There was one word that peppered international headlines on January 19th, the day Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation as New Zealand’s prime minister: “Shock.”
From the outside looking in, her near six-year leadership appeared almost beyond critique. Ardern, who enjoys immense popularity on the world stage, is seen by many around the globe as a shining star of progressive politics, a compassionate leader who commentators have praised as an antithesis to Donald Trump, a role model for Joe Biden, and a candidate for “the most effective leader on the planet.”
But for many who’ve been governed by the celebrity politician over the past half-decade, such fierce adulation has become more and more detached from reality on the ground—and pundits say her early exit seems less a surprise than a foregone conclusion.
Weeks before her “shock” resignation, electoral polls revealed Ardern’s popularity had slid to 29 percent, its lowest level since she was elected as prime minister in 2017 and less than half the 59.5 percent she recorded at the height of her powers in 2020—a figure that made her New Zealand’s most popular prime minister in a century. Local analysts predicted defeat for her Labour Party at this year’s elections, due to a public sentiment that over the past 18 months has soured from optimism to frustration and bitterness.
The tidal wave of “Jacindamania,” which previously saw the Labour Party’s popularity surge off the back of Ardern’s beloved personality, has reportedly broken and rolled back. With her tenure over and her legacy up for assessment, critics point to New Zealand’s ongoing social struggles and spiralling cost of living as marks against her record. It appears a growing number of New Zealanders no longer believe the hype.
“I was a big fan of hers when she first came into office. I thought the fact that she does lead with empathy and she puts people first: that’s fantastic,” said Tim Cooke, a tech recruiter from the New Zealand capital of Wellington. “Ultimately, though, she has failed to properly deliver the change that was promised when she was first elected. And I think that’s been the key to her decline over the last few years.”
Ian Strahan, a cattle and sheep farmer, was slightly more extreme in his appraisal—as well as his views on the disjunct between Ardern the global celebrity and Ardern the politician.
“What you see in the media is not often the real person,” Strahan told VICE World News. He claimed he’s mostly tried to remain ambivalent towards Ardern’s celebrity status, noting that you can’t really know a person until you meet them. “But you can judge someone through their actions,” he said. “And I suppose what she’s done over the last five years has put us in a worse place.”
“She’s led probably the worst government, in my opinion, we’ve seen for 40 years. Certainly the most polarising I’ve ever seen.”
Such polarisation isn’t hard to find in New Zealand. One Wellington local told VICE World News that Ardern had been “the best prime minister in my lifetime.” Another said he’s “ready to see her go,” claiming “she’s been pretty useless.”
While there are still legions of New Zealanders who adore Ardern, celebrating her successes and lamenting the end of her tenure, their numbers have waned as the tide of public opinion gradually turns against her. Countering her supporters now is a growing number of everyday people, from both sides of the political spectrum, who feel let down by the disparity between what they were promised and what they got.
“The regular Kiwi is struggling to put food on the table,” Cooke said.
Ardern, who was just 37 when first elected as prime minister in 2017, pledged from the outset to lead a “transformative government” that would meaningfully address New Zealand’s issues of child poverty, housing, and social inequality. Half a decade later, many New Zealanders have started to feel dejection and disappointment at her supposed inability to follow through on those promises—as, on a number of metrics, the issues have gotten worse.
New data released on Thursday revealed that the cost of living for the average New Zealand household increased by 8.2 percent in the past year, with a growing number of people struggling to buy food or pay rent. A December report from the International Monetary Fund found New Zealand has one of the most “misaligned” housing markets in the world, with the average house price in the nation’s biggest city of Auckland sitting at more than 10 times the average income.
Another criticism frequently raised by Ardern’s detractors is her alleged failure to follow through on her pledge to combat child poverty. Despite the declared commitment, the number of children living in emergency motel accommodation reached a record high in 2021, stoking fears of an emerging “motel generation” amid stories of children born in temporary housing.
Pundits say that in many ways these crises are problems that Ardern inherited, further fuelled by global factors outside of her control like the global pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But they are also some of the main issues that she promised to tackle as prime minister. Towards the end of her leadership, there was a deepening feeling by people on both sides of the political spectrum that she had failed to live up to her word.
Despite these significant criticisms, many still acknowledge the achievements that have defined her career. VICE World News spoke to a dozen New Zealand locals to get a sense of Ardern’s reputation on the ground—and almost all of them, including her detractors, spoke favourably of her communication skills and her competence in a crisis.
Her sensitivity in the wake of a volcanic eruption at Whakaari / White Island, the swiftness with which she banned assault-style weapons in the wake of a mass shooting in Christchurch, and her effectiveness at keeping New Zealand largely COVID-free were all frequently cited as being among her greatest accomplishments.
Yet even some of these efforts have proved divisive, especially in the midst of the pandemic.
By locking down the country in early 2020 for a total of 29 months, Ardern managed to stave off many of the outbreaks that were ravaging other nations, leading New Zealand to record some of the world’s best COVID-related outcomes. Reopening the country, however, proved much more difficult. And it was during these lockdowns that public sentiment towards Ardern started to dramatically shift.
“People were just not happy with her,” Jenna Lynch, political editor at New Zealand media company, Newshub, told VICE World News. “Over the past 18 months is where it all kind of came crashing down.”
Lynch covered Ardern’s tumultuous administration since the early days of her leadership, and has watched sentiment towards her sour over time. While she noted that Ardern was always more susceptible to misogyny and gendered attacks than many others in the political sphere, she stressed that “the level of vitriol and the level of abuse that she was getting post the gun reforms and post the COVID response was pretty major.”
From the start of 2019 to the end of 2021, threats against Ardern almost tripled. In February 2022, however, things reached a climax. Over the course of three weeks about 1,000 protesters gathered with tents on Wellington’s parliamentary grounds, demanding an end to COVID mask and vaccine mandates in a series of increasingly violent protests. Nooses were hung from trees, fires were started on the lawns, and bricks were thrown at police officers.
Much of the fury was directed specifically at Ardern.
Lynch, who described the violence of those protests as “beyond unusual” for New Zealand politics, was quick to point out that those participating in the event were a very small, fringe part of New Zealand society. The general disenchantment with Ardern was “less like that,” she said. “But still quite vitriolic.”
“Less hatred and more discontent is how I would describe it.”
Speculating on how and why Ardern suffered such a significant fall from grace, Lynch suggested that New Zealanders had generally moved past their dissatisfaction with protracted COVID lockdowns and vaccine mandates towards the more fundamental policy failings they were experiencing, and suffering, day-to-day. Things like cost of living, inflation, and a prohibitively expensive property market.
“There came a point in Jacinda Ardern’s leadership where the announcements the government was making were not matched by action,” Lynch said. “And that was really frustrating for Kiwis.”
In Strahan’s words, “frustrated” would be putting it mildly.
“Some people are quite distraught,” he said. “She [Ardern] has over-promised and under-delivered big time.”
Strahan, the cattle farmer, takes issue with many of Ardern’s policies, but none more so than a controversial scheme—dubbed the “cow tax”— which will require farmers to pay a levy on agricultural emissions from 2025. The scheme has rankled farmers across the nation, who claim it will “rip the guts out of small town New Zealand.”
“There’s quite a lot of anger out there. And it’s actually quite a sad situation, what’s happening in rural communities,” Strahan said. “People are uncertain about their future, when they know they’re not the problem and things aren’t getting done right.”
When announcing her resignation, Ardern said she “no longer has enough left in the tank to do the job justice.” In the fortnight since, there has been much analysis into what this reaffirms about the cumulative toll of abuse, the indiscriminate dangers of burnout, and the importance of knowing when to step down.
But with her popularity plummeting and a general election coming down the pipe, many are wondering whether her early exit might have been a way to protect her legacy, by dodging an increasingly likely defeat at the polls.
“If we take her at her word, which I partly do, she was tired,” Lynch said. “But also, she could probably, a little bit, see the writing on the wall. The polls were going in all of the wrong direction, she could see that the public was probably falling out of love a little bit with her. Time to go.”
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