In five momentous years Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s most important postwar prime minister

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s appeal was always in her personality. The ‘relentless positivity’, as she called it in 2017. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s appeal was always in her personality. The ‘relentless positivity’, as she called it in 2017. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

In one sense it feels as if Jacinda Ardern, who came to office in 2017, was the perpetual prime minister. In the collective memory, time fractures into the innocent period before the Christchurch massacre, the White Island eruption, the pandemic and then the exhausting period post.

In each period – both before and after that defining summer from December 2019 to February 2020 – it feels as if the constant was Ardern. It’s difficult to imagine any other prime minister cutting through their bureaucracy’s cautious advice, their cabinet’s hesitancy and their citizenry’s uncertainty to make the decision to lock down a country of five million and work towards eliminating Covid-19.

Yet Ardern did. Within a few short months Covid was contained in New Zealand. The economy would boom. And in an uncharacteristically warm, dry spring in 2020 the prime minister won an unprecedented parliamentary majority – an endorsement of her policies and leadership in the worst emergency in almost a century.

Yet in another sense it also feels as if Ardern arrived yesterday only to depart tomorrow. In August 2017 her Labour party colleagues almost had to beg her to assume the leadership. That alone qualifies Ardern as a politician apart from her colleagues. Unlike the series of Labour leaders who came before, or the series of National leaders who bit at her heels, Ardern never seemed to seek power. For nine years she was the reliable deputy. First to Grant Robertson, who eventually in turn became her deputy, and then to Andrew Little.

That experience deputising was, in hindsight, the best possible audition for power. What’s striking about Ardern is the absence of ego. Even in her resignation speech she speaks directly to her daughter, Neve, promising that Mum is coming home, and addressing her partner, Clarke, promising that they can finally marry. Students of political memoir and reflection understand that political careers leave precious little time or cognitive space for home life. The former prime minister Helen Clark was a famous workaholic, clocking on at 7am and off at almost midnight. John Key, both during and after his prime ministership, did register his regret at missing important moments in the lives of his children. But Ardern, with characteristic self-effacement, made a promise that she would be home when Neve enters primary school.

This is the best possible reason to step down – honouring a commitment to your daughter.

For the global class of Ardern watchers it was always extraordinary to observe how someone could give birth, breastfeed and care for an infant, toddler and then child while at the same time confronting a terrorist massacre, volcanic eruption and a pandemic. In each disaster the prime minister acted decisively – from banning semi-automatic weapons and reforming firearms law to implementing a world-leading alert level system to crush Covid-19 outbreaks. The speed at which these disasters would arrive, and the equally speedy response, makes it feel as if the short five-year period the prime minister was in power was actually an age. In this sense, then, she feels like the perpetual prime minister. As a country we packed so much living into these last five years.

But that is also an unusually short term of service for an MMP prime minister. Key had eight years while Clark had nine and Jim Bolger seven. Yet it’s Ardern who will most likely linger in the public memory in the decades to come. No prime minister in the post-war period has had to confront and resolve as many disasters. The pandemic, yes, but also a dramatic housing shortage (Ardern’s government built more homes than any other government in decades), runaway climate change (Ardern’s government passed a Zero Carbon Act) and growing inequality. Perhaps this is where Ardern might register one failing. The economic response to the pandemic, where billions of dollars in cheap credit was released, helped the wealthiest New Zealanders peel even further away from the poorest. But that is a policy problem for the next prime minister to confront.

It’s tempting to insert a dialectic into Ardern’s rise. If a conservative culture and soulless consumerism were responsible for flower power in the 1960s, then perhaps it was a neoliberal politic and a life-threatening capitalist mode that is responsible for Ardern’s singular and unique appeal. From 2017 to 2023 she was someone who promised to care. Historians might conclude in later years that this reading is too grand or overdetermined. But the prime minister’s appeal was always in her personality. The “relentless positivity”, as she called it in 2017. Or the humility, as I see, in never seeking power. Yet when it was thrust upon her, first in the form of the Labour leadership and then in the prime ministership, Ardern proved that she was more than a happy face. She was the most important prime minister in postwar history.

Morgan Godfery (Te Pahipoto, Sāmoa) is a senior lecturer at the University of Otago and a columnist at Metro.

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