Did the hatefulness drive Jacinda Ardern from office and out of politics? Why would the mother of a 5-year-old want to be the focus of a storm of crazed commentary and calls to action? Is walking away an act of bravery or the acknowledgement you can’t hack it?
T here are two ways to look at Jacinda Ardern’s tearful announcement that she did not feel emotionally equipped to continue as prime minister of New Zealand: as an excellent template for political exits or a telling sign of the problems faced by female leaders.
In 2017, Ms Ardern became the youngest female head of government, aged just 37 years. Six years on, she is unwilling to seek re-election or even to complete her second term in office. She will leave office by February 7, she tearfully told her Labour Party on January 18. And she will remain a member of parliament only until April (she has represented the Mt Albert electorate since 2017 and was first elected an MP in 2008).
What does it all mean?
Is Ms Ardern jumping before she is pushed? Is she powerful in her pusillanimity? Labour is trailing in the opinion polls, and the October general election may have been a challenge for Ms Ardern.
Some commentators see Ms Ardern’s sudden departure, as well as her open acknowledgement of burnout, as admirable. They say it’s “the ultimate power flex” to walk away from high office.
But then there are all those disturbing reports about the torrent of abuse and violent threats faced by Ms Ardern. In 2022, New Zealand police reported that threats against Ms Ardern had nearly tripled to 50 since 2019. It’s a relatively small number, some might say, but then New Zealand is a relatively small country of just five million people. The intensity of hate against Ms Ardern is said to be “unprecedented”. It is mainly driven by anti-vaccination sentiment and opposition to legislation to regulate firearms.
Did the hatefulness drive Ms Ardern from office and out of politics? It wouldn’t be all that surprising if this mother of a five-year-old wanted a different future for herself and her family than to be the centre of a gathering storm of crazed commentary and calls to action.
In that case, is walking away an act of bravery? Or is it an acknowledgement that you can’t hack it?
Jacinda Ardern’s way of saying goodbye is as brusque as her plan for departure
I was in pretty much the same place nearly six years ago when the Ardern story began. Then too, it had seemed surprising.
In 2017, Ms Ardern was New Zealand’s new opposition leader. The 37-year-old shot to fame because she complained about the inherent sexism and unfairness of being asked about her likely plans to give birth. The question was asked twice over within 24 hours of Ms Ardern becoming leader of the Labour Party. The justification for this line of questioning was, in one interviewer’s words, as follows: New Zealanders had a right to know if there is a chance their potential prime minister would take maternity leave.
As it turned out, the row actually helped Ms Ardern. She went from a relatively unknown politician to a known name. When her party scraped into office, Ms Ardern became prime minister of a quickly cobbled coalition. Three months later, her office announced she was having a baby and would take six weeks of maternity leave. However, Ms Ardern stressed that she intended to be “fully contactable” during maternity leave.
In 2020, Ms Ardern led her party to a historic victory. Never before, since 1996, when New Zealand adopted a proportional voting system, had a single party achieved an outright majority in the unicameral parliament. Ms Ardern’s Labour Party did so.
Fast forward to the present, and Ms Ardern has abruptly announced her decision to step down from her job as well as party leadership because there wasn’t “enough in the tank”.
The phrase is as brusque as her departure.
— AUTHOR —
▫ Rashmee Roshan Lall, Journalist by trade & inclination. World affairs columnist.
▪ Text: This piece was originally published in Medium & the author’s blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 21 January 2023, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
▪ Cover: Wikimedia/Governor-General of New Zealand. - PM-designate Jacinda Ardern before the Swearing-in. | 26 October 2017. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)