The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. Sign up to get it by email. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter with the Australia bureau.
When Jacinda Ardern announced this week that she would be resigning as prime minister of New Zealand no later than Feb. 7, she urged pundits and voters not to look for hidden agendas or secret motives behind her decision.
“I know that there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so-called ‘real reason’ was,” she said. “I can tell you that what I’m sharing today is it. The only interesting angle that you will find is that, after going on six years of some big challenges, I am human.”
Ardern’s humanity and compassion have never been much of a secret. She grieved alongside those who had lost loved ones in the massacres at two mosques in Christchurch in 2019, and she presented a strong, empathetic face to the families of victims of the Whakaari volcano disaster later that year.
She has shared her struggles with infertility and her joys at having a daughter, Neve, with her fiancé, Clarke Gayford, a local celebrity and television show host.
And when the couple’s wedding was canceled a year ago during a surge of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, Ardern talked about how she joined others in having her life upended because of Covid.
“I am no different to, dare I say it, thousands of other New Zealanders who have had much more devastating impacts felt by the pandemic, the most gutting of which is the inability to be with a loved one sometimes when they are gravely ill,” she said at the time. “That will far, far outstrip any sadness I experience.”
Ardern is unusual among politicians for her humility and for the fact that she had never angled for more power, said Morgan Godfery, a political commentator and senior lecturer at the University of Otago in Dunedin.
“In Parliament, she never sought the leadership of her party,” he said. “When she did take it on, that was because her colleagues had practically begged her to do so, and in that spirit of humility and service, she took that on.”
I returned to New Zealand from New York in October 2020. Once I had adjusted to life in the land that Covid-19 forgot, I was struck by the warmth with which New Zealanders across the political spectrum spoke about “Jacinda” — never “Ardern” — often nicknaming her “Cindy,” as if she were an old friend.
But with voters growing frustrated by the same economic struggles and other difficulties that have plagued so many other countries, disillusionment has set in. Ardern’s Labour Party is plunging in the polls. When I visited New Zealand again at the end of last year, that same nickname was more often employed with a certain sardonic bite.
While Ardern’s star might be slightly less bright, it still has some glimmer. “She’s still the most popular politician in New Zealand,” the political commentator Ben Thomas, who previously worked for the country’s center-right National Party, said hours after her shocking resignation.
After the surprise had sunk in, speculation about her next move quickly began. Would she, as some suggested, take an extended break to spend more time with her family? Would she, as some commentators had previously predicted, set her sights north and follow in the footsteps of Helen Clark, another former Labour prime minister, and take a post at the United Nations?
The answer may lie in the priorities she professed before becoming prime minister, when she stressed her disinterest in the top job.
In a 2017 interview, Ardern said she was “constantly anxious” about making mistakes as the party’s deputy leader and would not be able to handle the stress of additional responsibility.
“When you’re a bit of an anxious person, and you constantly worry about things, there comes a point where certain jobs are just really bad for you,” she said at the time.
“I always said, perhaps naïvely, I’d like to be a politician — but just have a little bit of a normal life as well,” she added. “I never want to resent what I do.”
Here are the week’s stories.
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