Jacinda Ardern’s graceful departure is the personification of modern democratic ideals

By Van Badham* – The Guardian

The New Zealand prime minister’s bold and resolute leadership neutralised hoary stereotypes that insisted female power is soft or weak

 Jacinda Ardern has resigned as prime minister of New Zealand and will be leaving office on 7 February.

World leadership has rarely seen anything like her. The dignity and integrity of her departure strikes a paradoxically powerful note, especially at a time when political transition in democracies from the United States to Brazil has been marred by violence and insurrection.

The childhood Mormon who became the world leader of the International Union of Socialist Youth was elected leader of NZ Labour in 2017. Ardern subsequently became the world’s then-youngest elected national leader at the age of 37.

She returned to government a Labour party who many thought was condemned to an ongoing political wilderness by using “Jacindamania” to boost the Labour vote in 2017 into a politically adroit coalition with minor parties. She maintained elements of that coalition by grace even when she provided her party with a thumping outright majority in the “Jacindaslide” of 2020.

Over her five years of leadership she shepherded New Zealanders through the tragedy and aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, managed a pandemic that not only threatened lives but devastated key local industries and reckoned with the climate crisis in country already susceptible to natural disasters. Domestically, her leadership faced a housing crunch, the need to rebuild a tattered industrial relations system, eroded services and post-pandemic inflationary pressure. She also had a child while in office. In her resignation statement, Ardern said she had “nothing left in the tank”.

Unsurprising. Even though Ardern’s poll numbers had taken a recent battering, with complex domestic problems unresolved and a new leader of the opposition conservative National party with more charisma than the last, her political capacity to recover her party’s fortunes before New Zealand’s October election should not be discounted.

Beyond the image of the empathic, cosmopolitan leader who wore a deferent scarf to weep with the survivors of Christchurch, made jokes on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and turned up to Buckingham Palace in a Māori feathered cloak, Ardern was a shrewd political operator rumoured to dispatch rivals internal and external with a smiling blade.

She may have led New Zealand’s famous “wellbeing budgets” and praised kindness as a policy virtue but the ruthlessness required to ascend power anywhere was on rare display when a health minister from her own cabinet defied their government’s own pandemic restrictions during lockdown to go on a bicycle ride. Not only did Ardern publicly end his ministry, but kept him in representative purgatory, obliging him to do his job and complete immediate ministerial tasks before his fall from seniority.

The Harvard Political Review identified the rare leadership character of Ardern as “authentic, empathetic and bold”, and a powerful mash of political attributes once understood in gendered terms. “Throughout the 20th century, leaders rose to power by projecting traditionally masculine qualities like aggression and stubbornness to dominate their opposition,” it wrote, explaining the sexist paradigm Ardern deftly upended with wit. So powerful were the images of Ardern at home with partner and baby, talking through her own frustrations with harsh lockdown restrictions even though it was her own directive that enforced them, that many Australians chose to tune into them rather than the statements of our own national leadership.

Indeed, it’s not beyond possibility Ardern’s position in the Australian political imagination had an impact on our last election. First, she reaffirmed a traditional western Labour brand of pragmatic, unchaotic empathy that – despite the best efforts of her opposition – remained unscary and undemonisable. The clear example she exported of female capacity for bold and resolute leadership neutralised the hoary stereotypes that insisted female power was soft or weak. You can see her influence across Australia’s political spectrum – most deferentially, perhaps, in the ideologically unalike yet all-female Teals.

 Australian Labor owes Ardern a debt, too. Her conspicuously polite visual horror in response to an uninvited hug from Australia’s former prime minister, Scott Morrison, affirmed that man’s image of arrogance and inauthenticity in the electorate in ways more devastating than the most skewering propaganda campaign or editorial.

Any leader’s political life is defined by its inevitable end. The times shift, the people’s demands change, the reality of unforeseen events overcomes even the most reasonable expectations of the future. It is the graceful reckoning that power will, can, must and – really – should be lost that is the robustness of our systems.

With her resignation, and the respectful manner of it, Jacinda Ardern’s departure from office crowns the political contribution she has made to her country and cements her personification of modern democratic ideals in our shared west and beyond.

Her moment of political power may be fading, but her status as an icon of democratic leadership is indelible.


*Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist


See also:

Jacinda Ardern knew when to quit. Unlike some other politicians I could mention

The New Zealand prime minister has revealed the emotional intelligence that many sorely lack. She showed us a different way to lead. One of the hardest things in life is knowing when to stop. So it is testament to Jacinda Ardern’s enduring skills that she has made it look almost easy. New Zealand’s prime minister announced her resignation this week in an emotional but characteristically graceful speech, declaring that after five and half gruelling years at the top she no longer had “enough in the tank to do it justice”.