Her party was heading for a fourth general election defeat with poll ratings in the low 20s, but just seven weeks later, she was elected as the world’s youngest female leader at 37. Over the next six years, she became one of the world’s most respected leaders.
Yet yesterday, in a move that took many by surprise, she announced her resignation, saying she “no longer has enough in the tank” to do the job. Her party’s popularity had declined recently, but Labour was only a few percentage points behind the opposition National party.
So it appears Ardern’s graceful departure is another example of her qualities as a leader. Most political careers end in defeat, some in disgrace, because few politicians have the necessary powers of self-reflection to accurately pass judgment on themselves. Ardern, however, said: “I would be doing a disservice to New Zealand to continue.”
The New York Times once described her as “the progressive antithesis to right-wing strongmen” like Donald Trump, among others. And the style of Ardern’s leaving could not contrast more sharply with Trump’s sinister and dangerous attempts to cling to power by lying about a stolen election.
During her time in office, she faced death threats and vile abuse from the far-right and anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. And while Ardern cited the pressures of multiple crises – she faced the Covid pandemic, terrorist attacks and natural disasters – and a lack of the necessary energy as the main reasons for her resignation, former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark spoke of how Ardern had experienced a “level of hatred and vitriol which in my experience is unprecedented”. Clark added a warning about “excessive polarisation which is making politics an increasingly unattractive calling”.
Such unacceptable behaviour, particularly towards female politicians, is a problem worldwide, including in Scotland. Finding ways to ensure the civility of public discourse is a task for us all.
Ardern said she hoped that her legacy would include the idea that leaders can “be kind, but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader, one who knows when it's time to go”. If only politicians closer to home were blessed with such insight.