19 Jan 2023

Jacinda Ardern quits: The bombshell resignation no-one saw coming

9:01 pm on 19 January 2023

Whatever anyone expected from the first day of the political year, it wasn't a bombshell this big. John Hartevelt reports.

At about 7:15am on Thursday morning, RNZ's deputy political editor Craig McCulloch was live on Morning Report to preview the Labour and National Party caucus gatherings. Both, by chance, were meeting in Napier at the beginning of this election year.

There would be an announcement of some sort from Labour, McCulloch said. It could be the election date. Maybe something about a promised policy reset. Definitely not a Cabinet reshuffle. That would come later, he said.

At around the same time, nearby, a group of ministers was gathering. They were meeting before joining the wider Labour Party caucus. They were about to get a big shock.

"S***," was Kieran McAnulty's response when he heard Jacinda Ardern was quitting as Labour leader and prime minister.

"I wasn't expecting it. It was a hell of a surprise."

McAnulty, a minister outside of Cabinet, says there was a bit "a bit of a yarn" after Ardern broke the news.

"We all took our moments to thank her for her efforts and you know, we've all got a moment where personally she's helped us at a personal level so we wanted to thank her for that as well.

"It's clearly a decision that's been made in her and her family's interests and she's slugged her guts out for five and a half years for this country."

Ardern's address to ministers was very similar to what she said at the press conference that was to come a few hours later, McAnulty says. But there was another dress rehearsal still to complete.

Ardern and the ministerial group then joined the wider Labour caucus - all 65 of them - to send the next round of shockwaves spiralling out from the Napier Memorial Convention Centre.

Experienced political reporters noted that the media was unusually excluded from this gathering. Normally, this opening address to MPs at the caucus retreat is open to reporters. That, indeed, was how Christopher Luxon had proceeded with his National Party caucus on the other side of the hill that morning.

A report from the NZ Herald's political editor Claire Trevett said there were concerns about the caucus meeting room being insufficiently soundproof. They wanted to be able to talk about campaign strategies without fear of being overheard.

By early afternoon, the cameras were trained on the podium and the news alerts were out for people to watch live as Jacinda Ardern delivered - in Trevett's words - the first ball of the campaign. As it turned out, it would be Ardern's first and last of the year.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on November 30, 2020, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern arrives for a press conference to speak about the charges laid over the 2019 White Island volcanic eruption, in Wellington. - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on January 19, 2023 she will resign next month.

Ardern offered no clues prior to her bombshell resignation as Prime Minister. Photo: AFP / Marty Melville

Ardern carefully dispensed with what turned out to be the most overshadowed announcement of an election date ever. (It's 14 October, by the way.)

The mood of her address quickly shifted as she moved on to the second of her two "important announcements".

"Consideration of the date over the summer, and the impending election and new political term has also given me time for reflection."

The tone of this statement suggested something other than a policy reset was about to be announced.

"I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging. You cannot, and should not do it unless you have a full tank plus a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges.

"This summer, I had hoped to find a way to prepare for not just another year, but another term - because that is what this year requires. I have not been able to do that.

"And so today, I am announcing that I will not be seeking re-election and that my term as prime minister will conclude no later than the 7th of February."

The last - and biggest - of the shockwaves rippled out from a roomful of shocked reporters across a nation still in halfway holiday mode. A cascade of questions followed: Who would take over? What would Ardern do next? Did this spell doom for Labour's chances at the election?

Prior to informing her Cabinet and caucus colleagues, Ardern says she had shared her decision with only "a very, very small number" of people.

Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson appears to have been among them. But Ardern wasn't offering any names.

Jacinda Ardern (left) was greeted by her caucus after making the announcement that she was going to resign as prime minister.

Ardern's fiancé Clarke Gayford was in the room for her resignation announcement. Photo: RNZ / Katie Scotcher

It's safe to assume her fiancé Clarke Gayford - who was in the room and walked arm-in-arm with her as she left it - had a say. Ardern addressed him during the press conference.

"To Clarke: Let's finally get married."

Their daughter, Neve, was apparently not in the loop, though. "Four-year-olds are chatty - couldn't take the risk," Ardern joked.

But there were special words reserved for her too.

"To Neve: Mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year."

* John Hartevelt is RNZ's Executive Editor (In Depth) and a former press gallery reporter


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