Jacinda Ardern made me proud to be a Kiwi - her legacy as Prime Minister will be one of kindness in leadership

Jacinda Ardern blazed a trail for female leaders, and while her tenure wasn't without challenges and mistakes, at least she knew when it was time to go, writes Katrina Conaglen

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In Lin Manuel-Miranda’s blockbuster musical Hamilton, a fictionalised King George III responds to the news of the first American president’s resignation with the incredulous lines, “They say, George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away/Is that true? I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.”

It gets a big laugh. And yet it’s an underplayed political move, the graceful exit. But now, another leader from the colonies has voluntarily relinquished her premiership, demonstrating a greater concern for the country she helmed than to hold onto power at all costs.

Jacinda Ardern is, of course, not a direct corollary to Washington - she didn’t own any slaves, for a start - but in her five and a half years as Prime Minister of New Zealand Aoteroa she established herself as a leader of principle, intellect and dignified statesmanship, and a global icon for women in leadership. Given that her premiership overlapped with Donald Trump’s presidency and the revolving door Tory tenures of Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss, Ardern’s competency and compassion often stood in stark contrast to her overseas counterparts.

As a New Zealander living abroad, I was frequently told how ‘lucky’ we were to have her. Americans exasperated at Trump’s suggestions we cure Covid by injecting bleach or Brits frustrated with Johnson for claiming the cost of living crisis could be countered with the purchase of a £20 kettle would ask if we could ‘swap leaders.’ It made me genuinely proud to be a Kiwi - more so than even (whisper it) Lord of the Rings or Flights of the Conchords. (Ok not the latter. Jemaine and Bret, you’re still number one).

She will be standing down in less than three weeks (Boris ‘went full Colonel Kurtz’ Johnson should take note), declaring: “I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.” She leaves quite the legacy.

Jacinda Ardern with baby Neve Te Aroha at the United Nations General AssemblyJacinda Ardern with baby Neve Te Aroha at the United Nations General Assembly
Jacinda Ardern with baby Neve Te Aroha at the United Nations General Assembly

Ardern ascended to New Zealand’s highest office at the relatively young age of 37. In her second year as Prime Minister, she gave birth to Neve Te Aroha (Aroha is the Maori word for 'love'), only the second woman in history to do so while holding office (the first was Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto). Wishing to lead by example, she brought her infant daughter to the floor of the UN General Assembly in New York in 2018, a hugely significant gesture for working mothers. Instead of new motherhood heralding an era of ‘baby brain’ and enforced domestic drudgery, Ardern showed that with the right support, you could still thrive in your career - even if your job was to address the leaders of the free world.

Compassion, humanity, strength

Appearing on the hit US show The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2019, all broad smiles and easy charm, Ardern asked Colbert to come visit her down under. When he did, she picked him up from the airport and took him back to her Auckland house, where her fiancé Clarke Gayford was barbecuing sausages. It was a quintessentially Kiwi move - laidback, friendly, welcoming - and demonstrated an easy kindness and genuine warmth many politicians struggle to display.

What Ardern understood - which puts her in league with relatively few modern politicians - was how to relate to people on a human level, and how to use media (social and otherwise) to establish the tenor of her leadership. Throughout the Covid lockdown in New Zealand, she’d host videos from her home at the end of the day, in slouchy sweatpants, explaining the current rules and the rationale behind them, visibly tired but upbeat. She’d reference her sleeping infant or the difficulty of the situation, thank people for their efforts. It felt sincere, unlike the stiff addresses of besuited politicians waffling at podiums.

Such behaviour could easily be dismissed as calculated stagecraft were her decisions not similarly concerned with decency and strength. Ardern was kind, and she was strong, particularly in a crisis.

Ardern sought to console the Muslim community within New Zealand after the horrific Mosque attacks in 2019Ardern sought to console the Muslim community within New Zealand after the horrific Mosque attacks in 2019
Ardern sought to console the Muslim community within New Zealand after the horrific Mosque attacks in 2019

March 2019 marked one of New Zealand’s worst recent tragedies - a white supremacist stormed two mosques in Christchurch, slaughtering 51 people in cold blood. Ardern was immediate in her response. She denounced the attack as terrorism, wore a hijab to Parliamentary prayers as a sign of respect, and met with the Muslim community to console them, declaring New Zealand as “united in grief.” It was moving to see a leader be inclusive and consoling, watching on from Brexit Britain, where politicians were exercising dog-whistle racism and casual othering of Muslims.

Within weeks of the massacre, semi automatic firearms were banned. Compared to the continual inaction in the US in the face of horrific mass killings, it was overwhelming to see how swiftly gun violence could be legislated against by a willing parliament.

She demonstrated the same calm, compassionate leadership when helming the government’s response to the White Island volcano eruption that December, when some 22 died at the tourist spot.

And then, of course, came Covid. One of the first leaders to close borders, she announced a “go hard, go early” approach, instituting strict lockdowns which kept the nation’s death rates far below other countries. She was applauded globally as a leader concerned first and foremost for the wellbeing of her countrymen, taking a 20% pay cut in solidarity with those on enforced furlough.

“Oh, it’s an empty gesture,” a Kiwi family member moaned to me from back home. Here in the UK Dominic Cummings was driving his family to Barnard Castle for an eye test. I preferred the notion of Ardern’s gesture, however hollow her detractors deemed it.

But her time as Prime Minister was not faultless.

The zero-tolerance policy towards Covid was later abandoned as various strains made their way into the country, and she became a lightning rod figure for those opposed to lockdowns. There is an ever worsening housing crisis in New Zealand, and mortgage rates are on the rise - as are living costs. Homelessness is getting worse. And despite campaigning on promises to address climate change, the country has failed to meaningfully reduce its emissions.

Her failure to address these issues adequately has seen her ratings drop, in addition to Covid dissension. She has become the target of online vitriol and violent threats. In October 2022, a woman attacked Ardern’s office with a large knife (Ardern was not there at the time).

Regardless, she did herself and her country proud, reintroducing the notion of governing with emotional intelligence and humanity . Her legacy is secure. In fact, with characteristic eloquence, she summarised it best in her resignation speech. “I hope I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong," she said. "Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused. That you can be your own kind of leader – one that knows when it’s time to go.”

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