One of a kind?

Published January 25, 2023
Mahir Ali
Mahir Ali

THE gushing panegyrics Jacinda Ardern has attracted from liberal media outlets pretty much (but not only) across the English-speaking world since unexpectedly announcing her resignation last Thursday are unprecedented for a New Zealand prime minister.

It is, after all, a tiny country — population: five million — at the bottom of the southern hemisphere, and relatively inconsequential in global affairs. It’s unusual for any of its political leaders to stand out on the international stage, which makes Ard­ern’s achievement all the more impressive.

Much of the praise that has flowed her way of late is well-deserved. Her innate sense of empathy translated into demonstrations of compassion when it particularly mattered, notably after the Christchurch mosque massacre in 2019. Her first thought as the terrorist attack unfolded was “they are us”, referring to the victims. She didn’t send them thoughts and prayers, but instead, donned a headscarf and went and hugged family members and survivors. And right away banned assault weapons.

The Whakaari/White Island eruption la­­t­­­er the same year elicited a similar res­p­o­nse. And when Covid-19 emerged shortly aft­­­erwards, the government capitalised on New Zealand’s splendid isolation by closing its borders and implementing no-nonsense lockdowns in an effort to eliminate the virus. The nation’s life expectancy actually increased, and by the time the barriers were removed, most people had been immunised.

Ardern’s exit reinforces the dearth of decent leadership.

As of this month, New Zealand’s 2,500 Covid death toll is the smallest rate of fatalities in any comparable country. During 2020, Ardern’s popularity soared to 80 per cent and she led Labour in October that year to a landmark electoral triumph. Even then, though, some were getting riled up about the Covid-19 response, and subsequent vaccine mandates fed into conspiracy theories, sparking a vitriolic resistance among a small but vocal segment of the population.

A year ago, hooligans yelling obscenities forced the van she was travelling in to go off the road. This was followed by a violent protest outside parliament in Wellington, where protesters screamed death threats and displayed nooses. Even some of her political rivals have lately lamented the level of hatred that they suspect contributed to Ardern’s decision to step out of the limelight.

She did not explicitly cite these sorts of pressures in her resignation speech, but obliquely admitted burnout: “I no longer have enough in the tank” to do the job. She wanted to find the time to marry her partner, and to be at home when her daughter first goes to school. Ardern was only the second serving prime minister, after Benazir Bhutto, to bear a child. Ardern has made it clear, though, that the inspirational example she offered to young women as a working mother should not be discounted because of her early exit.

That’s all very well, and admirable. Less so are her government’s failures on the domestic front; notably, its promise to build 100,000 new houses over 10 years (success rate so far: 1,300 homes) to ease the housing crisis, and to tackle child poverty and societal inequality more broadly. The latter probably cannot be achieved without dismantling ‘Rogernomics’ — the model of neo­­liberal capitalism a Labour finance min­ister introduced to the region in the 1980s.

One would like to think that Ardern and her successor, Chris Hipkins — who takes over today — are both philosophically resistant to the thrust of Rogernomics, but there’s little practical evidence of that. And if Labour loses the October election, as the polls predict, this will become an academic question.

Soaring inflation in the aftermath of the pandemic is by no means exclusive to New Zealand, but it’s a reminder that markets and banks have greater control over economies than do elected governments. Redressing that structural anomaly was never a part of Ardern’s agenda.

Part of her appeal lies in the fact that her emergence as PM coincided with the tenures of Donald Trump, Theresa May (followed by Boris Johnson) and Malcolm Turnbull (followed by Scott Morrison) elsewhere in the Anglophone world, while Justin Trudeau’s initial stardust had been tarnished by then. The contrast between the absurdity of their political performance and her relative competence and evident compassion made it logical to envy New Zealand.

Egotism was never a part of Ardern’s uncommon charisma. She was more or less thrust into the job in 2017, and performed it to the best of her ability. When she realised she could no longer do that, she flagged a dignified exit. If she didn’t exactly transform New Zealand, she didn’t leave it worse than she found it, and her leadership style will leave a lasting impression.

It’s not an end in itself, obviously, but might resonate as a reminder of the dearth of decent leadership pretty much around the world.

mahir.dawn@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2023

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