Despite all the fuss, Jacinda Ardern was a leader of substance

An early reading of our forthcoming Leader (April 15, 2023 Digital Edition)

From the height of glory and popularity, Jacinda Ardern fell on perceived divisiveness

Venkat Raman
Auckland, April 6, 2023

When Jacinda Ardern was sworn in as the Prime Minister on October 26, 2017, we thought, “Is this the young lady we had seen in the office of (her predecessor) Helen Clark? She has grown in stature to lead a major political party and a country.”

When Jacinda Ardern delivered her Valedictory Address in Parliament on April 5, 2023, we thought, “Is this the fearless Leader who told (her former Australian counterpart) Scott Morrison, “Do not export your problems to us,” referring to the deportation of criminals?

The difference between the two, we discerned, was like the waxing and waning of the Moon.

In 2017, she was seen as the only future of the Labour Party and six years and a devastating Covid pandemic later, she was perceived as a leader who failed on many fronts.

Distinct Milestones

We have often felt and said that leaders are as good as yesterday and that their future is as uncertain as the weather. On that score, the meteoric rise of Jacinda in the face of a dismally poor leader Andrew Little and the dramatic fall of Ardern in the hands of fate (read that as adversaries), will be marked in the history of New Zealand’s polity as two distinct milestones- the bright and dark side of the Moon.

Not that she did not see it all coming to haunt her.

We wrote a note of caution in our Leader of February 1, 2022 that from private gatherings, public meetings and talkback shows and letters to editors to opinion polls, the voice of the people was becoming louder and clearer: “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, we have had enough. Let us return home; open the borders for stranded migrants; help our families reunite; businesses are failing and closing down; our confidence in you is waning; do not test our patience anymore.”

She started languishing in Opinion Polls, starting with the One News-Kantar Poll released on January 27, 2022. It showed that her popularity has slumped to its lowest level since she became the Prime Minister. Thereafter, every Poll demonstrated the growing criticism of her Covid-19 response and doubts about the economy, with her rating as the Preferred Prime Minister declining to depressing levels.

Jacinda Ardern was a favourite guest at Indian Newslink events as a Member of Parliament and Prime Minister

Changing public opinion

Even so, there was no immediate threat to her office and public opinion can change quickly as it did soon after Chris Hipkins became the Prime Minister. The deluge in Auckland, followed by Cyclone Gabrielle brought Labour back as a running favourite.

But the damage was done as for as Ms Ardern was concerned.

She faced declining popularity. Her style of functioning, subjecting Auckland, the country’s biggest city and the economic engine to more than 100 days of lockdown, and closing the borders to even New Zealanders causing hardships and the refusal to allow hundreds of migrants stranded overseas for the past two years have all turned into public resentment.

There has also been dissatisfaction with tough border policies that made it hard for overseas-based Kiwis to return home, although Ardern’s defenders pointed out that the country has had only 52 virus deaths in a population of five million.

On January 19, 2023, she announced her decision to step down saying tearfully that she had found “time for reflection.”

“Being Prime Minister requires you to have a full tank, plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges. I am human. Politicians are human. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it is time,” she said at the annual retreat of her Labour Party in Napier.

A lasting legacy

Just as we did not expect John Key to announce that he was quitting on December 5, 2016, a week before he bequeathed his office to Bill English, Ms Ardern called it a day, leaving the election of her successor to her Party Caucus.

Since then, the woman who made headlines all over the world as the Most Popular Leader of the Decade or the Century, went into hibernation only to surface on April 5, 2023 to deliver her last speech in the debating chamber.

Ms Ardern may have gone out of politics and therefore the public domain, but her legacy will remain. Since she became at the age of 37, she steered her country through the Christchurch Massacre that left 52 people dead,  a volcanic eruption that eventually killed 22 people and the Covid-19 pandemic that terrorised society. At a time of rising populism, she gained a reputation for kindness.

This Newspaper’s editor has travelled widely with Ms Ardern on her State visits, during each of which he saw the respect that she commanded among the leaders of the host countries and the love that she shared with common people. Truly, her prowess puffed New Zealand’s reputation.

The people spoke heavily in her favour at the 2020 general election. She romped home with a thumping majority, promising to improve the lot of her people through more houses, better living standards, better education and health and a lot more.

The betrayal and outrage

Unfortunately, that promise did not seem to work. Her management of the pandemic in 2020- especially the longest lockdown that Auckland had seen (about 103 days), the vaccination drive and the Anti-Vaccine protestors, the standoff in the Parliament precincts and a host of other issues began to mount- dissent and discord became rampant and Ms Ardern was accused of dividing the country.

The once harmonious society became fractured and even small gatherings of families and friends became a platform for heated exchanges.

Ms Ardern was seen as a divisive leader, unable to prioritise her actions and inept at taking irreversible and good decisions. Her admirers would say that none of these was intended but leaders are judged by results, not efforts.

Like all mortals who have a heart that melts, we were moved by the finality in her valedictory address to Parliament on April 5, 2023:

“And now, it is time for me to leave this place to the amazing people around me. But I want to spend the last few moments I have here, talking not about why I joined them, but why others should. And not just in Parliament, but in leadership.

“Most of you here know my story. I do not consider myself to have had anything in my life that made me especially extraordinary. I was a child of the 1980s, born to the son of a drain layer and the daughter of a farmer. My parents worked hard, really hard. My father was a Policeman, my mother ran the canteen at the local school. They also ran an orchard for a few years, all while working full-time. My sister and I were the first in our family to attend University. I was anxious about taking a student loan so I worked multiple jobs and entered speech competitions, or to be precise, my mother entered me into them, to try and earn a little extra money to put myself through University.”

Politicians carry a heavy burden on them and it is not uncommon for a much-loved and respected leader to lose popularity and face calls to resign.

Ms Ardern paid that price.

However, neither her integrity nor her sincerity of purpose can be questioned.

Jacinda Ardern will always be remembered for her services to the country, although compared to many of her predecessors, her stay as Prime Minister was short.

We will, like a few million people around this world, remember Ms Ardern for her good part.

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