New Labour MP Arena Williams credits Jacinda Ardern for 'valuable lessons' in maiden speech

Labour's new MP for Manurewa Arena Williams has credited Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for "valuable lessons" and praised how she "explicitly talks about kindness".

The 31-year-old delivered her maiden speech in Parliament on Thursday after winning the seat of Manurewa in the election. It's the second time she's run for Parliament following an unsuccessful bid to win Hunua in 2014.

Manurewa was held by Labour MP Louisa Wall. Williams challenged Wall in February for the Labour Party selection for Manurewa. Wall decided to instead run as a list-only candidate and made it back into Parliament. 

With a victory behind her, Williams paid tribute in her speech to the female Labour MPs she looks up to the most - including Ardern, who she "learnt valuable lessons from". 

"When she was a list MP in Auckland Central, I saw first-hand how hard she worked to advance progressive policy while I was the president of the Auckland University Students Association," said Williams. 

"She stood out back then as a leader capable of connecting so well with young people. I love that she explicitly talks about kindness. In New Zealand politics we've never been brave enough to talk about the need for kindness in policy making. 

"She's shifted the goal posts and now we expect our politicians not just to be kind in their interactions but to put the welfare of people at the heart of political decisions."

Arena Williams praised Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for "explicitly" endorsing kindness.
Arena Williams praised Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for "explicitly" endorsing kindness. Photo credit: Newshub / Zane Small

Ardern has long emphasised the need for more kindness in politics. She told the BBC in 2018 it "takes strength to be an empathetic leader". 

In her address to the United Nations General Assembly in 2018, Ardern told the world New Zealand under her leadership is committed to "being pragmatic, empathetic, strong and kind". 

And in Geoff Blackwell's book Jacinda Ardern (I Know This to be True) released in May, Ardern suggests that kindness is lacking across the globe. 

"I think one of the sad things that I've seen in political leadership is - because we've placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength - that we probably have assumed that it means you can't have those other qualities of kindness and empathy.

"And yet, when you think about all the big challenges that we face in the world, that's probably the quality we need the most."

Williams also praised Labour MP Nanaia Mahuta, who was recently appointed as New Zealand's first female Foreign Minister. Williams hailed Mahuta as a "trailblazer" for other women who have aspired to politics. 

"Since I was a teenager, I have been inspired by Nanaia's work in her community and in Parliament," said Williams. 

Labour MP Arena Williams.
Labour MP Arena Williams. Photo credit: Parliament TV

"My dad's grandmother was born around 1870. Women couldn't stand for Parliament until 1919 and it wasn't until 1933 that the first woman entered Parliament. It took until 1949 for the first Māori woman to be elected - and in the year 2020, we're much closer to the equal participation of women in the exercise of power in this place."

Williams also talked about her family roots and credited Labour for helping her father earn an education thanks to the first Labour Government providing universal superannuation for all New Zealanders aged 65 years and over through the 1938 Social Security Act. 

It meant her dad Hari didn't have to spend his childhood "gathering kaimoana and caring for his kui" because his grandparents had money. He could go to school and learn to read English from the only book that his grandparents had, the Bible.

"Dad wasn't a poor kid, because that would suggest that he didn't have enough money to get by. In fact, he had no money, never had a reason to see it, never handled it," Williams said. 

"He was raised by his Māori-speaking grandparents on the shores of the Ōhiwa Harbour in a raupō whare with a dirt floor, in a place that was sacred to the Hāhi Ringatū and to Te Kooti. 

"These were people whose first touch-point with the State, after years of not being extended the rights of every other citizen, was the extension of the old age pension to Māori by Michael Joseph Savage in the first Labour Government."

Williams said the areas she cares about most are housing and making sure every family in New Zealand deserves a warm, dry home; bringing down barriers to healthcare; and combatting domestic violence.