Jacinda Arderns resign as prime minister in January was a courageous and pragmatic decision for herself, her family and her party. While many said she had done a great job as a leader, she rightly reminded us that a great leader is “someone who knows when it’s time to leave.”
Since reaching stellar heights in mid-2020, Ardern’s Labor Party had fallen significantly in the polls, trailing the opposition National Party by 2022. The “Jacinda Effect” had switched from a unifying force to a polarizing one. With the elections in October, it was time for change.
Her decision to step down was as politically astute and timely as her appointment as leader of the Labor Party in August 2017. After all, Labor is now for National in recent polls.
By the time she gives her farewell statement to parliament later today, Ardern will have served as an MP for almost 15 years. While the intervening period has undoubtedly changed her, in many ways she remains the same person she was as a rookie backbencher.
In her first speech to the House of Representatives in 2008, she articulated the values of the small town she started with:
Some people have asked me if I am a radical. My answer to that question is very simple: I am from Morrinsville. Where I come from is a radical who chooses to drive a Toyota rather than a Holden or a Ford.
She described herself as a social democrat who believed in human rights, social justice, equality and democracy. She spoke mainly about work, education, community and poverty reduction – child poverty in particular.
All nice ambitions. But at the time, Ardern’s Labor Party had nine long years in opposition after Helen Clark’s three-year government lost power. Unable to break the run John Key enjoyed from National as prime minister, Labor went through one leader after another as Ardern climbed through the ranks.
In mid-2017, despite a vote for change, it still looked like the election would not go well for Labour, at the time with the poll at around 25%. Then, in early August, Andrew Little handed over leadership of the party to Ardern. With just seven weeks until the election, it was either an inspired move or the ultimate hospital pass.
However, as history shows, Ardern’s elevation immediately energized Labour’s campaign. It also drew international attention to the New Zealand election, as what came to be known as “Jacindamania” changed the mood in the streets and in the media.
Accidents of history
Critics sometimes labeled Ardern the “accidental prime minister” – a rookie “appointed” by Winston Peters, whose New Zealand first party held the balance of power in post-election negotiations. According to conventional wisdom, Ardern Peters simply offered a better coalition deal despite her party winning fewer seats than National.
But Peters gave those critics some more ammunition during a recent TV interview. He appeared to reveal that New Zealand First had been forced to choose a coalition with Labor when then National Leader Bill English warned him of a possible coup by Judith Collins.
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According to Peters, English had assured him that Collins did not have the numbers to pull it off. (Collins, of course, would eventually become the national leader, losing in spectacular fashion to Ardern in the 2020 election.)
This sliding door version of events can be conjecture. But Peters can’t have forgotten how Jenny Shipley rolled former National Leader and Prime Minister Jim Bolger in 1997. That eventually led to the breakup of the National-New Zealand First Coalition in which Peters had been Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer.
Perhaps, then, we owe Ardern’s elevation to the highest job to Collins. We’ll probably never know.
Rise and fall
However, the “Jacinda Effect” was not a flash in the pan. Labour’s electoral support went from 25% in 2014 to 37% in 2017, then to an extraordinary 50% in 2020. Thanks to Ardern’s exemplary leadership during the COVID pandemic, it was an unprecedented result among the country’s proportional elections. MMP system.
Her belief in “kindness” as a political force seemed to be confirmed, if not for long. While New Zealand eventually took on the world lowest excess mortality rate during the pandemic, this success was far from free. In particular, a human and political price had to be paid for the lockdowns and border closures.
Businesses struggled, many New Zealanders abroad were unable to return and many resisted pressure to get vaccinated. No country escaped unscathed, and in New Zealand opposition to vaccine mandates boiled over by parliament in early 2022.
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Some protesters were angry at Ardern’s trademark empathy and kindness, which they now viewed as a false front. Because of the extremist elements among the protests, she refused to address them directly.
Ardern’s positive leadership reputation was due to her responses to tragedies: the Christchurch terror attack, the Whakaari-White Island eruption and the pandemic. But no sensible politician would have welcomed such crises.
Nor were they part of Ardern’s Social Democratic plan. In fact, they hindered it. She did a lot for child poverty and family incomes, in line with her core values. But those results were overshadowed by a pandemic response that upended her government’s fiscal policies.
So if catastrophes shaped Jacinda’s career as prime minister, they were also breaking it. From her first campaign speech in August 2017, she had created a sense of promise that her government ultimately failed to deliver.
She claimed that climate change was her generation’s “nuclear-free moment”, and that everyone had the right to a decent, affordable home. It sounded great, but progress fell short of expectations and needs on both counts. She would later capitulate to a full capital gains tax to help solve the housing crisis. As a result, coalition partner Peters could take credit for the backdown.
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But it would also be wrong if the lasting story was one of failure to live up. Her government’s Child Poverty Reduction Act now mandates reporting on progress towards poverty targets, bringing the problem into the engine room of fiscal policy. The Healthy School Lunches program helped reduce food insecurity.
Future governments will meet strong political resistance if they try to withdraw those measures.
Even those tireless advocates for children, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), gave Ardern qualified approval after her resignation – although the truce did not last long. CPAG wash back on the attack when Statistics NZ reported “Child poverty rates for the year ending June 2022 were unchanged compared to the previous year”.
A complex legacy
In the end, Ardern didn’t use the one-party majority she won in 2020 to fix the things she wanted to fix. When her government saw a problem, the default was to say “let’s centralize it” – as if that would suffice. Good social-democratic governance was pushed aside by bureaucratic turmoil in health care, education and (before the plan was called off) public broadcasting.
Extensive structural reform of water services resulted in controversies over Māori co-government and the loss of local democratic control. The sixth Labor Government’s only historic contribution to the development of New Zealand’s social security system – a proposed unemployment insurance scheme – was tacitly shelved after criticism from both the left and the right.
So, will Ardern be remembered as one of the great Labor leaders? If she did, she’d be in the pantheon of Michael Joseph Savage And Peter Fraserwho has achieved so much in the areas of social security, health care and education, and who has led the country through the second world war.
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It would also place her next to it Norman Kirkwhose government in 1972-1975 made accident compensation universal, introduced the benefit for domestic purposes and opposed French nuclear tests in the Pacific.
It’s a high bar, but not unreasonable to make the case. Ardern broke down barriers for women, most notably giving birth to her daughter while in office. She united the country after the mosque shootings and calmed what could have been a moment of division. By listening to the scientific evidence and advice on COVID, she helped save countless lives.
Ardern will no doubt be remembered as one of the outstanding Prime Ministers of Aotearoa, New Zealand. However, this may not be for reasons of her choice. Once disaster management is accounted for, there are no great lasting achievements for which her administration will be cited in the history books.
What will be remembered is Ardern’s exemplary and highly effective leadership through COVID. Yet there is no “friendly” way through an unfriendly pandemic. Nevertheless, Jacinda owes Ardern a debt of gratitude for all she’s done — and recognition for all she’s had to endure — to see her nation through.