His relaxed, jovial manner – similar to that which has seen Jacinda grouped with other young, progressive world leaders – shines through in his very first words. After a number of emails negotiating the time difference, I call during his evening. He picks up, joking that the call ‘is exceptionally punctual’. Then explains Jacinda has given up her study so we can speak. ‘She’s going through Cabinet papers on our bed,’ he laughs.
How is he finding being a first-time parent? ‘You realise you are so in charge of this little bundle – things like remembering to clean behind her ears, you think, “If I don’t do it, no one will!” Then, when you’re exhausted, you get those little breakthroughs – a cheeky, gummy smile in the morning and it’s a complete reset. That’s when I think, “OK, I can do this.”’
Clarke does intend to go back to work eventually, but for now he’s decided to stay at home. Still, he insists he’s no role model, saying simply that their childcare decision was a ‘no-brainer’.
‘The cool thing is, I push Neve to and from parliament each day and get all these people on their morning commutes saying good morning – particularly men – who have been stay-at-home dads, too. They get really excited talking about how great it was and how it was the best job they’ve ever had or still currently have.’
Does he think it’s the best job, too? ‘It’s so much more than a job. I have no doubt I’ll look back on it as the best thing I’ve ever done. But ask me again once I’ve had a full night’s sleep.’
This enthusiastic army of stay-at-home dads chimes with a cultural shift that seems to be sweeping across New Zealand. The current paid parental leave entitlement was extended in July to 22 weeks.
Around 3% of New Zealand men not in work listed ‘looking after children’ as their main activity last year, compared to 1.1% in the UK. Despite its macho beer and rugby culture, progressive change is rippling through the country. A few weeks ago, Clarke and Jacinda were invited into the dressing room of the All Blacks rugby team after they had won a treasured trophy against Australia.
‘About three or four big, burly players came straight over and the first thing they wanted to talk to us about was their kids,’ he says. ‘Even their captain was getting so excited about his girls. It was really refreshing. I think the All Blacks are an extension of who we are and there’s been a real change in the culture here. So, going in there, having those conversations, made me realise we’re in a pretty cool place.’
Jacinda, however, hasn’t been so lucky. Earlier this month, she was subjected to the impossibly high expectations laid on the shoulders of working mothers when she was forced to defend her decision to travel to the Pacific Islands Forum separately from her deputy, to minimise time spent away from Neve (the separate trip cost the taxpayer NZ$80,000; approximately £40,250).
Critics said she should have gone for the whole three days or left the duties to her deputy, Winston Peters – which led to Jacinda saying she was ‘damned if I did, and damned if I didn’t’. Does Clarke think sexism was at play here?
‘Is it sexism or is it people still coming to terms with the fact that if you want to welcome a new mother into a working environment, there are things you need to be aware of or make allowances for,’ he says diplomatically.
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But would a male leader have to put up with that? ‘For taking a separate flight? Well, you know, probably not. It’s one of those subjects that’s hard to know. There have been plenty of instances where that had happened in the past and nothing was raised.’
Surely he thinks there were sexist undertones to the view that she should have left matters to her deputy, who was ‘more than capable of holding court with all the local leaders over a drink’ according to one TV host? ‘Yes, complete rubbish. A Prime Minister hadn’t, bar one, missed that meeting since 1971. Any suggestion that she should have handed over to Winston, yeah that was sexist.’
It’s been a roller-coaster year for Clarke and Jacinda: one minute they’re taking parenting advice from Barack Obama (‘He said, “Don’t worry too much if you make mistakes, they don’t remember”), the next, they’re dining with our royal family (‘They were fantastic! William and Jacinda were having a good chat about parenting’).
But, however glitzy their lives have become, Clarke insists they will raise Neve normally. Is that possible with a Prime Minister for a mum? ‘I don’t think either of us do anything that isn’t that normal. We’ve got a pretty good sense of who we are having grown up in small towns. I don’t think there’s any other way in New Zealand.’