Mixed views on Ardern’s legacy from former prime ministers

The Salvation of Labor. The protector of New Zealand. The Kiwi leader who made kindness cool. The Prime Minister who lost his way.

Jacinda Ardern’s legacy is once again under scrutiny as she drops the end of her 15-year political career.

Ms Ardern will deliver her farewell speech to the New Zealand Parliament on Wednesday, three months after her shock resignation.

The 42-year-old has said little since her stunning exit, which was delivered in January in the Napier sun during Labor’s retreat that started the year.

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

New Zealand is a better country because of its leadership.

“Not many prime ministers in five years in office should face as many major hurdles as Jacinda Ardern. A volcanic eruption, a terrorist attack, a global pandemic… Jacinda led us through it with dignity and humility.

“She had a lot of confidence from New Zealanders during that period.

“When she leaves parliament I’m sure and I hope she will hold your head high knowing she gave it her all.”

Ardern led Labor from the political wilderness in 2017, ending three opposition terms after being dropped into the leadership seven weeks after election day.

A difficult first coalition government was forgotten by voters in 2020 when COVID-19 arrived, handing Kiwi’s Labor a majority for the second term thanks to its stewardship during the crisis.

The New Zealand Herald interviewed four former Prime Ministers – Sir John Key, Helen Clark, Jim Bolger and Geoffrey Palmer – about Ms Ardern’s legacy, and all spoke highly of her crisis management and communication skills.

“She had this kind of appeal and empathy with a very broad audience of women all over the world. People were devastated by[her resignation],” Clark said.

While Clark would not be enamored with her success as prime minister, others were less enthusiastic about her ability to push through her own policy agenda.

“When you look at some of the big initiatives she championed around the plight of less affluent New Zealanders or climate change or any number of other issues, it’s hard to say any of those metrics have gotten better,” Sir John said.

Bolger, the National MP summoned by Ms Ardern to shape her industrial relations reforms, was scathing for health, planning and water reforms.

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

Bolger reserved his harshest 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 led us to be more divided on race than we have been for years and years and years,” he said.

“That’s evident everywhere now. People are fearful, worried, worried, insecure… and that’s just a failure of leadership, frankly.”

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

A natural fit could be a role abroad, either promoting NZ interests, or an international organisation.

Prior to entering parliament, Ardern worked in the United States and the 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 could continue her work on her flagship foreign policy issue, the Christchurch Call.

Founded after the 2019 Christchurch Mosques massacre, the Call is an international organization that brings together countries and technology companies with the aim of rooting out extremist content online.

“There’s potential for Jacinda Ardern to stay 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 formidable profile on the international stage of any Prime Minister in New Zealand’s history”.

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

Ardern has since resigned media requests on that question and all others.

At the time, Ardern said she had “no plan and no next steps.”

“I just know that whatever I do I will try to find ways to work for New Zealand and I look forward to spending time with my family again,” she said.

She pointedly referred to the chance to be there when her four-year-old daughter Neve starts school, and to marry her fisherman fiancé Clarke Gayford.

This week, Ardern has chosen a quiet way out of the building, giving just two exit interviews to rival broadcasters TVNZ and Three, to be broadcast on Tuesday night.

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

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

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