This week marks the beginning of Jacinda Ardern’s life outside parliament as she officially stepped down as an MP for voters at midnight last Saturday. Her legacy as Prime Minister will be debated and contested, but there is no doubt that her influence will continue to be felt both in Aotearoa, New Zealand and internationally.
When Ardern freed her farewell statement earlier this month I was in Canada as a guest speaker at the University of Alberta. My lectures and workshops include sessions on gender politics and the pandemic, media representations of women leaders and opportunities for them lead with kindness. The public invariably wanted to know more about Jacinda Ardern.
People wondered why New Zealanders seemed to have forgotten about their country’s internationally recognized success in fighting COVID-19. They were curious as to why New Zealanders reportedly felt antipathy towards a prime minister whose commitment to tolerance and multilateralism was lauded abroad.
As citizens of a country home to three constitutionally recognized Aboriginal groups and numerous treaties, Canadians questioned why the Ardern-led government made Indigenous policy initiatives seem so “disturbing” to settlers.
And they wondered if it was inevitable that Ardern would face hostility from a vocal minority who disliked being ruled by a young woman, who became a mother while in office and used friendly language.
There was also some bewilderment. The coverage they had seen of Ardern’s leadership experience was at odds with their perception of New Zealand as an egalitarian and liberal society where female prime ministers and party leaders were almost commonplace.
In response, I drew on evidence that the media often sees women as a novelty in the upper echelons of politics. For example, in her research on coverage of four female prime ministers from New Zealand, Australia and Canada, Linda Trimble reveals that gender is explicitly stated.
As she notes, we rarely see men asked about the challenges of being a male leader, and this forms the basis for assessments of female leader performance. The research also shows that this use of gender references exists most common when a country experiences its first female political leader.
Read more: Jacinda Ardern says goodbye to parliament: how her policy of kindness fell on unkind times
But when Ardern became Labor leader, during her tenure and on her departure from politics, it seemed her gender continued to have news value: we first read about “jacindamaniajust two hours after she became leader, followed by questions from talk show hosts about her motherhood intentions.
The following year, a BBC interviewer asked about Ardern’s feminist credentials in light of her intention to marry her partner, and whether she felt guilty about being a working mother.
Even at the end of 2022, Ardern had to respond to a suggestion from a journalist that her meeting with then-Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin was about the fact that they were both young female leaders. Needless to say, both women flatly rejected this, with Ardern pointing out that the same question was not addressed to John Key and Barrack Obama.
Ardern’s ‘being different’
The combination of being a woman and the youngest prime minister in 161 years may have led to this personalized reporting. Sure, having a baby while in the office highlighted her as new and newsworthy nationally and internationally.
In her farewell statement, Ardern spoke implicitly about this “being different”:
I leave knowing I was the best mother I could be. You can be that person and be here (…) I really hope I’ve demonstrated something completely different. That you can be anxious, sensitive, kind and wear your heart on your sleeve. You can be a mom or not, an ex-Mormon or not, a nerd, a cryer, a hugger—you can be all of these things, and you can’t just be here, you can lead.
New Zealanders will recall that Ardern was not seeking the party leadership ahead of the 2017 election. Furthermore, when all votes were counted, Labor was a distant second to the centre-right National Party in both votes and seats.
But by guiding Labor to an unlikely coalition with New Zealand First, Ardern positioned Labor to win at least two terms in office. If National had formed a government in 2017, it might have won again in 2020. After all, the leadership of that party had a lot of experience in managing crises.
Read more: Anniversary of a landslide: New research reveals what New Zealand’s 2020 ‘COVID election’ really changed
That said, Ardern’s version of an ethic of care and her emphasis on kindness were new to New Zealand politics and important to managing a pandemic. This eventually became unbearable for those who opposed vaccination mandates and the management of isolation, and those who were alarmed by policies and programs aimed at realizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
But Ardern’s non-hostile, inclusive communication style and her demonstrable competence helped Labour recover a large number of female voters who had steadily left the party during its opposition under a series of male leaders.
Read more: ‘The shoes to be filled are on the big side of big’ – Jacinda Ardern’s legacy and Labour’s new challenge
Not long after Ardern became party leader in 2017, a political columnist wrote
that she did not have to “become Joan of Arc of Labor to succeed”. Those “who expect her to save the party and get them into government benches,” the columnist continued, “have set expectations too high.”
Perhaps Ardern set her own expectations too high by promising “transformation” of policy. And in being a relentlessly positive young female leader, the gendered media coverage may have been unavoidable.
But in the end, she succeeded in saving Labor from constant opposition and became the legend it was hinted she could be. And as I’ve seen in Canada, there are young people elsewhere that Jacinda Ardern has inspired to lead with kindness.