When “the daughter of Niue” returns to her home away from home, you may as well get the whole family together.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s flying trip to the small island nation felt like it brought out most of its 1700 or so inhabitants.
In a country as small as that, it must feel at times like everyone is your family – but it was literally the case for the first resident of Niue to greet Ardern.
Ross Ardern, the High Commissioner to Niue and Ardern’s father, bounded onto the RNZAF plane to greet his daughter, before delivering another welcome – and a big hug – at the bottom of the stairs.
Ardern’s mother Laurell, sister Louise and niece Bella were also on hand, which the Prime Minister revealed had been a rarity in recent times.
“We haven’t all been together for four years, so it was really nice to be able to do that in Niue…the next family Christmas will probably be a good one.
“We’ve been trying to organise a Christmas over here for years, but it’s usually when Dad has his leave.”
Ross is responsible for Ardern’s longstanding ties to Niue: he has been New Zealand’s High Commissioner there since 2013, leaving his post this year, and before that was Niue’s police commissioner from 2005 to 2009.
Asked earlier in the Pacific mission to name Samoa the most beautiful island in the Pacific, Ardern demurred – understandably, given her nickname among some in the Niuean community as “the daughter of Niue”.
“I hope you don’t mind that I’ve owned that title: I knew when I started hearing it to me by the Niuean community in Auckland it had spread,” she told Niue Premier Toke Talagi.
Her attempt to live up to that title came almost as soon as she landed, when she responded to a traditional Niuean takalo (war dance) with a response in the Niuean language.
“If I could have added, ‘I also come with joy’, I would have,” she later added, “because it truly is a wonderful thing to be able to return to Niue with my partner Clarke, because it does feel like a bit of a second home for me.”
She tested that with a rowdy crowd of primary and high school students at Niue High School’s hall, a basic wooden construction enlivened by the enthusiastic singing and ukulele playing of the children.
“I think I’ve been here now five times – now is that enough for me to call this my second home?”
An enthusiastic roar, unsurprisingly. “Thank you, that’s lucky.”
Perhaps anticipating the attention span of her audience, Ardern spoke only briefly before opening up to questions: “I always worry when it’s the primary school children who say yes first, because those will be the hardest.”
She gamely answered the array thrown at her, including the school subject most useful for her current job – “everything I did in school has helped me,” she diplomatically replied – and a question about whether she felt “the pressure to work harder than men”.
“I don’t feel the pressure to work harder than men, I just do,” she said, bringing down the house.
A question about the three items she would take on an island gave her another opportunity to curry hometown favour: “Is it a really lovely island like Niue? Because if it is…I would wish that planes would never come, that my cellphone would never work again – and a lifetime supply of that really lovely coconut bread you can get down at the petrol station.”
After the school visit, Ross Ardern tried to wear both his hats in assessing his daughter’s speech as a father and a High Commissioner.
“It was a proud moment. I think she did wonderfully well by the way, but it was splendid to be able to watch her and to signal New Zealand’s messaging across to the Niue Government, and the bilateral talks were very good from both sides.”
Laurell Ardern, freed from the constraints of diplomacy, was able to be less restrained – although she admitted she was still getting to grips with her daughter’s own leadership role.
“It’s wonderful, yes, and it’s quite different her being the Prime Minister, getting used to that – I still haven’t quite got my head around it.”
Niue does face serious challenges, and Ardern’s affinity for the country alone will not be enough to resolve them.
But as far as second homecomings go, it was hard to beat – and capped off with one last visit from High Commissioner Ross, who departed down the plane’s aisle with a handful of official gifts to be stored for the time being.