FFrom the moment of her arrival, Jacinda Ardern has been surrounded by a crowd of people: hundreds gather to ask for the latest selfies, record video messages for friends and family or just watch her pass by. A group of running children push their way through the legs of bystanders, pushing for a better view.
Time and time again she obliges, smiling at camera phones, asking people’s names and jobs, cracking jokes, signing a worn-out blue and yellow basketball for a boy making his way through the crowd.
A politician who always excelled at creating moments of humor and human connection, Ardern’s much-discussed star power was on solid display in the North Island village of Rātana on Tuesday for her final formal engagement as New Zealand’s prime minister.
“It’s like touching her cloak, touching her cloak like Jesus,” a woman laughs to her friend.
“Where is she? Is she coming?” asked a girl, gasping for a glimpse.
“I just want to thank her,” a woman says outside the Rātana Temple to a police officer standing nearby. “For all.”
A man shakes her hand vigorously and continuously for a minute.
“You’re going to have to let go at some point,” notes an onlooker, and the audience laughs.
New Zealand – and the world – is still reeling from Ardern’s shock departure, the lightning-quick selection of her replacement and the question of how to define her political legacy. However, on her last full day as the nation’s leader, some of the thornier and more controversial questions about her political legacy and legislative record seemed to fade into the background.
Rātana traditionally marks the start of New Zealand’s political year, with party leaders descending on the village after the summer recess to deliver their first major speeches. This year was different, it also marked the end of an era.
The scenes were reminiscent of some of the electric fandom Ardern evoked when she first took charge in 2017 – greeted by scrums from selfie-takers and fans alike. Five years of tough decisions and political struggles had worn away much of that shine, especially in the polls, where voters had chastised the prime minister and her party for a year of economic headwinds.
But on Tuesday the shine was back. A few feet away, new Prime Minister Chris Hipkins stands in a circle of reporters, answering questions – most people don’t look his way.
There was no sign of the small, irate band of protesters on Tuesday that had become a recurring presence at Ardern’s public appearances — sometimes carrying anti-vaccination signs and slogans, other times chasing after her van and screaming obscenities.
Ardern has said threats and abuse were not contributing factors to her dismissal, but her departure has still sparked the start of an uneasy reckoning in New Zealand with the scope and volume of misogynistic, violent rhetoric, abuse and threats that show the leader the way. She spoke briefly to reporters and said her long-term experience with the job was a positive one.
“I would hate for anyone to see my departure as a negative comment on New Zealand,” she said.
“I have experienced so much love, compassion, empathy and kindness in my work. That has been my predominant experience. So I leave with a sense of gratitude for having this wonderful role for so many years… My only words are words of thanks.”
AWhile they waited for the prime minister, tribal elders and politicians sheltered from the bright late summer sun in plastic marquees. The grass along the roads to the marae (meeting place) has grown long and dry, worn to fibers by the summer heat, signaling a season coming to an end. As her term expires, the question of Ardern’s continued influence on the direction and tone of New Zealand politics remains open.
Even before she arrived at the border of Rātana, the figure of Ardern loomed over the political speeches of the day. Centre-right opposition leader Christopher Luxon made no explicit mention of the prime minister, opting instead to speak of his views on the “policy of friendliness” she ushered in. We will “show kindness, show that we care, through careful stewardship of the economy,” he said — a choice of framing that only seemed to illustrate the extent to which Ardern has changed the language and frames of reference of New Zealand’s political discourse. was going to determine.
Most leaders paid their tribute more openly. ‘You were the captain who commanded the waka [canoe] that got us through some really tough times,” said Rahui Papa, a leader within the Tainui and Māori king movements.
“You were the right person to lead our country through terrible times,” said Che Wilson, former chairman of the Māori party. “I wear my political allegiance here,” he said, pointing to the indigenous designs that made up his clothes, “but Prime Minister, it is only right that we thank you,” he said, as the crowd erupted in applause.
When asked if she had a parting word for the public, the prime minister said she would not disappear completely. “You will see me everywhere, but you will not see me in the center, in the rut of politics,” she said. When asked if she would miss that, Ardern replied simply, “I’m going to miss people. Because that was the fun part of the job.”
TThe celebrations at Rātana are a suitable final bookend to Ardern’s term. In 2018 – just two months after her premiership and a few days after her pregnancy with daughter Neve was announced – she appeared in Rātana. That year, the elders of Rātana offered her a second Māori name for her child: Waru, a sacred number to the Church. In the years that followed, the gathering marked milestones and moments of Ardern’s tenure as leader – and saw her family grow up, with Neve occasionally appearing to waddle through the crowd, pursued by guards.
In a final, brief stand-up to reporters, Ardern said spending more time in that role — as a mother and family member — was something she looked forward to.
“I’m ready to be a lot of things,” she said. “I am ready to be a backbench MP. I’m ready to be a sister and a mother.” Then she turned, put her sunglasses back on, and walked away from the last group of microphones she would face as prime minister.