This is an opinion piece.
After Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s shock resignation, Emma Clifton looks back at her stratospheric rise and asks, have we become a better or worse place for women in leadership?
For the past nine years, as part of my roles working for NEXT, the Australian Women’s Weekly and then Capsule, I was lucky enough to interview Jacinda Ardern six times. It was obvious early on she was the rising star of Labour – the first cover story, for NEXT, ran with the cover line ‘Is She Our Next PM In Waiting?’, way back in 2015. She talked about one of her favourite NZ heroes, Ernest Shackleton, and how she had admired him so much. Her friend had given her a pendant for Christmas with ‘Endurance’ written down the side, the name of the ship used in his unsuccessful Trans-Antarctica expedition. She joked then that she hoped that it wouldn’t end up being her mantra for political life. Several years later, despite best intentions, it probably has been.
When the news of Jacinda’s shock resignation came through, one of the fastest underlying emotional reactions was, “well, who could blame her?” We’ve often been a country that doesn’t realise how good we have it at the time; we can now add this to the list. It’s hard to remember that shortly after Jacinda Ardern first took office in 2018, the biggest deal at the time was that she would become only the second ever woman in leadership to give birth while in power. Her election as, then, the youngest women in office was also a big deal, perhaps a positive sign that politics could slowly become a warmer place to women, to mothers. The photos of baby Neve sitting in the UN assembly, watching her mother address the world. Boy, that feels like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
I can distinctly remember straight after the Christchurch earthquake in 2011, hearing John Key come on the airwaves during that time of utter crisis, and having an almost childlike feeling of ‘Dad’s on the radio,’ because we were all so fragile and any voice of authority (even one you hadn’t voted for), felt like a form of comfort. How many times has Jacinda taken on that role of Mother of the Nation during the past few years? The joyous surprise press conference of her baby announcement in early 2018 became the only positive breaking news we’ve had since – every year, it was another crisis. Whakaari. The Mosque terror attack. The arrival of Covid in early 2020 and the Alert Level system; the country glued to our screens on that strange March weekend as Jacinda calmly talked us through the unfolding of a new world.
All of those so-called soft skills – her kindness, her empathy – called upon over and over again. ‘Be kind’ becoming the unofficial motto of our country, during that first year. The daily 1pm briefings. We had a running joke in our chat group about how every time she wore that big pashmina scarf for the briefing, you knew it was a particularly bad day.
In 2017, I interviewed Jacinda just before the start of the leadership musical chairs that would end up with her becoming Prime Minister. Her most hated question had always been ‘do you want to be prime minister one day’ and, of course, I had asked it. Our chat took place just after a Colmar Brunton poll had put Jacinda second on the list for preferred prime minister – but she still wasn’t having a bar of it, because she didn’t think she had the right temperament for the job.
“It’s me knowing myself and knowing that actually, when you’re a bit of an anxious person, and you constantly worry about things, there comes a point where certain jobs are just really bad for you,” she said at the time. “I hate letting people down. I hate feeling like I’m not doing the job as well as I should. I’ve got a pretty big weight of responsibility right now; I can’t imagine doing much more than that.”
That was July 2017. Four months later, she would be named the next PM and become the one to lead us through five years of crises. There was a study that came out during the pandemic that a lot of wartime leaders were also anxious thinkers – Winston Churchill was one of them – and that it was a helpful trait, because anxious thinkers are used to coming up with the worst case scenario and working backwards. I would rather continue to have the weight of responsibility sit with someone who has an anxious disposition than one without, but Jacinda’s message, that she doesn’t have the energy required to continue doing such an all-consuming job, is a reminder that there is a very human cost to a role like this.
Jacinda’s surprise run as leader of the opposition, then Prime Minister, then crisis leader for many years has been one for the history books. Has the world become a kinder place to women in leadership since she started? It’s hard to believe that. But has she proven that all those imaginary barriers – of gender, of age, of being a mother while in office – were really just smoke and mirrors? Yes. We may yet get more kind, capable women in leadership as a result of watching Jacinda’s stratospheric rise to Prime Minister and all the good she was able to do while in office. But will we deserve them? That’s another question.