As the former prime minister delivers her valedictory speech and bids farewell to parliament, Toby Manhire writes from parliament on a political career defined by crisis response, and the meeting of idealist and pragmatist.
Watched by fellow MPs, former prime ministers, family, friends and staffers, by her daughter, Neve, who curled against the bronze railing in the mezzanine as if on a jungle gym, by fiancé Clarke Gayford, in his best suit, gripping a camera as though it might otherwise break apart, and by a packed public gallery, Jacinda Ardern last night bade farewell to parliament and to politics. “I cannot determine what will define my time in this place,” she said. “But I do hope I have demonstrated something else entirely. That you can be anxious, sensitive, kind – and wear your heart on your sleeve. That you can be a mother, or not. An ex-Mormon, or not. A nerd. A crier. A hugger. You can be all of these things, and,” she said, her voice breaking a little, “not only can you be here, you can lead.”
Ardern shuffled her papers back together and was embraced by her closest parliamentary friend and colleague, Grant Robertson, by her successor as prime minister, Chris Hipkins, and in turn by politicians from all sides of the house. The public gallery stood, applauded and smashed out the waiata. The third of those was ‘Te Aroha’. You know the one: Te whakapono. Ardern pointed urgently up across the house to her four-year-old daughter. Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, watching politely in her new blue cardigan, was chewing on a toy. “This is your song!” her mum mouthed.
Earlier in the afternoon, tributes to Ardern cropped up through the general debate. On his way into parliament, Grant Robertson, Ardern’s finance minister and deputy from 2020 until her resignation, just about choked up, too. “She’s my friend, and I can see that the next moves – she’s really looking forward to it,” he said. “I see a really relaxed and happy person. On the other side of the coin, we’re losing an incredibly valued colleague, someone who I think will go down in history as one of our best prime ministers … It’s definitely emotional.”
In her chapter reflecting on the 2017 election for the book Stardust and Substance, Jacinda Ardern began this way: “There is no doubt that 2017 will remain the most extraordinary year of my life.” The years that followed swiftly contradicted her.
The first full year of Ardern’s prime ministership saw her become just the second woman premier, after Benazir Bhutto, to have a baby while in office. This young, progressive, female leader from a small country in the South Pacific won plaudits the world over, even if much of it – as is tradition for New Zealand leaders – referred to someone called Jacinta Adern; even if much of it was a measure of their own ghastly leaders, cast as “the anti-Trump”.
On the global stage and the local, too, Ardern could do no wrong. My favourite Ardern story of all time, and the most quintessentially New Zealand, comes from around that time, and features the prime minister in a Point Chevalier park, whereupon a man called Chris, who had months earlier run over her cat. He walked across to apologise. “I told her I was aware of where she lived and I basically confessed that I was the one who ran over Paddles,” said Chris to the approachable, sensitive, nerdy, ex-Mormon prime minister. Chris (no relation to the next prime minister), told Stuff: “I said, ‘I’m so sorry’, and then she said, ‘No, I’m sorry’ and it kind of went round in circles.”
March 2019 left Christchurch, the New Zealand Muslim community and the country as a whole reeling from an act of terrorism. Ardern’s response, an intuitive one , was, as everyone from John Key to the Islamic Women’s Council has acknowledged in recent days, pitch perfect.
For one reason or another – what could it be? – Ardern’s ongoing commitment to Islamic groups in Aotearoa, and to the Christchurch Call to Action, has engendered anger from some quarters. Of March 15, she said last night: “I’ve concluded that countries don’t move on from tragedy, rather they become part of your psyche. But the way these moments weave themselves into our being, will be determined by how we confront them.”
Almost a year to the day after the murderous rage of Christchurch landed a pandemic – a crisis which tested leadership around the world. Ardern delivered a communications masterclass. And if that sounds like faint praise or even a pejorative, just glance for a minute at some of the alternatives that played out around the world.
That extraordinary success, however, was in large part predicated on the crisp simplicity of mission: elimination. The fraying came with the move away from Covid zero, with lockdowns in which stamping out morphed back to stopping spread, and with the polarising, if necessary, impact of vaccine mandates.
When Ardern revealed in January that she did not have the gas in the tank to do another full year, that she would be resigning the prime ministership and exiting parliament, just about everyone was surprised. She had previously insisted there was too much to do to think of quitting. Mind you, wind back a few years and she’d insisted that she had no wish to be prime minister at all.
In the early months and years of the Ardern government, the watchword was nothing less than “transformation”. It was laid out in the speech from the throne of November 2017. “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.”
So how did she do? “We lifted tens of thousands of children out of poverty,” Ardern told 1News this week. “I feel proud of what we did. I’ll feel even prouder if we keep going.” She defended action on climate change: a Zero Carbon Act, a Climate Commission, climate budgets. The country’s emissions record, however, reveals none of the paradigm shift promised in the generational rhetoric of 2017. What happened to the transformation?
Covid happened. There was that. But Covid has these days become a political constant, a catchcry for seemingly every government misfire and shortcoming. Still there was a time, there were months and years, remember, when it overwhelmed and throttled everything. The pandemic concertinaed the political time-space continuum. It messed with us all. It demanded a whiplash reimagining of government, flipbooks of high-stakes decision making, fiscal upheaval; drained energy, burned nerve endings.
Absent Covid, how different might her record have been? An impossible counter-factual. Bigger strides on core priorities, very likely. But probably not the leaps some might like to imagine. A “pragmatic idealist”, said Ardern of herself in an interview with The Spinoff in early 2018. “You have to be pragmatic when you’re in an MMP government”. The pragmatic impulse was evidenced in April 2019, when Ardern ruled out ever introducing a capital gains tax – a reform to which she was previously committed. That was before the word “Covid” was coined.
The tyre marks of MMP on that idea were of course those of Winston Peters, and his bejeweled handbrake. Ardern was philosophical about it at the time. Does she feel less charitable today about his recent and rapid denunciations of her leadership and her party, less fond of the man who literally did her maternity cover? We can only guess. But if there were any barbs in Ardern’s valedictory last night, it was only by omission. There was a shout out to the Greens (albeit with a jibe about a party with processes that “look something akin to the squid games”), to co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson and “the personal support I felt from you both”. There wasn’t so much as a mention of New Zealand First, coalition partners for most of the time Ardern was prime minister. Winston Peters? Not a word.
If “transformational” defined the early part of the Ardern mission, it is close to antithetical for the Hipkins succession. At his first post-cabinet press conference as prime minister, I asked him whether his project was a transformational one? “Look,” he said, “I’m not really interested in those kinds of catchphrases. Basically, we will deliver a very solid government that is focused on the bread and butter issues that matter to New Zealanders and that are relevant to the times that we’re in now.” He added: “2017 was five-and-a-half years ago, and quite a lot has happened since then.”
Speaking to John Campbell this week, Ardern described “the weight of the job” – a weight “constant and so immediate”. She said: “I carried that quite heavily.” It’s a framing she’s used before. In June 2017, Ardern batted away suggestions she might take on the leadership for the fast-approaching election by saying, “I hate letting people down. I hate feeling like I’m not doing the job as well as I should. I’ve got a pretty big weight of responsibility right now; I can’t imagine doing much more than that.”
She told Next magazine: “It’s me knowing myself and knowing that actually, when you’re a bit of an anxious person and you constantly worry about things, there comes a point where certain jobs are just really bad for you.”
Was she really then the reluctant leader? In an interview with Newsroom yesterday, Chris Hipkins quipped that “everyone who steps into politics actually wants to be prime minister – they all just lie about it.” Ardern may have been fibbing, who knows, but it did feel authentic, different to the “happy to be the member for” stock answer of emerging politicians.
“The leadup to the change in my mind started on the 26th of July ,” she said at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2019. “I remember it because it was my birthday. It was quite possibly the worst birthday I’ve ever had. And I’ve had some pretty bad birthdays.”
Private polling for the Labour Party had arrived, and the numbers painted a stark picture. “They were bad. They were really bad.” She messaged Little, encouraging him. “The most important thing for us was not to get the speed wobbles. Just to stay the course.”
He asked to catch up. “He said to me, ‘I don’t know if I can do it’.” The polls looked insuperable. “He said, ‘I wonder whether or not you might have a better chance than me.’” Her response? “I just remember saying, ‘Oh no. No. No. Nooo.’” A few days and another sobering poll later, Ardern had been talked around, and it worked. Her anxieties were excommunicated. “I’m not going to leave any room for doubt that I can do this,” she told herself.
That doubt, however, followed her all the way. A doubt, maybe, that every politician feels; they just lie about it, or cover it in several layers of skin. If there was a constant theme in Ardern’s valedictory speech, it was precisely that unease she had spoken about before she became prime minister. “I am sensitive,” she said. “Or as Maggie Barry once called me, ‘a precious petal.’ I remember in my early days being thrown by the odd nasty comment. Or negative commentary. I even went to Trevor Mallard for advice on how to harden up. I thought that I would need to change dramatically to survive. I didn’t change. I leave this place as sensitive as I ever was. Prone to dwell on the negative. Hating Question Time so deeply that I would struggle most days to eat beforehand. And I am here to tell you, you can be that person, and be here.”
There was a police presence at parliament yesterday, but if it was boosted for Ardern’s valedictory, only barely so, with a small handful of uniformed officers watching over lawns covered in little more than autumn sunshine – a far cry from the scenes of early 2022.
As far as the weight is concerned, it seems clear that the 23-day occupation of the grounds of parliament brought a particular burden. “If I have a low light, it was that for a group of people to reach that point – that was awful,” Ardern told Newshub this week. Of course she reflected, she said, on whether something like that might have been avoided. “We lost for a time that sense of unity, sense of community,” she said. “I will forever think back, is there a way I could have kept that cohesion? I don’t know the answer.”
Perhaps the rules around vaccine mandates might have been less severe. Perhaps, with the indulgence of retrospect, when the crowds did mass at parliament, Ardern might have been better to draw again from the kindness reservoir. Looking back, it may have made sense to denounce the extremist ringleaders while speaking empathetically to and of the many distressed and vulnerable people that had inhaled their fumes.
Can you blame her, though? “Hang em high” was scrawled across the parliamentary forecourt. Various signs cast her as Hitler. Unhinged conspiracy theorists sought to derail visits to primary schools of all places. Outright misogyny was rife. Her partner, Clarke Gayford, was cruelly, baselessly targeted over at least three years by misanthropes set upon falsely casting him as an infidel and criminal. How can such a permanent wave of toxic, malicious bullshit not take its toll? Among her messages to “my love, Clarke” last night, Ardern said, “thank you for keeping my cup full and for personally enduring so much rubbish.”
Ardern told the story of an encounter in Whanganui. She had returned to visit a vaccine centre after an earlier appointment had to be abandoned because of an antivax protest. One protester was there, still, and shouted conspiracy slogans at the prime minister. She “stopped, doubled back”, and sought to talk science. “I was idealistic enough to believe it would make a difference, but after many of these same experiences and seeing the rage that often accompanied these conspiracies, I had to accept I was wrong,” she said. “I could not single-handedly pull someone out of a rabbit hole. But perhaps, collectively, we all have a role to play in stopping people falling in in the first place.”
All of that was not what motivated her resignation, she insists. But, she told 1News, “Sitting in the back of my mind was this question and belief that perhaps my departure might bring the tempo, the heat, the friction that had come into politics … down a peg and, if it did, that would be good for New Zealand.”
Ardern’s political obituaries whirred off the presses almost as soon as she announced her departure in January. Plenty had been written already. A phenomenon in a crisis; all too fallible on delivery. Ardern has read those takes, and had them in mind at the top of her speech yesterday, as she recalled the priorities laid out in her maiden statement of 2008. “Climate change, child poverty, and inequality.” She said: “I am, after all, a conviction based politician, and I’ve always believed this to be a place where you can make a difference. I leave knowing that to be true.”
But. “I’ve become used to my time as prime minister being distilled down into a different list: a domestic terror attack, a volcanic eruption, a pandemic; a series of events where I found myself in people’s lives during the most grief-stricken or traumatic moments. Their stories and faces remain etched in my mind and likely will forever. That is the responsibility and privilege of the role of prime minister.”
Ardern wants to be remembered not just for those moments, but for tilting the axis, too, on those forbidding themes. Climate change. Poverty. Inequality. Did the pragmatist lay the foundation for something? Or did the idealist miss her chance? Towards the end of 2018 she told us: “I think if you’ve got political capital the easiest way to retain it is to do nothing. As I heard Obama say once, better to use what you’ve got to do great things, rather than just good things.”
f you really want to see Jacinda Ardern’s eyes light up, ask her about Antarctic exploration. Ernest Shackleton, especially. She drinks her tea from a Shackleton mug. Her favourite book is Alfred Lansing’s 1959 account of the Endurance expedition. “It is an incredible, incredible book,” she told the Writers Festival audience four years ago. “It tells the tale of leadership in the face of opposition.”
After a pause, she said: “And how not to die on the ice. Which is also very useful.” In case the point wasn’t clear enough, she added that day with a laugh: “It’s a real metaphor for politics.”