Saro Thiruppathy discusses the meteoric rise to fame and the equally sudden departure of New Zealand’s former prime minister Jacinda Ardern

One wonders whether the global population knew who the Prime Minister of New Zealand was before Jacinda Ardern was appointed to lead the country in 2017. Even though she was a relative unknown on the international stage, New Zealand’s 40th prime minister soon gained immense popularity both at home and abroad – one could even say an iconic status.

Her empathetic personality was evident in the way she handled the horrific killings in March 2019 when 50 Muslims were murdered and many more injured by a white supremacist who opened fire on them as they prayed in their mosques in Christchurch.

Ardern gained global affection when she donned a headscarf and mourned alongside relatives of the dead.

The prime minister quoted from Prophet Muhammad’s Hadith, as she sought to comfort the bereaved: “New Zealand mourns with you, we are one… According to Prophet Muhammad, the believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain.”

DECISION MAKING Apart from her astute leadership during the pandemic where she took difficult decisions to protect New Zealand from the devastation of COVID-19 and enabled it to recover faster than most other countries, Ardern has several other achievements that need to be recognised and remembered.

Six days after the Christchurch murders, she tightened New Zealand’s gun laws and banned military style semi-automatic firearms, and removed 62,000 prohibited guns from circulation through a buy-back scheme.

And in May that year, she joined French President Emmanuel Macron to lead the Christchurch Call to Action, which aims to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online.

EMPATHIC CULTURE In May 2022, Ardern delivered the commencement speech at Harvard University and spoke to an audience of 30,000 on the challenges of disinformation, and the value of democracy and kindness.

She said: “We are the richer for our difference and poorer for our division. Through genuine debate and dialogue, through rebuilding trust in information and one another, through empathy, let us reclaim the space in between. After all, there are some things in life that make the world feel small and connected; let kindness be one of them.”

Ardern has always strived to balance motherhood with premiership and in September 2018, she took her newborn baby to the UN General Assembly in New York, and the United Nations issued baby Neve with her own official ID.

In June last year, Ardern posted a picture of a ladybug cake that she had made to celebrate Neve’s birthday: “This year was my turn on
the birthday cake (or what I’ve come to know as the ‘stress bomb’). Neve requested a Ladybug and after several disasters underneath a lot of icing, this was the result… Happy Birthday Neve Te Aroha!”

New Zealand passed the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill in 2019, which set a new target for net zero carbon emissions. Ardern and her government have enacted policies to ban new offshore oil and gas exploration, phase out single-use plastic bags, make clean cars more affordable, and help businesses, hos­pitals and schools transition to clean energy.

She delivered the world’s first Wellbeing Budget in 2019. It laid out New Zealand’s new approach by placing the health and wellbeing of people at the heart of what it does. In fact, her entry into politics was to uplift the wellbeing of children and their families.

Later as premier, Ardern introduced various anti-poverty measures and legislation, to protect the health and wellbeing of children at home and in school. And she honoured the Labour Party’s campaign promise to enact the Equal Pay Amendment Act in July 2020. This makes it easier for workers to raise a pay equity claim.

THE RESIGNATION In spite of her many successes, she and the Labour Party have been facing criticism at home.

Ardern has also been the target of threats from anti-vaxxers and misogynists. Accusations ranged from the government not increasing the supply of housing, not reducing child poverty, and not paying sufficient attention to the economy and crime.

On 19 January – well ahead of elections scheduled for October – Ardern suddenly announced she was stepping down as prime minister.

She explained: “I am leaving because with such a privileged role comes responsibility; the responsibility to know when you’re the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes; and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple. I would be doing a disservice to New Zealand to continue.”

Jacinda Ardern was a phenomenon. She held the attention of the world in the palm of her hand. Now she’s gone and once again, it could well be that no one outside New Zealand is interested in who the new prime minister is.