On 19th January, Jacinda Ardern announced that she would be stepping down from her role as New Zealand’s prime minister and leader of the centre-left Labour Party. Her resignation marks the end of a five-year period in office which saw her global popularity skyrocket due to her public health first approach to COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic, then later decline domestically as New Zealanders tired of her government’s stringent lockdown policies.
When Jacinda Ardern was sworn in as New Zealand’s prime minister in October 2017, she became the world’s youngest female leader. She later became only the second world leader to give birth during office.
She began to gain international attention in the early years of her premiership, as her empathetic approach and progressive ideals bucked the apparent global trend towards strongmen and populists. As international news headlines were dominated by political figures such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Vladimir Putin, and centre-left parties seemed to be on the decline, Ms Ardern’s political success offered hope and a blueprint for progressives.
The first major event of her premiership came on 15th March 2019, when a terrorist gunman attacked a mosque in Christchurch, killing 51 people. Ms Ardern was praised for both her compassionate response to the attack, as she met and grieved with the families of the survivors, and her decisive policy response. Her government moved to pass a series of gun reforms, including a ban on semi-automatic firearms and an incentive scheme that encouraged gun owners to turn in their weapons.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic saw countries such as the UK, Brazil, India and the United States criticised for failing to prevent the spread of the virus, while failing to listen to scientific recommendations to impose societal restrictions and other disease control measures. Under the leadership of Ms Ardern, New Zealand adopted a hardline “Zero COVID” approach involving border closures and lockdowns. This approach won international praise as the country was able to keep the number of cases and fatalities relatively low compared to the rest of the world.
Ms Ardern’s successful pandemic approach was undoubtedly the zenith of her domestic and international popularity, the former clearly demonstrated by Labour sweeping to power in a landslide victory during the October 2020 elections. However, discontent grew and criticisms increased due to her government’s prolonged commitment to Zero COVID, along with a slow vaccine rollout (New Zealand’s vaccination programme began a couple of months after the UK, USA and most of the EU). This sharp turnaround in the country’s political mood played out in 2022 as right-wing protests against vaccine mandates at the parliamentary grounds turned violent and spread to other cities.
Some have criticised Ms Ardern for jumping ship, arguing that the former prime minister is choosing to protect her own legacy rather than face the prospect of an election defeat head-on. However, a more accurate assessment would be that the move was a self-aware and typically empathetic acknowledgement that her political brand had become tired and tarnished domestically, and that her successor would be better placed to lead the Labour Party into the October 2023 elections.
However, Chris Hipkins, who was sworn in as New Zealand’s 41st prime minister last week after running for Labour Party leadership unopposed, may find the polls difficult to turn around. As Mr Hipkins was minister for health from July to November 2020, and minister in charge of the COVID-19 response from November 2020 and June 2022, he will face an uphill battle in changing the minds of voters who have turned away from the Labour Party due to its stringent COVID policies.
Despite her recent waning domestic popularity, ultimately we should expect Ms Arden’s positive political legacy to endure. The decisiveness and determination to protect lives and listen to the science demonstrated by Ms Ardern, whilst other global leaders hesitated and gambled with the lives of their citizens, will ultimately be remembered as one of the greatest displays of pandemic-era leadership. Although she was unable to sustain the trust she instilled in New Zealanders for a full term, her authenticity and honesty should be a benchmark that all politicians strive towards.
By Jack Seal