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Perspective: Jacinda Ardern and ‘what’s really most important’

Whatever you think of her politics, New Zealand’s prime minister said all the right things when announcing she won’t seek reelection

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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, right, hugs her fiancee Clark Gayford after announcing her resignation at a press conference in Napier, New Zealand, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. Fighting back tears, Ardern told reporters that Feb. 7 will be her last day in office.

Mark MItchell, New Zealand Herald via Associated Press

To understand Jacinda Ardern’s world-rattling announcement that she won’t seek reelection as New Zealand’s prime minister, we should look at what she said two months ago, not what she said today.

In November, Ardern revealed that her father had been treated for cancer in 2022, adding, “It just reminds you what’s really most important and that’s to spend as much quality time together as you can. That’s the enduring lesson for me.”

Keep that in mind amid suggestions that Ardern’s decision was motivated by a potentially rocky path ahead, that she decided to “get while the gettin’s good,” preserving what’s left of “Jacindamania” and not subjecting herself to what could have been a humbling loss in October.

As NPR reported, “things haven’t been going so well for Ardern. Her popularity took a dive in 2022, as New Zealanders criticized her handling of the economy amid tough COVID restrictions and growing inflation.” The report went on to say that “Ardern’s popularity took a major hit following multiple, lengthy lockdowns on Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city” and quoted an analyst who said that within New Zealand, Ardern has become an “incredibly polarizing and divisive force.”

“(T)here were a lot of people that had liked her that no longer did, and the feeling towards her seemed really visceral,” David Cormack, of the government relations firm Draper Cormack Group in Wellington, told NPR.

Recent polling has also found support for Ardern’s Labour Party lagging behind the National Party.

But only cynics of the highest order can listen to what Ardern said Thursday and conclude that her decision to step down was shrewdly political.

“I know there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so-called ‘real’ reason was ... The only interesting angle you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, that I am human,” she said.

Of course, she is also a mother, having given birth to her daughter, Neve, in 2018.

Throughout the past four years, Ardern has presented a picture-perfect image of a woman who “has it all” — even taking 3-month-old Neve to a United Nations meeting. There was just one piece that seemed puzzlingly askew — she had not married her movie-star-handsome partner, Neve’s father, Clarke Gayford. Last January, the couple canceled a planned wedding because of COVID-19.

Now, however, it seems that marriage is part of “what’s really most important.” Ardern addressed her daughter and partner during Thursday’s press conference:

“So, to Neve, mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year. And to Clarke, let’s finally get married.”

Amid rampant speculation about the “real reasons” Ardern is stepping away, there is no doubt going to be renewed debate about the limitations that motherhood imposes on professional work. Does Ardern “no longer have enough in the tank to do (the job) justice,” as she said, because she also has family demands? She didn’t say (although interestingly, she said considers the Labour Party to be her family).

Of course, many mothers have continued to do work they love while raising young children, although few have done so as the leader of a country. (The only other woman in this club was Benazir Bhutto, the late prime minister of Pakistan.) So it’s unclear what’s been draining Ardern’s tank and to what extent being the single mother of a 4-year-old (albeit with an involved father) played into that.

But what is clear is that while watching her own father undergo cancer treatment last year, Ardern experienced a reordering of priorities that is common among anyone confronting a serious health crisis or death of a loved one. She came to see, as author Greg McKeown has said, that there is really no such thing as “priorities,” but instead a singular priority. And Ardern apparently realized that her priority was family.

Giving up power is a bold move, and a rarity the world over, but it happens, and often because of the lure of hearth and home. King Edward VIII famously abdicated the British throne to marry a divorced American; the Roman emperor Diocletian declined to return to power because he was too engrossed in his garden. (He reportedly said “if you could see my cabbages you would understand.”)

Ardern, an adept politician, is just 42 and may yet return to the glare of public life when her daughter is older. In the meantime, she may find she has a new set of fans, those women and men who understand that true leadership involves knowing when to step away. And that sometimes, no matter how important you are on the world stage, “what’s really most important” is waiting at home. In other words, get ready for Jacindamania, the sequel.