Jacinda Ardern: New Zealand's prime minister (2024)

Jacinda Ardern had been the leader of New Zealand's Labour party for less than 24 hours when she was asked whether she felt a woman could have both a baby and a high-powered career.

More than five years later, the question is almost laughable.

Ms Ardern went on to give birth in office, proving women can indeed do both (although, as she herself has been quick to point out, not without a supportive partner).

However, while becoming a first-time mum at 37, she also led New Zealand through three tumultuous years in which it endured its worst-ever terror attack, a deadly volcano eruption and a global pandemic that has tested leaders around the globe.

She has won plaudits on the international stage, and admiration from many at home. Things have not always been plain sailing - some accuse her of not fulfilling key election promises, like reducing child poverty, others scoff at the "woke" policies that she backs on social and racial justice.

But, Jacinda Ardern went into 2020 general election with an approval rating of 55%, which translated into a landslide victory.

"This has been a really tough time for New Zealand - we've had a terrorist attack, a natural disaster and a global pandemic," she acknowledged earlier in the year.

"But in these tough times we've seen the best of us. We've been able to clear high hurdles and face huge challenges because of who we are, and because we had a plan."

Jacinda Ardern: New Zealand's prime minister (1)Jacinda Ardern: New Zealand's prime minister (2)Reuters

Jacinda Ardern spent her childhood living in small, rural towns in her close-knit Mormon family. She was born in 1980 in the city of Hamilton, two hours south of Auckland. Her father, Ross, was a police officer, while her mother, Laurell, worked as a school cook.

It was these towns - and the poverty she saw in them - which would shape her political views, she later said. By 17, she was a Labour Party supporter.

After attending the University of Waikato, where she earned a degree in communication studies in politics and public relations, Ms Ardern began working for Helen Clark, New Zealand's then prime minister. In 2006, she ended up working in the UK Cabinet Office, as Tony Blair was preparing to hand over power to Gordon Brown.

By 2008, she was back in New Zealand, an elected MP. During her time in parliament, she championed bills to eradicate child poverty, and supported gay rights.

Jacinda Ardern: New Zealand's prime minister (3)Jacinda Ardern: New Zealand's prime minister (4)Reuters

The latter was important: her belief in equality for all her had spurred her on to leave the Mormon church over its stance on gay rights back in 2005.

"I could never reconcile what I saw as discrimination in a religion that was otherwise very focused on tolerance and kindness," she told the New Zealand Herald in 2017.

Then, in March of that year, she was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party. At the time, she was adamant that she didn't want to become prime minister.

'The anti-Trump'

It may seem remarkable now, but Jacinda Ardern became Labour leader only seven weeks before the 2017 election. At the time, they trailed in the polls and looked to have little chance of winning. It was, she said, the "worst job in politics".

But by the time New Zealanders cast their ballots, Labour had secured the second highest number of votes. Under the country's proportional representation system, she was able to form a minority government with the New Zealand First Party, and the Greens.

Jacindamania quickly spread across the globe, where she was feted as the anti-Trump - a liberal beacon in a world which seemed dominated by right-wingers like the US president. She won praise for wearing a Maori cloak, known as a korowai, to meet Britain's Queen Elizabeth in April 2018. The news of her pregnancy that same year - and the fact her partner, television host Clarke Gayford, was going to become a stay-at-home dad - was also welcomed as a positive step.

But she was quick to put to bed any thoughts she was doing anything out of the ordinary."The only reason I can do what I'm doing is because my partner has the ability to be a pretty much full-time carer," she told the Financial Times in 2018. "So I don't want to appear to be superwoman because we should not expect women to be superwomen."

Not everything she did was popular - especially at home. Her decision to ban offshore oil exploration angered some, and was described by the opposition as "economic vandalism".

'Be strong, be kind'

In March 2019, however, it would be the empathetic Ardern who would bring the country together in the wake of the Christchurch mosque attacks, which left 51 people dead. She was unequivocal that the gunman was a terrorist - but stressed that he did not represent the people of New Zealand.

"You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you," she told the gunman - who she has refused to name in public, to deny him notoriety - in an address just hours later.

Over the next few days, she would be seen comforting those who had lost loved ones. She also announced a change to the country's gun laws, banning the sale of all semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles with a speed which prompted questions in other countries, including in the US.

Then, in December another tragedy hit - this time, a volcano eruption on the privately owned White Island, or Whakaari. Seventeen people, most of them tourists from Australia and the US, died. Again, Ms Ardern led the country in mourning.

But by February 2020, the Labour Party were trailing the National Party in the polls, with headlines predicting a tight election race. Jacinda Ardern's continued popularity abroad was not reflected in New Zealand, where some were cross she had not fulfilled election promises.

Child poverty, in particular, continues to be a key issue in a country, with about one in eight children living in material hardship, according to StatsNZ. Within the Maori community, the figure rises to almost a quarter, while almost 28.6% of Pacific children are living in material hardship. Last December, Children's Commissioner Andrew Becroft said the government needed to "move much faster" to deal with the issue. Ms Ardern has argued things are getting better - albeit slowly.

Those polls, however, came before the pandemic hit. Jacinda Ardern acted quickly, bringing the country together under her oft repeated slogan "be strong, be kind". In early March, she ordered any arrivals to New Zealand had to self-isolate. By the end of the month, the borders were closed to almost all non-citizens or residents, and a nationwide lockdown had been put in place.

The policy of "hard and early" appears to have worked. The economy suffered a massive blow, but is now Covid-free - apart from some cases in quarantine.

Ms Ardern and her party won a landslide victory in October 2020's election.

She told her supporters afterwards: "New Zealand has shown the Labour Party its greatest support in almost 50 years. We will not take your support for granted. And I can promise you we will be a party that governs for every New Zealander."

But her standing among New Zealanders subsequently fell as the economic challenges facing her country grew.

In 2022, Ms Ardern told the BBC her declining popularity was the price her government had paid for keeping people safe from Covid-19.

But her government was also grappling with a cost-of-living crisis, national fears about crime, and a backlog of election promises put off during the pandemic.

Just over two years after her big election victory she announced that she would quit as PM, telling reporters she no longer had "enough in the tank" to lead.

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Jacinda Ardern

New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern: New Zealand's prime minister (2024)
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