April 7, 2023
By guest author Natasha Frost, Writer, Briefings from the New York Times. Natasha Frost writes the Europe Morning Briefing and reports on Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific from Melbourne, Australia.
The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Natasha Frost, a reporter in Melbourne.
In her first speech to lawmakers in 2008, Jacinda Ardern, the former New Zealand prime minister, told her new colleagues a little about what they might expect from her.
“Some people have asked me whether I am a radical. My answer to that question is very simple: ‘I am from Morrinsville,’” she said, referring to the small New Zealand town where she grew up and where her father was a police officer. She added: “Where I come from, a radical is someone who chooses to drive a Toyota rather than a Holden or a Ford.”
More a “social democrat” than a revolutionary, she said, she had a “passion for social justice” and a deep commitment to “the values of human rights, social justice, equality and democracy, and the role of communities.”
She mentioned the power and influence of her family; her teenage campaign for the right of schoolgirls to wear trousers instead of a skirt; her pride in New Zealand; her concerns about the future of the climate; and the scourge of child poverty. “My love of politics came when I realizsed that it was the key to changing what I saw,” she said. “And there is much to change.”
Citing her status as then the youngest person in the chamber, at 28, she added, “I am the first to concede that I am not a normal young person.”
This week, Ardern made her final speech to lawmakers as she relinquished her role as a member of Parliament, ending a career in New Zealand politics. Over five years as prime minister, she had steered the country through history-making crises, including a pandemic, devastating terrorist attacks and a major volcanic eruption.
She will soon take up a role on the Christchurch Call, a government initiative she spearheaded to eliminate violent extremist material online, and be a trustee of the Earthshot Prize, an environmental award established by William, Prince of Wales.
Over 15 years, Ardern has became one of the most famous and well-liked politicians in New Zealand history, heralded for an extraordinary ability to communicate and connect.
Her values and convictions had not changed over that time, she said on Wednesday, nor had her belief that politics was a force for good, a machine that might slowly roll a country toward a better future. “Politics has never been a tick list for me,” she said. “It’s always been about progress. Sometimes you can measure it, and sometimes you can’t.”
Ardern’s first speech to Parliament laid out who she was as a legislator, political animal and person of conviction. But her final speech, delivered Wednesday, told the world a little more about who the girl from Morrinsville really is.
She was a lifelong worrier, she said, prone to anticipating the worst, and “sensitive” to nasty comments or negative comments. Years in Parliament had not changed that. “I leave this place as sensitive as I ever was,” she said.
Behind the scenes, she had struggled with anxiety that had left her almost unable to eat before Question Time in Parliament, and she also dealt with major difficulties with infertility and a failed round of IVF, she said.
“I am a crier and a hugger,” she said, describing how she had been criticized for embracing people after the deadly eruption on Whakaari, also known as White Island. She added, “I had an internal argument with myself as to whether I should comfort them when I knew I would likely be criticized. I would rather be criticized for being a hugger than being heartless, and so hug I did. A lot.”
Such frankness is rare in politics — few world leaders would describe themselves, as Ardern did this week, as “a nerd” who is “anxious, sensitive, kind” and wears her heart on her sleeve.
In a sense, though, none of this is really news. Who Jacinda Ardern really is was never so difficult to access. She is, after all, the world leader who used Facebook Live videos to show herself leaving the hospital with her newborn daughter, Neve.
Days into the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Ardern appeared from home on a Facebook Live video once again, sitting in her favourite chair in a faded green sweatshirt. She urged kindness, encouraged people to follow restrictions and to take care of themselves, and promised that she would be there, albeit remotely, to guide them through it.
“You’ll be seeing me lots and lots,” she told the people tuning in. And they did.