WELLINGTON - New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern has announced her shock resignation just months before she was expected to run for a third term in office, saying she no longer has the energy or inspiration to continue as the country’s prime minister.
Since becoming the world’s youngest female head of government in October 2017, at age 37, Ms Ardern has become one of the most-admired politicians on the planet. But after being lauded for guiding New Zealand through the Covid-19 crisis, support for her Labour Party waned and her approval rating slipped. The effort required to win a third term was not something she was prepared to undertake.
Here are some of her biggest achievements and some of the low points of her years in office.
1. Response to Christchurch terrorist attack
On March 15, 2019, a lone gunman attacked Muslim worshippers at two mosques in the South Island city of Christchurch, killing 51 people, while live-streaming the attack to social media. Within days of the attack, Ms Ardern had moved to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles and established a nationwide buyback of the weapons. Her swift actions were routinely compared to that of the United States, where a string of gun massacres have failed to spur political action.
Ms Ardern also joined forces with French President Emmanuel Macron to urge big tech companies to curb the promotion of violent extremism online – a pledge that became known as the Christchurch Call. She won international praise for the empathy she showed in the attacks’ aftermath, including the donning of a headscarf out of respect for the Muslim community when she comforted the victims’ families.
2. Keeping New Zealand safe as Covid-19 erupted
At the onset of the pandemic, Ms Ardern moved swiftly to effectively close New Zealand’s borders and impose one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, essentially shutting down the economy even as the country had notched barely 200 cases.
It was a decision that paid dividends – the country recorded few virus deaths in the first two years of the pandemic and New Zealand was, for a time, one of the few places in the world with no community transmission of the virus. It also paid political dividends for Ms Ardern, helping her to win a majority in the 2020 General Election – the first outright majority in Parliament since the introduction of proportional representation in 1996.
3. Gaining status on the world stage
Ms Ardern won fame outside New Zealand in 2017 as the world’s then-youngest female head of government and as the first world leader to bring her baby to the United Nations General Assembly. She was feted abroad as a compassionate leader and star of the political left. She brought New Zealand the recognition it craved. Still, her fame overseas did not always win her praise at home.
“I’d say she’s New Zealand’s most popular prime minister ever overseas,” said political analyst Bryce Edwards in 2019.
...and the lows
1. It’s Covid-19 again
After her initial success in keeping the virus at bay, Ms Ardern and her government at times floundered. There were missteps in handling isolation facilities, where people returning to New Zealand were quarantined, and with the roll-out of vaccines. One of the most aggrieved groups were the tens of thousands of Kiwis stuck overseas who were unable to return to New Zealand due to the lack of isolation places.
The government’s handling of Covid-19 vaccine mandates led to societal divisions that New Zealanders were largely unfamiliar with. The most extreme manifestation was a three-week anti-vaccine protest in Parliament grounds in Wellington in 2022, which ended in violent clashes with police and fires on the front lawn.
2. Not managing to close the inequality gap
Ms Ardern came to power in 2017 promising to address growing inequalities and close the gap between rich and poor. But in her first term, her governing coalition ditched plans for a capital gains tax over concerns it was too politically risky, while a programme to build tens of thousands of affordable homes fell well short of goals.
Her second term as prime minister was largely dominated by Covid-19, leaving less space for domestic reforms, while the cost-of- living crisis spiralled globally.
3. Lawlessness and disorder
A wave of ram raids around the country – where people use stolen cars to bash their way into locked shops late at night to steal goods – alarmed the public and added weight to the main opposition National Party’s ongoing criticism that Ms Ardern’s government is soft on crime.
The fatal stabbing of a corner-store owner during a raid in November 2022 added to the furore, while the National Party’s pledge to impose stiffer penalties proved popular with the electorate. BLOOMBERG