I was head down all day today burning through work work and comic guide work without loading a single website or social network, which allowed for the comparatively occurrence of E sharing breaking news with me (rather than the other way around).
“Have you seen the news?” she asked as we all sat around the table after finishing dinner. Her tone of voice was portentous.
My mind raced. We don’t follows news on sports or royals, nor are we all that mindful of celebrities and influences. E certainly wasn’t bringing me any fresh developments from the world of drag or the Marvel United Kickstarter.
I loaded the Washington Post homepage, fearing the worst – more gun violence in the states, or a bad political development. There was nothing apparent “above the fold.”
“No, what am I looking for?”
I saw it just as she said it. It was the next story that appeared as I started scrolling down the page:
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern resigns ahead of election
(For my American readers: the simplest explanation of a Prime Minister is that they work a lot like the Speaker of the House. The party or parties who control the government nominate one of their own who was elected as a regular representative to be the head of their party, which also makes them the head of government. The people have no control whatsoever – which, come to think of it, isn’t such a bad thing.)
I have mixed feelings on this news.
Prime Minister Ardern is a brilliant politician who was elected just a few months into our living here after a last-minute shuffle of leadership in the Labour Party prior to the October 2017 election. At the time I couldn’t even tell you the name of the outgoing Prime Minister! I quickly learned about “MMP” – or “Mixed Member Proportional” – the multi-party electoral system in New Zealand. It meant that Labour took the government with only 46 seats compared to the conservative National Party’s 56. The Ardern-led Labour negotiated a coalition with the farther-left Green Party (8 seats) and the center-right nationalist NZ First (9) to add up the magic simple majority needed to claim the government.
I learned so much more about the function of government over the course of PM Ardern’s first term in office (during which she became only the second modern world lead to give birth while holding office, in June 2018!). Technically, when I started my job at the Ministry of Business at the end of 2018 I was working for her – or, at least, for a member her cabinet. We had ministerial courier bags in our mail room. I took a “Machinery of Government” course. I even visited the NZ Parliament during the official daily “Question Time” and watched PM Ardern masterfully handle an opposition question about child poverty. It brought tears to my eyes.
I also was in the room on 15 March 2019 when our ministry’s chief executive received word of the Christchurch Terror attacks. Several members of my team were seconded into the task force that assembled in their wake.
For someone who left the states in large part due to gun violence, that was a terrifying moment that I will never forget – just as I will never forget that PM Ardern said she would see semi-automatic weapons banned, and that ban took effect just six days later.
That was the moment I knew I was truly at home in New Zealand.
Then, barely a year later, on 25 March 2000 PM Ardern made the difficult decision to send all of New Zealand into a “Level 4” lockdown due to COVID. It was a terrifying time for all of us around the globe, but as months passed it became clear that New Zealand had become the safest place on the entire planet thanks to PM Ardern’s decisive action.
Once again, it felt like Jacinda Ardern was personally keeping my family safe. Many other kiwis agreed, as Labour swept to a 2020 election win with a 66-seat majority of their own without requiring a coalition, while National limped across the finish line with 33 (plus another 10 for the right-wing ACT – still, a net conservative loss).
Since then, it felt like something changed about PM Ardern’s government. To be fair, things have changed throughout the world in those years, and certainly within our borders as well.
In NZ, Access to vaccines lagged for adults and, especially, for children. Our Zero COVID policy finally crumbled just as a violent anti-mask protest consumed the parliament lawn downtown – occupying it for weeks and eventually burning down its playground. A particularly mean-spirited Labour Minister of Education mocked parents with “COVID Anxiety” while declining to roll out any precautions or preventative measures in schools.
Meanwhile, multiple policies trumpeted by Labour in the election either stalled or met with vociferous public opposition, including policy on housing, transportation, and water access. And, in Auckland, violence spiked – with vehicle-assisted “ram raids” becoming a common occurrence at dairies (i.e., bodegas) and jewelry stores.
I don’t meant to make that all out to be a disaster. It’s a typical second term malaise. PM Ardern continued through it all as one of the most empathetic and effective leaders in recent world history, even as she met with increasingly cruel and violent rhetoric from her detractors. It was easy to observe on social media. There was always a vocal anti-Jacinda element, but in the past 12 months it became the loudest element in many circles. Now those vocal elements also have comments to make about her 4-year-old daughter.
And, with all of that, National has surged in early polls (flimsy as they might be).
Even as a dedicated leftist who was made to feel at home twice over by PM Ardern and her Labour government, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed – especially by the shocking lapse of COVID response in 2022 after the violence on parliament’s front lawn. It felt as though Labour retreated to the center, losing the trust of folks like me on the left, but never tacking rightward enough to please the braying of right-wingers increasingly influenced by the divisiveness of American politics.
We have another election looming this October, and earlier today PM Ardern emerged from Labour’s annual new year’s caucus to announce that she would not be the one to lead them into it.
I know what this job takes,” she said, “and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.” Her resignation takes effect in a few short weeks, on 7 February. And, she will even give up her local electorate seat in early April.
When she does, it will have been just over five years since the terror attack, and just over three since COVID lockdowns began. I cannot imagine how hard it has been to be the leader of this country in that time, as well as a first-time parent. I’ve been tired – crushingly, despairing tired – many times over in those five years, and I don’t have a fraction of the weight on my shoulders that she does. I’ve also wanted to retreat from public view after seeing the words some internet trolls had to say about me and my daughter – and I’m not a public figure who has to worry about her safety.
I might have found some fault with Jacinda Ardern over the past few years, but there is no question in my mind that my life is better because she has been a part of it. PM Ardern is synonymous with our life in New Zealand to date, and in some small way I believed that I would live my whole life with her as our leader – one I could dissent with in kindness and without an overwhelming fear for the future of my new country.
I already have creeping anxieties about what the future will hold for us, but for the moment I am trying to hold them aside to be thankful for what we’ve had – and still have for another few weeks.