Jacinda Ardern with her brother and cousins, 1987

Jacinda Ardern: It’s all about the kids

Photo: Jacinda Ardern (right front, in red and blue) with sister Louise and cousins Demelza and Aaron, Christmas 1987 (supplied) Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern first learned about the realities of…

Photo: Jacinda Ardern (right front, in red and blue) with sister Louise and cousins Demelza and Aaron, Christmas 1987 (supplied)

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern first learned about the realities of poverty as a child in Murupara – a forestry town in the Waikato.

“It was the 1980s, and I saw the effects of child poverty all the time. Our babysitter got hepatitis, I remember children with no shoes and no lunch – and it was really cold in Murupara in the winter – and I remember my mother having to explain to me what suicide was when the neighbour died.”

It was this that drove her into politics – a desire to help and to make a difference and to see the eradication of child poverty in this country. She gave herself, unusually for a Prime Minister, the new portfolio of Minister for Child Poverty Reduction – giving a clear signal of how seriously this issue was going to be taken.

“I guess the child poverty issue motivated me into politics and to try and improve things for kids.  It was also a motivation for me as Prime Minister to take the portfolio.”

And, good as her word, a raft of changes were passed through Parliament late last year which would lift “88,000 children out of poverty,” according to Finance Minster Grant Robertson.

The Families Package (Income and Tax Benefits) Bill was passed under urgency just before Christmas.  And one of the first pieces of business this year will be the introduction of the Prime Minister’s Child Poverty Reduction Bill, which will set a range of official measures for poverty reduction.

Ardern spoke to Education Aotearoa on the day of the announcement and was obviously very pleased with the package – including an increase to Working for Families payments for most eligible families, a $60 a week boost after paid parental leave payments expire for families with babies, an increase in the accommodation supplement and a winter fuel payment for those on benefits.

Ardern sees this as a significant step in reducing child poverty, but knows it is not a panacea for all ills.

She says schools and centres can also play a role, perhaps being hubs for services, including health and social services, and said it was something she wanted to look at following the success of the model put in place after the Christchurch and Kaikoura earthquakes.

She said it could include health services in primary schools in a similar way to having nurses in secondary schools now.

Ardern was concerned that educators were reporting that children were turning up to school with hearing and eyesight problems which affected their learning,  and said the free checks from Wellchild up until the age of five needed to be looked at in terms of best practice.

There was one issue in education which overwhelmingly came up when she was campaigning before the election.

“Special needs was something that was brought up all the time on the campaign trail, and I know this is something that Chris [Hipkins] and his associates [Ministers of Education] are very focused on and I would not want to pre-empt anything that he does.

However, Ardern was very clear about a couple of issues.

She believes that the salaries of support staff should be centrally funded.

“Schools should not be making any trade-offs [with support staff hours against other pressures on school budgets].’’

She also gave an example about the mismatch between the needs of a child and the access to funding.

“I was told of a child who was a flight risk and needed toileting but did not qualify for ORS funding.

“I cannot think of a more high-needs child, but she did not qualify and it is absolutely wrong that we require a child to fit a set of criteria.”

Some of the wider issues that affect children’s health and wellbeing and their ability to learn also need to be addressed.

She says housing is still an issue, even though some steps have been made to make rental housing warmer.

“We need to stop the mass sale of state houses and build lots more state housing – thousands [of houses] a year.”

And she says giving children access to healthy and nutritious meals was also important.

“We could give schools a range of options [for children to access food]. I am a fan of universalism so that no children are stigmatised.”

And for parents and caregivers (as well as the Families Package changes), wages needed to keep going up, including “decent increment increases to the minimum wage”.

“We also want to take away some of the regressive law changes to employment legislation including about the right of access to unions.

“There is no doubt that having unions in the workforce has made a huge difference.”

And what about her own schooling? Did anyone make an impression on her?

Ardern remembers an intermediate teacher who created a family-like atmosphere in her classroom.

“And I used to get called Auntie Jac because I was always helping people. I still get called that sometimes,’’ she laughs.

She also remains in touch with a social studies teacher at high school teacher who taught students to think critically.

“He came to the [swearing in] ceremony when I was officially made Prime Minister.”

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