in her year. The real tell for what was to come was in her high school yearbook, where classmates voted on each others’ likely futures.

In the Morrinsville College 1998 yearbook, there’s a prophetic phrase written in Comic Sans: “Most likely to become Prime Minister … Jacinda Ardern.”

Political losses

Morrinsville isn’t where national leaders are made. For that, Ardern needed…

Read More: New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern: The small-town takeout store worker who won over

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