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Jacinda Ardern, speech maker (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jacinda Ardern, speech maker (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsApril 5, 2023

The speeches that tell the story of Jacinda Ardern’s political life

Jacinda Ardern, speech maker (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jacinda Ardern, speech maker (Image: Tina Tiller)

From the deliberately ‘haunting’ maiden speech, through crisis response, to a shock resignation, these are the speeches that best define Ardern’s time in NZ politics. 

Speech-making is a staple of political life. And more than most, the speeches of Jacinda Ardern since she was elected to parliament in 2008 tell a story of their own. As with any leader, the oratory and the career are not the same thing, but for Ardern at least, looking back across the last 15 years, the speeches serve as poles across which a career is strung. 

As she prepares to deliver her last speech as an MP, in a valedictory address to parliament, we survey the most important and emblematic examples. 

‘The things I wish to haunt me’: Maiden speech, December 16, 2008 

Having moved home in 2007 after years abroad which included a stint working in the policy unit of the British cabinet office, Ardern was selected as Labour candidate for the Waikato electorate in the 2008 election. She didn’t win that safe National seat, but came into parliament on the list. Into parliament and into opposition, with John Key succeeding Helen Clark as prime minister. 

In her first speech to parliament, four seats to the left of a fellow newcomer, Chris Hipkins, Ardern said: “Maiden statements are a bit like words spoken in a heated argument; like it or not, they will come back to haunt one.”

Ardern, then the youngest member of parliament and assigned the youth affairs portfolio by new leader Phil Goff, paid tribute to Clark as well as other mentors, friends and family. She sketched her own biography, much of which today has been well trodden: born in Murupara, dad the local cop, campaigning for trousers for girls, first job in a fish and chip shop. And, above all, an early imprint of the observed impacts of poverty. “My passion for social justice came from what I saw; my love of politics came when I realised that it was the key to changing what I saw. And there is much to change.”

She described, too, some of her experiences abroad: volunteering in a New York soup kitchen, study, working with unions, and a stint as president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, three years in the UK public service. The perception of Aotearoa from overseas was another theme. “Anyone who has moved abroad will know what it is like to reflect on one’s home from afar,” she said. And: “I fear that our pride in New Zealand’s clean, green reputation is already misplaced.”

A key passage

Some people have asked me whether I am a radical. My answer to that question is very simple: “I am from Morrinsville.” Where I come from a radical is someone who chooses to drive a Toyota rather than a Holden or a Ford. I am, though, a social democrat. I believe in what I believe strongly — the values of human rights, social justice, equality, and democracy, and the role of communities — and I believe we have a role to play in defending these principles abroad …

So there it is: the answer to that golden question. It is the things I have seen, the lessons I have learnt, and the people of New Zealand whom I wish to serve that have brought me to this place. These are the very things that I wish to haunt me for as long as I have the privilege of serving here.

‘Let’s do this’: Campaign launch, August 20, 2017

It’s a leap, no doubt, to fast-forward from that backbencher newbie speech directly to the Auckland Town Hall and the 2017 Labour campaign launch. In between were hundreds of other appearances, largely centering on the political mission that was child poverty, but spanning everything from arts to justice issues, as well as a bid for the Labour deputy leadership on a ticket with Grant Robertson, christened briefly as “Gracinda”. When she eventually was promoted to deputy by Andrew Little in 2017, her profile grew further, but if anything she seemed careful to avoid any barnstorming speeches. 

Propelled at the 11th hour to the leadership, Ardern surpassed expectations in her first press conference in the role, then launched into a campaign that would rescue Labour’s fortunes on a wave of what became called “Jacindamania”. Nothing encapsulated that energy quite like the campaign launch. The crowds filled the main hall, with a live feed to the concert chamber and another to a second spillover crowd down Queen Street at Q Theatre. In a sea of giddy party faithful, Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern embraced – a moment that contained a symbolism as compelling as it was obvious. 

Clark was one of the former leaders invoked by Ardern from the stage, all with their own legacies appended, with reference to “Labour governments who have confronted New Zealand’s challenges, who haven’t been afraid of standing up, or of doing things differently”. She said: “For Savage, that meant seeing hardship, and creating the welfare state. For Fraser, it was predicting the challenges of the future and bringing in free education from kindergarten to university. For Kirk, it was seeing a loss of dignity and getting back to basics like full employment. For Lange, it was standing up for peace by standing up to nukes. For Clark, it was about social infrastructure.”

She continued, “And for me it’s simple: I want to build a country where every child grows up free from poverty, and is filled with hope and opportunity.”

She referred back, too, to her own maiden statement, on the “things you want to haunt you again and again, to remind you why you are there. Because sometimes they are not just words; they’re convictions, they are experiences, they are faces and they are stories.” One of the most memorable convictions of her political life – on the priority of climate change – was expressed in that same speech. “This is my generation’s nuclear free moment,” she said, “and I am determined that we will tackle it head on.”

A key passage 

I will never stop believing that politics is a place where we can do good. That we can build a confident and caring nation if we include each and every person, in each and every town and region. That is New Zealand at its best. It’s been three weeks now since I was asked to take this job and lead our campaign. In those three weeks, I’ve never once felt alone. Whether it’s been on social media, on the streets, or by your show of support here today, I feel humbled and heartened … Let’s go from here today and run the campaign of our lives. Let’s do this. 

‘This will be a government of transformation’: Speech from the throne, November 8, 2017

An inheritance from Westminster, the speech from the throne at once lays out a government’s agenda and its mission. “From the throne” in the New Zealand context means it’s literally spoken by the governor general, but the words are those of the prime minister. So we’re counting it as a Jacinda Ardern speech, ventriloquised in this case by Patsy Reddy.

The opening of parliament followed post-election negotiations in which, at its essence, Winston Peters and the NZ First Party decided whether to form a government with National, which, led by Bill English, collected the highest number of seats, but insufficient to command a majority, and Jacinda Ardern’s resurgent Labour Party. The result: a coalition, with the Greens signing a support agreement.

This address set out what was called an “ambitious” programme, and it was certainly that. “This government is committed to major investments in housing, health, education, police, and infrastructure,” it began. “The government will protect the environment, create more jobs and lift the incomes of families to reduce child poverty, while running surpluses and paying down debt.”

Among the work outlines was a review of the tax system, including a focus on “addressing the capital gain associated with property speculation”. Labour would go on to extend the bright line test and remove tax deductibility for speculators, but the central idea of a capital gains tax came a cropper when NZ First issued a hard no, and Ardern subsequently ruled it out for the rest of her premiership. 

Among other things the speech pledged a new provincial growth fund, a lift in minimum wage, new measures to address and assess child poverty, an inquiry into mental health, another into historic abuse in state care (which continues today), a net zero emissions target by 2050 and a Climate Change Commission. In words that may make some grimace today, it also declared that “through its Kiwibuild programme, this government pledges to build 100,000 high quality, affordable homes over the next 10 years; half of them in Auckland.”

The address promised a government of inclusion, transformation and aspiration.

A key passage

This will be a government of inclusion. All who live in this country are entitled to respect and dignity; all are entitled to live meaningful lives; all are entitled to care and compassion. Everyone should have a roof over their head and be warm in winter. Everyone should have food and a table to put it on.

This will be a government of transformation. It will lift up those who have been forgotten or neglected, it will take action on child poverty and homelessness, it will restore funding to education and the health systems to allow access for all, it will protect the environment and take action on climate change, and it will build a truly prosperous nation and a fair society, together.

This will be a government of aspiration. It aspires to make this a nation where all cultures and human rights are valued, where everyone can have decent housing and meaningful work, where education is free and good ideas flourish, where children live surrounded by creativity and love, and are encouraged to reach their full potential, and where we become world leaders on environmental issues and climate change.

‘I want to be able to tell my child I have earned the right to stand here’: Waitangi, February 5, 2018

Ardern spent five days at Waitangi in 2018, and became the first female prime minister to speak on the upper marae. After the political powhiri she made a commitment to be accountable to te ao Māori. Speaking just a few weeks after announcing she was hapū, Ardern said: “I will always maintain that we should not seek perfection on our national day. That speaking frankly and openly is not a sign of failure, but a sign of the health of our nation and a sign that we must keep pushing to be better. I also hope that my child will know that we have the power to change and we must change.”

A key passage

Now we as a government, we know what we have to do, we know all of the failings that we have as a nation, but we won’t always know exactly how to change it. For that we will come to you, we will ask you to help us, we will form partnerships together because we cannot do it alone …

So when we return, in one year, in three years, I ask you to ask of us what we have done. Ask us how we have given dignity back to your whānau, ask us what we have done to improve poverty for tamariki, ask us what we have done to give rangatahi opportunities and jobs, ask us, hold us to account. Because one day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here and only you can tell me when I have done that. So for now I finish with these wise words I’ve heard from Ngāi Tahu before: Mō tātou, ā, mō kā uri, ā muri ake nei – for us and for our children after us.

‘Kindness, in the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism’: United Nations, September 28, 2018

In a US visit that caught the attention of much of the world’s media, the centrepiece address came at the United Nations general assembly, where Ardern’s partner, Clarke Gayford, watched from the floor with baby Neve in his arms. In her speech, Ardern returned to themes of generational change and global warming, while calling for a return to multilateralism. The context, remember: a deep shadow cast by the US president; and the adulation of a young leader dubbed “the anti-Trump”. 

A key passage

Perhaps then it is time to step back from the chaos and ask what we want. It is in that space that we’ll find simplicity. The simplicity of peace, of prosperity, of fairness. If I could distil it down into one concept that we are pursuing in New Zealand it is simple and it is this. Kindness. In the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism – the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any. So let’s start here with the institutions that have served us well in times of need, and will do so again.

‘They are us’: March 15, 2019

Ardern spoke many times in response to the terrorist attack in two Christchurch masjids on March 15, 2019, leading a response that gained acclaim from within the New Zealand Muslim population, across the country and beyond. If there is one speech that sums it up better than any, it is the shortest, delivered from a set of notes scrawled with orange highlighter as the details were still emerging. Ardern was in New Plymouth, and spoke from a hotel before returning to Wellington. Below is the first part of it.

A key passage

It is clear that this is one of New Zealand’s darkest days. Clearly, what has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence. Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home.

They are us. The person who has perpetrated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand. There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence, which it is clear this act was. For now, my thoughts, and I’m sure the thoughts of all New Zealanders, are with those who have been affected, and also with their families.

‘Going hard, and going early’: Covid lockdown plan revealed, March 21, 2020

Just over a year on, a memorial service for the Christchurch victims was cancelled at the 11th hour, amid the growing threat of a pandemic called Covid-19. 

In a rare address delivered from the desk of her ninth floor office, Ardern laid out a new alert level system, and with it, the near inevitability of New Zealand joining much of the world in going into lockdown. 

“Over the past few weeks, the world has changed,” she said. “And it has changed very quickly.” 

New Zealand would , she said, “fight by going hard, and going early.” At this point, the goal was “stopping the spread”. Over the course of the first lockdown – which, believe it or not, lasted only one month and two days – that mission shifted to elimination. 

A key passage

I know this current situation is causing huge disruption and uncertainty. And right now I cannot tell you when that will end. This alert system is designed to help us through that …

For now, I ask that New Zealand does what we do so well. We are a country that is creative, practical, and community minded. We may not have experienced anything like this in our lifetimes, but we know how to rally and we know how to look after one another, and right now what could be more important than that. So thank you for all that you’re about to do. Please be strong, be kind, and unite against Covid-19.

‘A disinformation age: Harvard commencement speech, May 26, 2022

The impacts of two crises, the Christchurch terrorist attacks and the Covid pandemic, dovetailed in a theme Ardern chose to major on in the prestigious Harvard University address: social media, algorithms, extremism and disinformation. That focus continues in Ardern’s post-parliamentary life, with her appointment, confirmed last night, as special envoy for the Christchurch Call. 

In the speech, Ardern paid tribute to the former prime minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who was, before Ardern, the only woman premier to give birth while in office. Bhutto, too, had spoken at Harvard. “The path she carved as a woman feels as relevant today as it was decades ago, and so too is the message she shared here. In this place,” said Ardern. “She said part way through her speech in 1989 the following: ‘We must realise that democracy… can be fragile.’ … And while the reasons that gave rise for her words then were vastly different, they still ring true.”

Moving to the subject of free speech and disinformation, she said: “We are at a precipice.”

In a speech in which she again appealed to kindness, but instead of identifying as part of a generational change, called herself “old”, Ardern said: I am not here to argue that social media is good, nor bad. It’s a tool. And as with anything, it’s the rules of the game and the way we engage with it that matters. But social media matters a lot. And perhaps, much more than we thought.” She pointed to the atrocity in Christchurch. “The entire brutal act was live-streamed on social media. The royal commission that followed found that the terrorist responsible was radicalised online.”

The time had come, said Ardern, “for social media companies and other online providers to recognise their power and to act on it.”

A key passage

I accept the picture I am painting may seem overwhelming and insurmountable. But I am an optimist at heart. And while we cannot change everything about the environment we are in – we can change ourselves. To build greater strength and resilience, in spite of the headwinds around us …

In a disinformation age, we need to learn to analyse and critique information. That doesn’t mean teaching ‘mistrust’, but rather as my old history teacher, Mr Fountain extolled: “to understand the limitations of a single piece of information, and that there is always a range of perspectives on events and decisions.”

‘I no longer have enough in the tank’: January 19, 2023

To an audience in Napier following the Labour caucus summer retreat, Ardern took to the podium with journalists poised to learn the big news: when was the election going to be held? That detail arrived, but in a matter of seconds it seemed trivial. 

“I am entering now my sixth year in office. And for each of those years, I have given my absolute all,” said Ardern. I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging. You cannot, and should not do it unless you have a full tank, plus, a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges … And so today, I am announcing that I will not be seeking re-election and that my term as prime minister will conclude no later than the seventh of February.”

She went on to point to achievements in more than five years as prime minister, attempting to set them in the context of repeated crises. “Among an agenda focused on housing, child poverty and climate change, we encountered a major biosecurity incursion, a domestic terror event, a major natural disaster, a global pandemic and an economic crisis,” she said. “The decisions that had to be made have been continual, and they have been weighty.”

And the line that reverberated the most: “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.”

The concluding remarks

For my part, I want to finish with a simple thank you to New Zealanders for giving me this opportunity to serve, and to take on what has and will always be the greatest role in my life. I hope in return I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused. That you can be your own kind of leader – one that knows when it’s time to go.

Keep going!