When Jacinda Ardern got up on stage last Friday and, out of the blue, announced to the world that she was resigning, it felt as though the rest of us took a pause to pay tribute to someone we thought of as decent, kind, and, honest.
In stark contrast to the borderline — or, in some cases, full-blown — psychopaths of the elderly, wealthy, white, and male persuasion, Arden seemed to show the world that kindness wasn’t a preclusion to political leadership and ambition. It was nice to have someone in charge or a country you thought actually cared whether their subjects lived or died — a low bar, admittedly.
So it may have been a surprise then to learn that many Kiwis absolutely do not feel the same about Ardern as the rest of the world does and, indeed, are very glad to see the back of her.
Soon after her resignation speech in Napier, people gathered outside the conference centre with placards baring celebratory and mean-spirited slogans with phrases like “ding dong the witch is gone.”
It’s not an isolated example. The latest of these would be the Auckland farmer who mowed a massive message into his field so that passengers flying in and out of the city would read “The end of an error” as they looked down.
A Kiwi farmer, Rodney Ng, has said that “her policies will put a strain on farmers and severely affect the cost of living crisis for all Kiwis,” and that the agricultural industry won’t remember her fondly.
They’re not the only group. Here’s who Ardern managed to upset during her 5 years in office and how she’s likely to be remembered in the years to come as her successor, Chris Hipkins, is sworn into office today.
White Island and Christchurch
Arden has always been in the spotlight since she took office, although often more for who she is than what she was doing. The world first caught a glimpse of her as a leader at the United Nations where she brought along her newborn baby. At 37, she was demonstrating that women don’t have to choose between a family and a career at the highest level, provided that they are properly supported.
The next time the world’s attention was turned on her was in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings. An Australian far-right terrorist had gone into two mosques and gunned down innocents, live-streaming the whole thing online. In the face of such hatred, Ardern donned a hijab as a sign of respect and went out to personally comfort the victims.
“They are us,” she told the thousands gathered at a memorial service.
“We cannot confront these issues alone, none of us can. But the answer to them lies in a simple concept that is not bound by domestic borders, that isn’t based on ethnicity, power base or even forms of governance. The answer lies in our humanity,” she continued.
For some, this was Ardern’s high point. Kiwis have written that “she brought us closer together and navigated the country through one crisis after another.”
Those crises kept on coming, with the Whakaari White Island volcano eruption that killed 22 people happening that same year. Ardern’s benevolence during these disasters turned her into a hero on the world stage.
She was featured on American talk shows, appearing multiple times with Stephen Colbert, championing gun control policies like the ones she implemented after Christchurch. In many ways, she was a popstar PM, and was returned to power in a landslide election in 2020.
Entering the pandemic, New Zealand quickly became ‘Fortress New Zealand’, locking down harder and faster than we did in Australia and keeping it that way long afterward.
At the start of the pandemic, when the disaster was novel and we all looked for ways to entertain ourselves, Ardern was live streaming on Facebook, giving updates while putting her kids to bed, and reading the nation bedtime stories. It was incredibly charming.
However, rumblings soon began. Many began to see her as a brilliant communicator, but not much else. They started viewing her as the PR PM, someone with great empathy but not a lot of substance.
Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand, has said that Ardern “became a totem.”
“She became the personification of a particular response to the pandemic, which people in the far-flung margins of the internet and the not-so-far-flung margins used against her,” he adds
New Zealand, like Australia, pursued a COVID Zero policy, with frequent lockdowns and no vaccines in sight. When the vaccines did arrive, strict rules about who could do what came in and many saw Ardern as creating a two-class society: the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. She started to be known as ‘Jabcinda’.
As the world started to open up, New Zealand stayed locked down. Kiwis went from happy they were protected to frustrated they couldn’t do what everyone else was doing, especially when they looked across the ditch at us. Auckland was still in lockdown almost until the end of 2021.
Those lockdowns are seen as having had a major impact on New Zealand’s ability to recover post-pandemic. Like the rest of the world, the country is going through a major cost of living crisis, with the central bank raising interest rates to counter inflation. Owing to governance during the pandemic, the country is seen as less able to pay back COVID debts while businesses and work dry up.
Violent and sustained protests swept through the small country, one not accustomed to seeing such outrage. Much of it was from far-right, fringe groups with radical, misogynistic messages.
Richard Jackson, professor of peace studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, has said that protesters hated the fact she was so loved abroad.
“Their opinion was that she was destroying New Zealand society and bringing in ‘communist rule,’ and yet the whole world seemed to be praising her and lauding her. It irritated the hell out of them,” he said.
You can’t really explain the legacy of Jacinda Ardern without talking about the extreme vitriol and sexist trash directed her way on a daily basis. Some have already pointed to these ugly and sustained attacks as part of the reason behind her stepping down. She simply didn’t want to deal with it anymore, and nor should she. Male politicians do not get the same kind of derogatory, gendered hate.
Former NZ PM Helen Clark wrote in a statement that “Jacinda has faced a level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented in our country.”
“Our society could now usefully reflect on whether it wants to continue to tolerate the excessive polarization which is making politics an increasingly unattractive calling.”
On Tuesday, security experts from the University of Auckland said that Ardern will need special police protection for a long time after examining online hate directed towards her. The NZ Herald reports that rape and death threats are very common while one theory holds that her COVID policies violated international law for which she will be executed.
During her term, eight people have been charged with threatening to kill the PM. One security expert has said that many online appear brainwashed against her and that it’s entirely because she is “young, female, and successful.”
Ardern herself made a habit of cheerily slapping down misogynistic and sexist remarks made to her by members of the press during her term, but there’s no doubt it grated on her. Worse, one of the key targets of abuse was her young daughter, Neve.
“[When] you’re just continually subjected to abuse because you happen to be a woman in charge, how could it not get to you?” Dr Suze Wilson of the NZ Disinformation Project has said. “I mean, how could it not be upsetting to see that your five-year-old child is a target of their abuse?”
Ardern, at 42, still has a long and likely brilliant career ahead of her. Whether that’s in New Zealand or not remains to be seen. For now though, as she said in her resignation speech, she’s more than looking forward to some downtime with her partner and daughter. She’s definitely earned it.