Dogged throughout her term by sexist remarks and comments on her youth, the 42-year-old Ardern encouraged young people Wednesday not to be deterred by outdated perceptions of what makes a good leader.
“I do hope that I’ve demonstrated something else entirely. That you can be anxious, sensitive, kind, and wear your heart on your sleeve,” said Ardern, dressed in white, swathed in a traditional Maori cloak and fighting back tears. “You can be a mother or not. You can be an ex-Mormon or not. You can be a nerd, a crier, a hugger. You can be all of these things. And not only can you be here, you can lead just like me.”
Ardern said in January that “I no longer have enough in the tank” to contest the October election. Her center-left Labour Party had been trailing the main conservative opposition in the polls before her resignation as prime minister.
Her 5½ years in high office were among the most challenging in the South Pacific country’s modern history and included a 2019 terrorist attack in Christchurch on two mosques, a volcanic eruption and the coronavirus pandemic.
“When you look back at Jacinda’s five years, the truth is that two and a half of it was taken out by the pandemic,” former prime minister Helen Clark — a mentor to Ardern — told Radio New Zealand. “It doesn’t give you a lot of clear run on your economic and social policy agenda. Looking back, there needs to be more recognition that the pandemic blindsided governments, communities, publics around the world. It wasn’t easy.”
Christopher Luxon, leader of the main opposition National Party, paid tribute to Ardern on Wednesday, describing her leadership following the Christchurch massacre as “exemplary” and saying that she “kept our profile internationally in a good place.” But the center-right politician also criticized her management of the economy.
Many viewed New Zealand’s coronavirus policies — which included tight lockdowns and sealed borders — as a success. But opposition from the far right, fueled in part by misogyny and misinformation, led to violent protests outside Parliament against vaccine mandates and other covid restrictions.
She was also criticized for failing to tackle the country’s housing crisis and abandoning a signature policy to build 100,000 homes.
Responding to that Wednesday, Ardern said that any politician who declares the “job done” on issues such as poverty, inequality and environmental degradation has “set the bar too low.”
“Politics has never been a tick list for me. It’s always been about progress. Sometimes you can measure it and sometimes you can’t,” she said, running through a list of achievements including tough new gun laws introduced in the wake of the 2019 attacks. “There will be no list of the lives saved because of the banning of military style semiautomatic weapons.” she said.
Ardern was the second world leader in modern times to give birth in office, a pregnancy she found out about only days before she formed her first government. On Wednesday, she opened up about her fertility struggles, saying that when she came leader of her party, she had “not long experienced a failed IVF round” and threw herself into the election campaign, rather than dwell on her disappointment.
In a prime time interview aired Tuesday, television cameras followed Ardern as she cleared out her office. Among her keepsakes: a temporary United Nations badge issued to her 3-month-old daughter, “Ms. Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford,” who became a “first baby” when she accompanied her mother to the U.N. General Assembly in New York in 2018.
Ardern’s successor as prime minister, Chris Hipkins, on Tuesday announced she had been appointed to an unpaid role as a special envoy to the “Christchurch Call” — a global initiative begun by Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron to urge tech giants and other governments to commit to combating the spread of extremism on social media.
“Terrorist and violent extremist content online is a global issue, but for many in New Zealand it is also very personal,” Hipkins said, referring to the 2019 terrorist shooting across two mosques in the southern city of Christchurch. The attacker had shared White-supremacist views online and live-streamed the slaughter on Facebook.
Ardern will also join the board of trustees of the Earthshot Prize, a charity founded by Britain’s Prince William to support inventors with potentially planet-saving ideas. The winners of the annual award each receive $1.25 million to help scale up ideas that address pressing environmental problems.
“Four years ago, before The Earthshot Prize even had a name, Jacinda was one of the first people I spoke to, and her encouragement and advice was crucial to the Prize’s early success,” Prince William said in a statement Tuesday.
In September, Ardern attended an Earthshot summit in New York, where she spoke on behalf of the prince following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
“Since its inception, I’ve believed Earthshot’s power to encourage and spread not only the innovation we desperately need, but also optimism,” Ardern said in a statement Tuesday. “Solutions are within our reach if we invest, support and accelerate them globally.”