Guest Essay

Jacinda Ardern, the Star Who Didn’t Quite Deliver

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand speaking to reporters.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand speaking to reporters last August.Credit...Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Ms. Pagani is a New Zealand political columnist.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — There used to be a website devoted to pointing out examples of world maps that didn’t bother to include New Zealand. If we did make it, we were tucked into the lower right corner, just past Australia. We’re used to being far away and forgotten.

For a brief time, Jacinda Ardern put us on the map.

Here was a young prime minister, elected in 2017 at just 37, with an Obama-grade 1,000-watt smile, who symbolized optimism and Kiwi values of fairness and hope. To progressive admirers around the world, she became a symbolic alternative to Donald Trump, proving that progressives could win elections and even have a baby in office.

Ms. Ardern, who announced last week that she would resign, citing burnout, had promised New Zealanders a “transformational” government that would build homes to address a housing crisis and reduce child poverty. After the murder of 51 people at two mosques in the quiet and lovely city of Christchurch by a white supremacist, she rose to the moment with her empathetic response and quick action to ban most semiautomatic weapons.

To us she was just Jacinda.

But over time, many Kiwis came to feel that, despite her international image, her rhetoric was never quite matched by substance.

In the first flush of her leadership, it was easy to ignore her Labour Party’s populism. Like Mr. Trump, who, on protectionist grounds, pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which would have established the world’s largest free trade zone — Labour campaigned against the deal. (Once in power, Ms. Ardern signed on to a virtually unchanged version).

Before Ms. Ardern became its leader, Labour compiled lists of home buyers with Chinese last names to support its view that Asian immigration was driving up housing prices. While prime minister, her government banned many nonresident foreigners from buying most types of homes. Ms. Ardern never sounded destructive or divisive during all this, but the underlying populism was little changed.

Early in her first term I hosted a group of British and American political strategists who came to New Zealand hoping to learn the secrets of this charismatic leader’s success. One of them asked Ms. Ardern, “How would you beat yourself?” It’s a tough question, so they answered it for her: The opposition could spotlight her star quality overseas and ask Kiwis, “But what has she done for you?”

This is not a question the rest of the world was asking. But by that time, after she had been in office less than a year, Kiwis were.

Then came Christchurch. Thrust into the global eye, she rose to the moment and the world applauded her grace in responding to an unspeakable act of terrorism. Of the Muslim victims, she said: “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.”

When Covid arrived, any sensible government would likely have closed the border. It’s easy to do for one of the most remote countries in the world. She went further, locking down the country and confining everyone but essential workers to our homes in an attempt to banish the virus from our shores.

Lockdown was possible only with the consent of the governed. No one liked it, but most of us agreed with it. We were relieved that thousands were not dying, and her government was re-elected with a colossal mandate in 2020. But those tough Covid policies led to growing division, spurred conspiracy theorists and strained the economy.

She was originally elected on a promise to reduce inequality and, more importantly, child poverty. “If you ask me why I’m in politics, my answer will be simple: children,” she said.

But New Zealand today feels as unequal as when Ms. Ardern was elected.

The proportion of Kiwi children living in “material hardship” has indeed ticked down, to 11 percent in 2021 from 12.7 percent in 2017. That’s welcome, but hardly transformational. A family earning average wages cannot afford to buy the average home in many provinces. A signature election promise to build 100,000 new homes has been scrapped after the plan became mired in delays and confusion. Thousands of homeless families are living in motel units.

This isn’t all Ms. Ardern’s fault. Soaring housing prices predated her, and New Zealand isn’t the only place with this problem. Her government kept wages paid and businesses going during the pandemic with stimulus checks and low interest rates. But that has caused a massive transfer of wealth to asset owners.

A poll taken just before she announced her resignation showed that for the first time more New Zealanders (41 percent) had an unfavorable opinion of her than a favorable one (40 percent). Another poll showed 64 percent believed the country has become more divided in the past few years.

Many in the Labour Party, and others, cite misogyny as a factor driving Ms. Ardern from office. Misogynists are loud and probably wore her down, but they are not the reason her popularity at home tumbled.

Mario Cuomo said that we campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Ms. Ardern gave us the poetry, showing that elections can be won with progressive values and a promise to leave no child behind. But you’ve got to deliver. Rising crime, inflation and stubborn inequality matter more to New Zealand voters than global star power.

A leader capable of effectively channeling our values can get elected on a progressive agenda. But if that person doesn’t have a plan for turning that into results, the busy work of governing soon gets in the way and all the stardom in the world won’t help.

Ms. Ardern’s star still shines brightly overseas, and her time on the global stage may just be beginning. Since borders reopened to travel as the pandemic eased, her international miles have increased in inverse proportion to her government’s popularity. For someone who has never really had to fight through personal political adversity at home until now, it looks better to international fans to resign as an undefeated leader than to lose her bid for a third term in government.

On balance, she deserves credit for knowing when to throw in the towel if her heart is no longer in it. But Ms. Ardern leaves with much of her promised agenda unfulfilled. It’s been thrilling to be on the world map. But in the end, her years in power were like those maps that left New Zealand off: flawed and incomplete.

Josie Pagani (@josiepagani) is a political columnist for New Zealand daily The Dominion Post and its online platform stuff.co.nz. She is a former executive director of New Zealand’s Council for International Development and has worked as a government political adviser.

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