By Gavin St Pier
HAVE you ever heard of Chris Hipkins? I thought not. He has just become the Prime Minister of New Zealand, succeeding Jacinda Ardern. You’ve heard of her. Everyone has heard of her. I wouldn’t be surprised if she had better name recognition in the UK than its own latest and current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak. (I say that, as I must confess that a couple of weeks ago, I had to think for a second or two to recall the name of the current UK incumbent. That may just a function of advancing age, the seeming permanent presence of Boris Johnson or the simple absurdity of UK politics in the last 12 months or more.)
I do not follow New Zealand politics closely enough to say whether I am a fan or not of all Jacinda Ardern’s policies. She has come to be seen as the Queen of Woke. This is, of course, a positive for some and a negative for others. Like any political leader, she will not be popular with everyone. Indeed, her Labour Party is trailing the main opposition party by 4% in the opinion polls, ahead of an election due by October, so clearly Kiwis are tiring of her party’s policies. New Zealand’s early adoption of a zero-Covid policy for the country, while welcomed initially, came to be regarded by some as authoritarian – and she with it, as the face of the policy.
Her rise to the top was meteoric. Having been elected for the first time as a member of New Zealand’s parliament only in 2017 in a by-election, she was reluctantly persuaded later that year to run for the leadership of her party. At the time, it was trailing in the polls ahead of a general election. Just seven weeks later, aged 37, she led the party into the election, from which she emerged as Prime Minister. Three years later, she won a landslide general election with 50% of the vote. Ardern’s exit from politics after just 6 years is as rapid as her entry. Following her unexpected decision to quit as Prime Minister last week, she will leave Parliament in a couple of weeks’ time.
Whatever she and her political colleagues have managed to do on the domestic political front, there is little doubt that Jacinda Ardern has enabled New Zealand to punch well above its relatively small weight, as a nation with just five million souls at the furthest end of the Pacific. She has helped raise the profile of her home country, previously known for little else other than its lamb, rugby and natural beauty. In some ways, the perception of her own character – open, compassionate and engaging – has been projected as characteristics of the nation. While her political opponents may or may not feel they have much to criticise her for, it will surely be only the most churlish who could deny that she has been good for New Zealand’s international reputation and helped put it on the map.
Forget the policies, but I am a huge fan of her way of doing politics, from which I am sure there are lessons for all of us engaged in democratic politics. She’s been bold and unafraid to lead in some of her policy positions. It is clear that her empathy and compassion is genuine and not manufactured (unlike so many of her peer group) by her PR team for her social media accounts. This was most particularly demonstrated by her response to the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019. She also has an enviable ability to connect with people, which she deployed so effectively in the early stages of the pandemic to build trust and confidence in her government’s response.
There can be little doubt that, if Ardern so chooses, she will have glittering career ahead of her on the international speaking circuit or with global organisations, emulating the path taken by her predecessor and mentor, Helen Clark, who was New Zealand’s second female Prime Minister. Alternatively, she may of course choose to spend time with her young family, having had a baby, now aged five, while in office. For what is quite clear, is she does things on her terms. She is surely a good role model for women everywhere. Overcoming – or perhaps just ignoring – misogyny and sexism, she has achieved what very few politicians achieve – male or female. She has held the top political office but has chosen to hand the keys back at a time entirely of her own choosing. That decision alone to pass up the role with all its baubles and trappings, displays a degree of self-confidence and the absence of personal ego, which is refreshing in any leadership sphere, but especially the political one.
So spare a thought for Chris Hipkins. Even if he loses the general election later this year, he will still have out-survived the 44 days of Liz Truss. But right now, he might rather be in Rishi Sunak’s shoes following Truss’s miserable premiership than trying to work out how to follow the class political act that was Jacinda Ardern.
Gavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.