Published in Social Europe, 23rd. January, 2023
Jacinda Ardern’s resignation reflects the tough headwinds young progressive women face as political leaders.
Last Thursday Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealand prime minister, announced at the first Labour parliamentary party meeting of the year that she would be stepping down, saying she no longer had ‘enough in the tank’ to do the job. This in an election year with Labour languishing in the polls.
At the same time, she announced that the triennial parliamentary election due this year would take place on October 14th. Under Labour Party rules, the timing of the announcement of her retirement in relation to the election date allowed the parliamentary party (‘the caucus’) to decide her successor, as long as it could realise a two-thirds majority. The caucus has since selected Chris Hipkins as prime minister and Carmel Sepuloni, of Pacifika heritage, as deputy.
How did it come to this, that a political leader once widely applauded, at home and abroad, has decided to step down before her term is up? And are there lessons to be learned about the role of female leaders—particularly those who are young and left of centre—in an era when democracies can be under threat, populism is often on the rise and the expectations and demands of leaders are high?
Empathetic and humanitarian
Ardern, at 37, was the youngest female prime minister to come to power in the country when her party entered a coalition to form a government with the New Zealand First (NZF) party in 2017. She was young, unmarried, a superb communicator and committed to a more empathic and humanitarian style of leadership and government, with a constituency drawing on youth, women, public-sector workers, urban professionals and Pacifika and Māori voters. NZF, by contrast, was a populist, centrist party with a determination to deliver to the regions of New Zealand, the elderly and some special-interest groups.
The government was at first unspectacular and its prospects unpromising. What transformed it—and put Ardern on the world stage—was the response to a series of crises: the massacre of 51 Muslim worshippers by a white extremist gunman in March 2019, a volcanic eruption occasioning the loss of 22 lives among tourists in December that year and the arrival of Covid-19 in February 2020. In each instance, Ardern demonstrated a style and depth of leadership that was at once emotionally engaging, unifying and effective, and this transformed her standing nationally and abroad.
Such was the response to the pandemic that Ardern was able to lead her party in the 2020 election to capture 50 per cent of the vote. This was a feat only matched by her party in the depths of the 1930s depression and by the conservative National Party in 1951 amid the gathering winds of the cold war.
Tricky balancing act
The management of Covid-19 proved however not only a high point but also a harbinger of electoral decline. Death rates in New Zealand were among the lowest internationally while its economic performance was among the best. This was achieved by border closures, limited lockdowns and highly successful vaccination campaigns. By the time of the delta and omicron variants, however, the gloss had worn off—particularly given the tricky balancing act of trying to raise vaccination among disadvantaged populations, such as Pacifika and Māori, while more advantaged groups were fully vaccinated and chafing under the public-health restrictions.
In one sense this was just the turn of the electoral cycle, unexpected as it may seem against the backdrop of the spectacular majority achieved in 2020. But the pandemic also brought to the surface and catalysed an antagonism, hostility and polarisation rarely seen in New Zealand, much of it levelled at Ardern personally. While the prime minister was able to mingle easily with people in 2020 and 2021, last year she could not even disclose her schedule of public engagements, for fear of personal attack and retribution.
The government has performed creditably, although not strikingly, on a traditional social-democratic agenda: housing the homeless, investing in health and education (particularly vocational), reducing poverty, supporting living standards (particularly those of the disadvantaged and low-skilled), protecting the environment and setting the stage for climate-change mitigation and adaptation. But with a change of government—which on current polling looks likely—much of that agenda could be weakened, if not reversed.
Lessons to be learned
So what lessons should be learned from the rise and apparent fall in prospects for this promising and effective young female political leader of a mainstream social-democratic party in an otherwise functional and vibrant liberal democracy?
- The lot of female political leaders, particularly left-of-centre, is never easy. There are depths of misogyny, suspicion and outright hostility which cannot be wished away. One only has to consider in the English-speaking world the fates of Hillary Clinton in the United States and Juliet Gillard in Australia.
- It is better to under-promise and over-deliver when it comes to government policy. Ardern’s government was early described, not always in good faith, as seeking to be transformational, but that can set up an administration to fail.
- In the modern era of intense media competition, the narrative for a left-of-centre government is rarely positive. On almost every major policy, and at almost every turn in the government’s successful response to Covid-19, the media inevitably found failings and rarely provided balanced coverage.
- When it comes to the new spectre of inflation, debt accumulation and the threat of recession, an incumbent government is almost inevitably likely to suffer electorally.
- The vested interests of opposition to the social-democratic agenda will not go away. In the lead-up to this election year the conservative opposition party has garnered donations from a few wealthy individuals amounting to at least ten times what Labour has been able to attract from its many thousands of members.
- Finally, ‘social media’ have added an edge of fear, conspiratorialism, misinformation, hatred and opposition that was not there even a decade ago, making it that much harder for a social-democratic government to advance a traditional agenda.
In expanding on her reasons for calling time, Ardern mentioned the poignant personal goals of seeing her young daughter start school and, yes, marrying her fiancée of several years. But it is hard to believe that the onslaught of media negativity and the personal attacks via ‘social media’ had not taken their toll. It is also possible that, in a selfless manner, she considered that her party might fare better in the coming elections with fresh leadership in the public eye.
‘Queen of woke’
It is one of the cruel ironies of politics that a young woman leader of such achievement at home and recognition abroad should feel the need to withdraw from politics. The conservative media have sought to dance on her grave—the Australian derided Ardern as ‘the queen of woke’ who had left chaos in her wake.
Far from it. She has a public legacy of which she can be proud. But she has called time at a crucial moment in her life. I expect her to be back in public life, on her own terms.
As the Māori saying goes, Kia Kaha Jacinda Ardern—stay strong.
Peter Davis, Chair, The Helen Clark Foundation, an independent public policy think tank
There’s certainly a hue and cry about Jacinda’s reasons for stepping down and whether it’s because she was unfairly treated as a woman. However, why would we expect someone to stay more than 2 terms in possibly the most nationally traumatic 2 terms in NZ history? If she was going to step down, this was the obvious point, with enough time before the election for a new leader to make their mark. I don’t know why everyone is acting so surprised. Or maybe we just think people are because that’s what the media keeps repeating?