All New Zealanders should feel politics can be a home for them, former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Wednesday, in a final address to parliament after leading the nation through the COVID-19 pandemic and a terror attack in Christchurch.
Ardern, who thanked her family, her political party and her supporters, had stepped down as prime minister in January saying she had “no more in the tank” to lead the country.
She had burst onto the global scene in 2017 when she became the world’s youngest female head of government at age 37. She gained further international attention when she took her baby to a United Nations meeting.
Popular abroad, at home higher prices, rising crime and controversial reforms to water and agriculture eventually chipped away at her support.
As head of the centre-left Labour party for five years, Ardern steered New Zealand through a volcanic eruption, a 2019 attack by a gunman in Christchurch that killed 51 Muslim worshippers and the pandemic.
Ardern said she had found herself involved in people’s lives “during their most grief-stricken or traumatic moments” in that series of events.
“Their stories and faces remain etched in my mind and likely will forever,” Ardern said on Wednesday in parliament wearing a gifted korowai, a traditional Maori cloak, seen as a mark of honour and prestige.
The daughter of a policeman and school canteen operator, and a self-described “hugger and a crier”, Ardern said she wanted her career to inspire others to take office.
“You can be anxious, sensitive, kind, and wear your heart on your sleeve,” she said with tears in her eyes. “You can be a mother or not, an ex-Mormon or not. A nerd, a crier, a hugger, you can be all of these things and not only can you be here, you can lead just like me.”
Successor Chris Hipkins appointed Ardern on Tuesday to an unpaid role combating violent extremism online at an organisation set up after the Christchurch attack. Ardern said she looked forward to working on de-radicalisation.
She won plaudits across the political spectrum for her handling of the COVID pandemic, which she said was a “tough experience”. New Zealand faced some of the strictest measures globally but also had one of the lowest death tolls.
Looking up at the public galleries toward her four-year-old daughter Neve, Ardern thanked her partner Clarke Gayford and told her child: “You won’t grow up being known as the ex-Prime Minister’s daughter but rather I will happily be known as Neve’s mom, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”