New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will leave behind a legacy as a progressive and compassionate leader.
At 37, Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s youngest woman prime minister in October 2017. Thursday’s resignation announcement, effective 7 February, closes an important chapter in the country’s political history, and an eventful prime ministership of five and a half years.
For many, this will be seen as a short tenure, despite the fact Ardern has managed monumental crises, both local and global.
She navigated New Zealand through the COVID-19 health crisis, ambitiously aiming for elimination of the virus rather than suppression or mitigation. She shed tears alongside those who lost loved ones in the Christchurch terrorist attack and again when Whakaari (also known as White Island) volcano erupted.
Ardern secured a second term in office in 2020, following a campaign in which the two major parties were led by women, and which resulted in a record 48 per cent of parliamentary seats being won by women. Astonishingly, in that election, Ardern was the first party leader since the introduction of the mixed member proportional electoral system in 1996 to win a majority of seats in parliament. Ardern’s style of leadership was defined by a politics of kindness.
Today’s announcement means Ardern leaves politics on her own terms. This kind of agency is especially critical in the face of sexism and misogyny. Like every other woman politician in the world, Ardern has faced relentless misogyny during her tenure as prime minister, including death threats. Not surprisingly, there is some speculation that this ongoing assault may have influenced her decision to resign.
For women politicians, choosing an end date is a rare opportunity. Women are too often prematurely defeated. For young women politicians, this is even more significant. It shows young women can reach high office without that office necessarily defining their entire careers; that women can contribute to national decision-making at a young age and successfully transition to something else.
In a region dominated by older male political leaders, Ardern stood out among her Pacific counterparts. And yet, she became a respected voice of calm and reason. Her support for unity in the Pacific Islands Forum in 2022 is just one example.
As a young, progressive leader championing a different style of political leadership, Ardern has made global headlines, appearing in Vogue in February 2018 and on the cover of Time in February 2020. The Time profile noted that Ardern had infused New Zealand with “a new kind of soft power“.
Ardern also showed that women can lead on the world stage and have a family, becoming just the second woman prime minister to have a child while in office and the only woman prime minister to bring their baby to the United Nations General Assembly. Ardern’s unique combination of executive leadership and motherhood was considered a ‘radical act’, but it also redefined parliamentary politics in New Zealand.
Family-friendly practices in the New Zealand parliament attracted greater public attention when Ardern announced her pregnancy in January 2018, which coincided with a push by the Speaker, Trevor Mallard, to support parliamentarians and staff in balancing work and family.
The parliament is one of the few in the world to have dedicated spaces for families with changing tables and play areas for children, wider security clearances for carers and spouses within the parliamentary precinct, and a policy that grants new parents ‘compassionate leave’ whenever necessary in the first six months of a child’s life and ‘evening leave’ in the first 12 months.
With Ardern’s departure, Australia will lose more than just an ally; it will lose a friend. But perhaps more importantly, the region loses an impressive role model. A progressive leader of kindness and compassion, an authentic feminist, and a trusted member of the Pacific family.
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