Jacinda Ardern has used her final speech to New Zealand’s Parliament to describe in emotional terms how she navigated a pandemic and a mass shooting during her tumultuous five-year tenure as prime minister.
She also told humorous anecdotes like how a European leader so admired the striking hair of her chief-of-staff that he fluffed it like a hairdresser — which she joked had helped secure a free-trade deal — and how her mother once sent her a uplifting message: “Remember, even Jesus had people who didn’t like him.”
On a more serious note, she urged lawmakers to take the politics out of climate change.
“There will always be policy differences,” Ms Ardern said during her valedictory address, wearing a traditional Maori cloak called a korowai. “But beneath that, we have what we need to make the progress we must.”
A global icon of the left and an inspiration to women around the world, Ms Ardern stepped down as prime minister in January, saying: “I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.”
But she stayed on as a lawmaker until April to avoid triggering a special election ahead of the nation’s general elections in October.
Later this month, Ms Ardern will begin a new, unpaid role combating online extremism as special envoy for the Christchurch Call.
It is an initiative she started with French president Emmanuel Macron in May 2019, two months after a white supremacist gunman killed 51 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.
She has also announced she is joining the board of trustees for The Earthshot Prize, an environmental charity started by the Prince of Wales.
“A domestic terror attack. A volcanic eruption. A pandemic. A series of events where I found myself in people’s lives during their most grief-stricken or traumatic moments,” she said. “Their stories and faces remain etched in my mind, and likely will forever.”
She also described how she and fiance Clarke Gayford thought they could not have children after a failed round of IVF.
“Rather than process that, I campaigned to become prime minister,” she joked. “A rather good distraction as far as they go. Imagine my surprise when a couple of months later, I discovered I was pregnant.”
Ms Ardern became just the second elected world leader to give birth while holding office after she and Mr Gayford had daughter Neve in 2018.
Ms Ardern described how she had approached the Covid-19 pandemic on a scientific basis and how New Zealand fared best among developed nations when measuring excess mortality.
“But after many of these same experiences, and seeing the rage that often sat behind these conspiracies, I had to accept I was wrong,” she said. “I could not single-handedly pull someone out of a rabbit hole.”
Ms Ardern said she worried that during the pandemic, the nation had lost a sense of security, and the ability to engage in robust debate in a respectful way.
She also described how she never thought she was meant to have the role of prime minister, and how it came about through a surprising chain of events.
While she could not control how her tenure would be defined by others, Ms Ardern said she hoped it had demonstrated something else.
“That you can be anxious, sensitive, kind and wear your heart on your sleeve,” she said. “You can be a mother, or not, you can be an ex-Mormon, or not, you can be 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.”