The ‘otherness’ of Jacinda Ardern – by doing politics differently she changed the game and saved her party
This week marks the beginning of Jacinda Ardern’s life outside parliament, since she officially ceased to be an electorate MP at midnight last Saturday. Her legacy as prime minister will be discussed and disputed, but there’s no doubt her influence will continue to be felt, both in Aotearoa New Zealand and internationally.
When Ardern delivered her valedictory statement earlier this month, I was in Canada as a visiting speaker at the University of Alberta. My lectures and workshops included sessions on gender politics and the pandemic, media representations of women leaders, and the possibilities for leading with kindness. Invariably, audiences wanted to know more about Jacinda Ardern.
People questioned why New Zealanders appeared to have forgotten their country’s internationally recognised success in the fight against COVID-19. They were curious about why New Zealanders were reportedly feeling antipathy towards a prime minister whose commitment to tolerance and multilateralism was praised overseas.
As citizens of a country that is home to three constitutionally recognised Aboriginal groups and numerous treaties, Canadians asked why the Ardern-led government’s Indigenous policy initiatives seemed so “unsettling for settlers”.
And they wondered whether it was inevitable that Ardern would face hostility from a noisy minority that disliked being governed by a young woman, who became a mother while in office and who used the language of kindness.
There was also some bemusement. The coverage they had seen of Ardern’s leadership experience sat at odds with their perception of New Zealand as an egalitarian and liberal society where women prime ministers and party leaders were almost commonplace.
In response, I drew on evidence demonstrating how the media often view women as a novelty in the upper echelons of politics. For example, in her study of news coverage of four women prime ministers from New Zealand, Australia and Canada, Linda Trimble reveals that gender is explicitly referenced.
As she notes, we seldom see men asked about the challenges of being a male leader, and this informs assessments of female leaders’ performance. The research also shows this use of gender references is most common when a country experiences its first female political leader.
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Yet when Ardern became Labour leader, throughout her tenure and on her departure from politics, it seemed her gender continued to have news value: we first read about “Jacindamania” just two hours after she became leader, followed by questions from talk show hosts about her motherhood intentions.
The following year, a BBC interviewer asked about Ardern’s feminist credentials in light of her intention to marry her partner, and whether she felt guilt about being a working mother.
Even in late 2022, Ardern had to respond to a journalist’s suggestion that her meeting with then Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin was about them both being young female leaders. Needless to say, both women rejected this outright, with Ardern pointing out the same question hadn’t been directed at John Key and Barrack Obama.
The combination of being both a woman and the youngest prime minister in 161 years may have led to this personalised coverage. Certainly, having a baby while in office accentuated her as novel and newsworthy, nationally and internationally.
In her valedictory statement, Ardern implicitly addressed this “otherness”:
I leave knowing I was the best mother I could be. You can be that person and be here […] I do hope I have demonstrated something else entirely. That you can be anxious, sensitive, kind, and wear your heart on your sleeve. You can be a mother, or not, an ex-Mormon or not, a nerd, a crier, a hugger – you can be all of these things, and not only can you be here, you can lead.
New Zealanders will recall that Ardern did not seek the party leadership ahead of the 2017 election. Furthermore, when all votes were counted, Labour was a distant second to the centre-right National Party in both votes and seats.
But by navigating Labour into an unlikely coalition with New Zealand First, Ardern positioned Labour to win at least two terms in office. Had National formed a government in 2017, it may have gone on to win again in 2020. After all, that party’s leadership had considerable experience in managing crises.
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That said, Ardern’s version of an ethics of care and her emphasis on kindness were new to New Zealand politics and important to pandemic management. This eventually became intolerable to those who opposed vaccine mandates and managed isolation, and those disturbed by policies and programs aimed at realising the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Te Tiriti o Waitangi.
But Ardern’s non-adversarial, inclusive communication style, and her demonstrable competence, helped Labour win back a large number of women voters who had steadily abandoned the party during its time in opposition under a series of male leaders.
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Not long after Ardern became party leader in 2017, one political columnist wrote
that she did not “have to become Labour’s Joan of Arc to succeed”. Those “expecting her to be the party’s salvation and deliver them the government benches”, the columnist went on, “have set their expectations too high”.
Perhaps by promising policy “transformation”, Ardern set her own expectations too high. And by being a relentlessly positive young woman leader, perhaps the gendered media coverage was inevitable.
But ultimately she succeeded in saving Labour from ongoing opposition, becoming the legend it was suggested she could be. And, as I witnessed in Canada, there are young people elsewhere who Jacinda Ardern has inspired to lead with kindness.