Jacinda Ardern's defining legacy serving New Zealand during a crisis

3:18 pm on 19 January 2023
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - OCTOBER 12: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament on October 12, 2021 in Wellington, New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern holding a Covid-19 media conference in 2021. Photo: 2021 Getty Images

Analysis - Jacinda Ardern's first press conference as Labour leader in August 2017 was a defining moment in the past decade of New Zealand politics.

A young woman who had long been tipped for higher office, she had underperformed as a shadow minister and Andrew Little's noble resignation to give her a run at the election was more a roll of a dice than an act of confidence.

At that press conference she stood and delivered.

After years of moribund Labour leadership she had energy, focus and a sense of purpose. Most of all, she looked competent.

Today we got to see another defining Ardern press conference. One at which she drew the curtain on her political career.

Today, Ardern announced she was resigning as prime minister and would leave office no later than 7 February, saying "I don't have enough in the tank for another four years… and I would be doing a disservice to New Zealand to continue".

It could hardly have been more rapid or more of a surprise. Much like her arrival in 2017.

But today, out of the blue, Ardern declared "for me, it's time". A good leader, she said, knows when it's time to go.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 19 January 2023 announcing that she will be stepping down as prime minister at Labour's caucus retreat in Napier.

Jacinda Ardern announcing that she will be stepping down as prime minister. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

Timing in politics, is so, so important. Has it really only been six years since she took over Labour? Only five years and 85 days as prime minister?

As we all know from bitter experience, Covid-19 has not just turned our health upside down, it's played tricks with time. The years have merged and yet also stretched. A two-term government has looked for some months like a third-term government.

It seems this has been more true for the prime minister than it has for the rest of us.

She is resigning today because she's done in. Exhausted. As she kept saying, she just doesn't have enough left in the tank to keep serving.

And who can blame her? Her premiership has been marked by disaster and death.

It's interesting that part-way through her press conference, as she answered questions, she said that leading New Zealand during "peace time" is a different thing to what she's experienced. In doing so she cast herself as a war-time leader.

She said, "I had the privilege of being alongside New Zealand during a crisis".

And that will be her defining legacy. The hugs with the families of those killed in the Christchurch mosque attack and her standing at the podium in the Beehive putting the country in lockdowns.

Jacinda Ardern meeting with the people affected by the Al Noor Mosque terror attack. Photo:

Just how history will judge her depends largely on how history judges those crises she's had to navigate. The more serious and consequential they are seen, the more weight will be placed on her achievements.

Ardern will leave office the 12th-longest serving prime minister. Longer than Labour legends such as Michael Savage and David Lange. But her policy achievements have been tepid compared to theirs.

Labour governments are known as transformers while National governments manage.

"Events, dear boy, events" as British PM Harold MacMillan famously said, have limited Ardern's ability on that front. As has the limited abilities of her cabinet and the handbrake that was New Zealand First in her first term. Famously, a capital gains tax eluded her. But she can - and did - point to record numbers of state houses being built, progress on child poverty and movement on climate change. Hers has been an incremental government in terms of policy, which fits with her conservative nature.

Mostly though, Ardern will be remembered as a crisis leader and an able one at that.

From this place in time, it would be churlish in the extreme to not acknowledge her remarkable capacity for compassion, her sure-footedness in crises when others may have panicked or stumbled.

The question now becomes whether the voting public - who have been steadily losing faith in Ardern and her government in the past 12-18 months - accept her sacrifice or want the whole party to follow suit.

Ardern's preferred PM ranking in the One News-Kantar poll has fallen from 39 percent in November 2021 to 29 percent in November 2022. Can a new leader turn that around? Spark some new life into a tired administration?

Another shock: That new leader won't be Finance Minister Grant Robertson; he's announced he won't stand. Deciding just who will emerge means a challenging few days for the Labour Party. For all Ardern's generous words about her talented colleagues, there's no obvious replacement or any leader-in-waiting who the public will get excited about.

Ardern's move gives Labour a chance to put the hard Covid years behind them. It means the face of crisis is gone and Labour can reshape itself as a party for the next three years rather than the hideous last three.

For Ardern, at least, the crises are over. She can rest and recharge that tank. She has no future plans except to be there for Neve's first day of school and to marry her fiancé; wonderfully normal wishes for a leader who has had to shoulder so much.

*Tim Watkin is a founder of political news website Pundit, has a long career in journalism and broadcasting, and now runs the Podcast team at RNZ.

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