Jacinda Ardern: reflections on a political icon’s time in office

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The nature of a legacy left behind by a political leader is never a simple thing to define. This is as true as ever in the case of Jacinda Ardern. 

Is her career defined by her humanitarianism in the wake of the 2019 Christchurch Mosque shooting that saw 51 killed? By her policy of managed isolation and strict quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic that kept the death toll in New Zealand to below 2,500, the lowest of any country in the Western world? Or is it her controversial domestic failings, reneging on electoral promises to significantly lower child poverty? Despite their significance, all of these arguably defining career features are somewhat overshadowed by the power of the legacy of her femininity.

Ardern’s presence made me aware of New Zealand’s politics in a way that I never was before.

When she was elected as Prime Minster in 2017, gaining New Zealand’s Labour Party 14 seats, she was a breath of fresh air for women across the globe. A woman in her 30s in a powerful position of government, a rare sight in a political climate largely defined by the presence of white men significantly past their prime. 

Throughout her career Ardern has shown many young women that it is indeed possible to have ‘both’. An objectively formidable leader, her politics implicitly criticised global powers like the US. In the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack, Ardern banned military style semi-automatic weapons akin to the gun used in the attack and introduced a buy back scheme for registered owners of such weapons that saw 60,00 guns handed in. 

Ardern’s presence made me aware of New Zealand’s politics in a way that I never was before

This immediate enaction of change in the wake of tragedy embarrasses the American firearms policy, as the country continues to be plagued by catastrophic events involving legal weapons, with 2023 witnessing 340 separate school shootings. 

In addition to her ability to powerfully manage crises, Ardern was the second political leader to give birth in office, gracing the United Nations General Assembly with her 6-month-old baby Neve in 2018. Ardern continuing to lead with grace and strength whilst also raising a child was a very powerful image to behold as a 15-year-old girl. 

Ardern showed women they didn’t have to hide their femininity to hold power. A familial focus doesn’t need to take away from a woman’s career – it is possible for them to go hand in hand. Ardern fought female stereotypes and inspired feminism in many young women. From this perspective, it is indisputable that she will be missed on the world stage.

Yet within the domestic sphere she was a somewhat more controversial figure. Under her leadership, New Zealand’s cost of living suffered, with inflation at a near 30-year high in 2022 at 7.2%. Additionally, limited availability of affordable housing perpetuated rising inequality levels in the country and many criticised Ardern for her failure to address New Zealand’s rising child poverty levels. 

Throughout her career Ardern has shown many young women that it is indeed possible to have ‘both’

These domestic failings meant that by the start of 2023, when Ardern announced her upcoming retirement, support for the Labour Party was at its lowest level since she came into power in 2017. Looking at this, it seems that Ardern’s choice to step down from government could have come from a place of fear as she saw her popularity decline; raising the idea that her exit is an act of cowardice. However, in England our last four Prime Ministers have been dragged from government, disgraced, not ending their leadership electorally, but removed by their own party or forced out due to a personal lack of judgement. Consequently, the refinement with which Ardern stepped down, saying she believed she no longer “had enough in the tank” to lead successfully, appears, from an English perspective, sensible and a far cry from the power grabbing that we are used to as a country. 

It is hard in my position, not being from New Zealand, to decree the extent to which Ardern will be missed domestically. However, despite her creation of some local controversy, her legacy must overwhelmingly be seen as a positive one. She carefully guided her country through historic crises, and she was an emblem for women globally, standing as an inspirational figure that proved that young women are more than capable of bursting on to the scene of the largely male-dominated political sphere. Her position as a force of change makes it clear she will be missed by many.

Image: US Embassy via Wikimedia Commons

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