Ardern shepherded New Zealand through hate, pestilence and volcanic ash

Venu Menon reports from Parliament on the former PM’s Valedictory Address

Inevitable soul-searching: Jacinda Ardern delivering her Valedictory Address in Parliament on Wednesday, April 5, 2023 (Screen Grab)

Wellington, April 5, 2023

Jacinda Ardern, delivering her farewell address, began by remembering her maiden speech in Parliament 15 years ago. And the convictions that stood out then are as fresh today: on climate change, child poverty, and inequality.

They define who she is: a “conviction-based politician.” And Parliament is a place you come to in order to “make a difference.”

Yet, Ardern’s time as prime minister became “distilled down” to a “domestic terror attack. A volcanic eruption. A pandemic.”

This is how Ardern remembers her time in office, enmeshed in people’s tragedies and traumas.

“Their stories and faces remain etched in my mind, and likely will forever,” she tells the House. Fleetingly, at that very moment, members on both sides of the aisle, as well as the faces in the public and press galleries, are bonded by a shared recognition of the truth of her words.

No prime minister in Aotearoa has had to navigate the public through mind-numbing catastrophic moments as Ardern had been called upon to do.

She takes her audience on an autobiographical journey  through her rise within the Labour Party, and how she couldn’t make up her mind if it was akin to steering “a moving freight train” or “ being hit by one.”

Ardern recalls feeling reluctant yet compelled to take on the leadership of the Labour Party.

She shares cute musings of waking up with a start on a plane and double-checking with her chief press secretary if she was still the party leader.

She recalls that phase as a period of self-discovery when she threw herself into the politics of the moment, which was dominated by climate change.

“I called it our nuclear-free moment,” she reminisces. And the fallout has not settled around that issue to this day.

“Now I know there is politics in almost everything.” Ardern’s voice turns gritty for a second, before thawing. “But we also know when, and how to remove it.”

Ardern elevates Parliament to a hallowed precinct, saying: “When the crisis has landed in front of us, I have seen the best of this place. An absolute focus on the care of others, on preserving life and helping people when they need it most.”

But she has one last entreaty to the members before she leaves: “Please take the politics out of climate change.”

She transitions smoothly from House to Treaty, highlighting the creation of the Maori Crown relations portfolio, the establishment of the Maori Health Authority, the growth of Te Reo Maori, and Matariki, “our first indigenous public holiday.”

Ardern’s voice shifts cadence when she talks about children and child poverty. She holds up the Child Poverty Reduction Act as a trophy moment from her first 100 days of office.

National Party Leader Christopher Luxon leads the team to farewell Jacinda Ardern in Parliament on Wednesday, April 5, 2023 (Screen Grab)

“In 2017 when we first formed government, almost one in five children was living in poverty,” she recalls.

Now, as she leaves, “77,000 fewer children are living in low-income households, all nine child poverty measures have reduced, and this winter a sole parent will receive $212 more per week than when we came into office.”

There was the inevitable soul-searching, that moment of national recompense, when the apology owed was given to the Pasifika communities for the “infamous dawn raids.”

She trots off the milestones on the long arduous route to recognition of gender rights, the decriminalising of abortion, pay equity and 50 per cent representation of women in Parliament.

Covid was as disruptive for Ardern’s family life as it was for every other New Zealander. She says her faith in science pulled her through that grim period for the nation.

But there is no shrinking from the hard truth. “We didn’t always get it right. I didn’t always get it right.”

There is no self-reproach either: “But we were motivated by the right things.”

Ardern is clear which side of the vaccine debate she is on. In an obvious reference to the anti-vaccine protesters, she is wary of the “rage that often sat behind these conspiracies.” Conspiracy is the nemesis of debate, she warns.

Ardern still struggles to make her peace with that bleak date on the national calendar of Aotearoa: March 15. The images of the mosque attack in Christchurch haunt her still. But one image stands out, “the image of a member of the Muslim community covered in blood in the aftermath of the attack.”

That same person would later stand up at a public meeting and thank New Zealand and “express gratitude for his home.”

Ardern feels honoured to be part of the work of the Christchurch Call to Action to address violent extremism online.

“To the Muslim community of Aotearoa New Zealand, you have humbled me beyond words,” she says, voice cracking. “As-salamu alaykum.”

Few past prime ministers can lay greater claim to the legacy of fostering diversity in Aotearoa than can Jacinda Ardern.

Venu Menon is an Indian Newslink reporter based in Wellington.

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