Mixed views on Ardern legacy by former PMs

Labour’s salvation. New Zealand’s protector. The Kiwi leader who made kindness cool. The prime minister that lost her way.

Jacinda Ardern’s legacy is again under review as she brings the curtain down on her 15-year political career.

On Wednesday, Ms Ardern will deliver her valedictory address in New Zealand’s parliament, three months after her shock resignation.

The 42-year-old has said precious little since her stunning exit, delivered in the Napier sunshine in January at Labour’s year-starting retreat.

“Jacinda Ardern led New Zealand exceptionally well through some amazingly complicated challenges,” her successor Chris Hipkins said this week.

“New Zealand is a better country for her leadership.

“Not many prime ministers in five years in office would have to deal with as many significant hurdles as Jacinda Ardern did. A volcanic eruption, a terrorist attack, a global pandemic … Jacinda led us through all of those with dignity and humility.

“She had a high levels of trust from New Zealanders during during that period with good reason.

“As she leaves parliament, I’m sure and I hope that she will have your head held high knowing that she’s given it all.”

Ardern led Labour from the political wilderness in 2017, ending three terms in opposition after she was parachuted into the leadership seven weeks from election day.

A difficult first term governing in coalition was forgotten by voters in 2020 when COVID-19 arrived, Kiwis handing Labour a second-term majority thanks to her stewardship through the crisis.

The New Zealand Herald interviewed four former prime ministers – Sir John Key, Helen Clark, Jim Bolger and Geoffrey Palmer – on Ms Ardern’s legacy, and all spoke highly of her crisis management and communications.

“She had this sort of appeal and empathy with a very wide audience of women around the world. People were devastated by (her standing down),” Clark said.

While Clark wouldn’t be drawn on her success as a prime minister, the others were less complimentary of her ability to force through her own policy agenda.

“If you look at some of the big initiatives she championed around the plight of less-well-off New Zealanders or climate change or a number of other issues, it’s hard to say that any of those metrics got better,” Sir John said.

Bolger, the National MP who was drafted in by Ms Ardern to shape her industrial relations reforms, was damning of health, planning and water reforms.

“It has just been a shambles. It’s sad but true,” he said.

Bolger saved his toughest criticism for Ardern’s handling of race relations, accusing her of mishandling reforms to give Maori more say in some decision-making.

“Her inability to explain what she meant … has meant we are going to be more divided on race than we have been for years and years and years,” he said.

“That is evident everywhere now. People are anxious, concerned, worried, uncertain …and that’s frankly just a failure of leadership.”

Departing politics at such a young age, there is much speculation around Ardern’s next career path.

A natural fit could be a role abroad, either furthering NZ’s interests, or a international body.

Prior to entering parliament, Ardern worked in the United States and United Kingdom – in Tony Blair’s government – and her multilateralism lends itself to a global leadership role.

Hipkins surprised the press gallery last month by suggesting she might continue her work on her flagship foreign policy, the Christchurch Call.

Founded after the 2019 Christchurch Mosques massacre, the call is an international organisation that brings together countries and tech companies with the goal of eradicating extremist content online.

“There’s potential for Jacinda Ardern to continue to be involved in that work, and in due course we’ll explore what that might look like,” Hipkins said.

Sir John said, “Jacinda has the highest and most stellar profile on the international stage of any prime minister in New Zealand’s history”.

“Her legacy forever, I think, will be the establishment of that profile,” he said.

Ardern has declined media requests on that question, and any other, since her resignation.

At that point, Ardern said she had “no plan and no next steps”.

“All I know is that whatever I do, I will try and find ways working for New Zealand and I’m looking forward to spending time with my family once again,” she said.

Pointedly, she referenced the chance to be there for when her four-year-old daughter Neve starts school, and to marry her fisherman fiance Clarke Gayford.

This week, Ardern has chosen a quiet way out of the building, giving only two exit interviews to rival broadcasters TVNZ and Three, which will go to air on Tuesday night.

In doing so, she has eschewed the entire press gallery, as well as the chance to settle scores or defend her legacy – which were never in keeping with her political character.

Asked in Napier how she wanted to be remembered, Ardern spoke quietly and to the point.

“As someone who always tried to be kind,” she said.