Jennifer Leahy, Chair of Te Aka Wāhine o te Waipounamu and the organising committee for the upcoming Women in Public Service Summit – Southern, has been contemplating the recent resignation from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“I’m sure like many people around the country, Ardern’s resignation has encouraged all of us in leadership roles or interested in future leadership roles to think about vulnerability in leadership, the theme of the March 14 Summit. I found the article written by Linda Clark, Lawyer and political commentator particularly pertinent to the theme of the Summit”. – Jennifer Leahy, Chair of Southern GWN
Originally published on BusinessDesk Southern GWN have permission to share Linda's article through the GWN website.
By Linda Clark (Partner- Dentons Kensington Swan; Award-winning political journalist and broadcaster).
I was with a client when the Prime Minister announced her resignation and my associate – a young, super smart woman just back from parental leave with a six month daughter at home – sighed and said, it’s just too hard having a big job with a baby in tow. Working mums everywhere will sympathize and many, hearing Jacinda Ardern talking about not having ‘enough in the tank’, will likewise think that maybe it is impossible. Because, irrespective of the Jacinda haters (I’ll come back to them) and putting politics aside, most working women really wanted Ardern to succeed
From the time she met the late Queen at Buckingham Palace heavily pregnant and still in control, Jacinda Ardern has been a beacon for women who want to live up to their ambition without sacrificing the chance to be a mother. She disproved those belittling myths about ‘baby brain’ and gave young women, in particular, a daily demonstration of female leadership unlike any political leader before her. She eschewed the power suits, kept her hair long and did not shy away from talking about emotions and showing compassion.
Of course, like all working mothers, Ardern has made sacrifices – most obviously time with her young daughter. The fact Neve will soon start school and therefore won’t be able to spend her week travelling between Wellington and Auckland with her Mum was no doubt a consideration in Ardern’s decision. The PM’s only firm plan now, she said, was to be there for Neve’s first day of school. Good on her.
But Ardern has been juggling far more than motherhood. From the moment she took on leadership of the Labour Party, she has been the subject of misogynistic denigration. One of the first questions asked of her then was a version of ‘are you up to this?’ That sentiment has rolled on no matter how competent she has shown herself to be.
All women leaders cop this to some extent. Helen Clark did, Jenny Shipley did and elsewhere Julia Gillard, Theresa May, Hilary Clinton and Kamala Harris have all been victims. But in New Zealand, no leader has faced the vilification that has become routine for Ardern and her family. No political spouse has ever been the subject of the kind of sustained smear campaign Clarke Gayford has had to contend with. None of this was about political debate or policy. Some of it veered into madness. Yet so real have been the threats to her safety that it’s fair to say, had she remained leader, Labour’s campaign organisers would likely have needed to stage a different kind of campaign without the usual shopping mall walkabouts – just to be sure. All that must have taken a very heavy toll.
So has the sheer scale and speed of the crises and challenges the Ardern Government has needed to manage. So much in such a short time – March 15, the Whakaari eruption, Covid, the global recession. So much of it unprecedented and with no playbook for any of it. At the same time, Ardern led her party to an outright majority win in 2020, the kind of victory that is simply unthinkable under MMP. Any leader deserves to be proud of that.
Like any leader she made plenty of mistakes. She over-promised. Her Government took too long to get things done. Some things it wanted to do it could never explain properly to voters. She probably surrounded herself with too many true-believers – a few critical thinkers in the inner circle might have been helpful. Most dangerously, possibly through a mix of circumstances and poor management, she allowed voters to get tired of her. But the misogyny was an increasingly undercurrent and for a growing number (men and women alike) turned tiredness to toxic hatred. By the end of 2022 her high wattage smile had faded. She looked as fed up with us as we were with her.
And now, having taken the summer to reflect she is stepping away. We can all be relieved for her. This is a chance to regain some privacy and, at 42, she still has plenty of time to enjoy a second wave career.
Ardern has been a remarkable ambassador for this country. Her successor, whoever he is, will never land the same heavyweight influence with world leaders that she managed. Her difference was her magic. Her successor, likely to be Chris Hipkins, will not stand out from the crowd as she did, whatever his skillset.
Ardern’s decision provides her party with an opportunity to reset. The most vitriolic anti-Labour sentiment will now likely lower in volume since most of it was firmly attached to Ardern personally. Equally, exit misogyny since her successor will almost certainly be a bloke. The new leader can go toe to toe with Christopher Luxon on new terms and with a fresh approach. Given that over the summer break all barbeque talk seemed hardened against Labour, this reset is probably the party’s best chance of avoiding defeat. Ardern may well have come to the same conclusion.
Whatever you think of Jacinda Ardern, her decision to go should prompt us all to reflect on how we allow politicians to be treated. Ardern was clearly ground down by the job and all that goes with it. If we want good people to be attracted to Parliament (and we need them to be) then we all have an interest in ensuring that the life of any politician does not become unbearable. In Ardern’s case not enough people called out the vitriol. Instead of repeating the nasty rumours more people should have called them out. Instead of simply noting that the physical threats against her had tripled since the last election, all politicians and influencers should have done everything possible to de-escalate anger and division rather than stoke it.
Announcing her decision Ardern said “I am human. Politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can.” Well, if we want our leaders to be human we need to recognise that the price we demand of them should be a reasonable one.
Published on Business Desk – 20.1.2023