Her decision to leave politics after five years leading New Zealand is an admirable admission of burnout, but one that nonetheless leaves difficult questions for Labour to answer, Sam Sachdeva writes

Analysis: As politicians prepared for a vital if fleeting summer break at the end of last year, Jacinda Ardern revealed she had asked her ministers to think about how they could help streamline the Government’s election-year agenda.

“Going into 2023 we do need to make sure we are totally focused, we prioritise, and that we will be making sure that where we need to pare back we will,” Ardern told RNZ, a sentiment echoed in most interviews she did to mark the end of the parliamentary year.

When Labour MPs gathered in Napier to set the party’s direction for 2023, it transpired the prime minister had been doing some reprioritisation of her own – and what she had chosen to pare back was her own reign.

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Ardern’s shock resignation had clear parallels with Sir John Key’s own departure in late 2016: both leaders choosing to go out undefeated rather than having been bested in battle, citing a desire to spend more time with their family and with their party’s supporters devastated to see them go.

Of course, Key lasted eight years to Ardern’s five – although the three years and counting of the Covid-19 pandemic have felt at least twice as long – and the National prime minister left with his party holding a commanding lead in the polls, rather than from a position of relative weakness.

Ardern’s announcement was particularly surprising given she had repeatedly insisted she would lead Labour into the 2023 election. As recently as the party’s annual conference last November, she spoke about why she was determined to keep striding ahead.

“Sometimes people ask me at a more personal level, how I keep going. Two reasons: because of a powerful intervention otherwise known as endless cups of tea, and because I am an optimist.”

Tea bags are yet to be caught up in supply chain problems, so it may have been those reserves of optimism that were running bare.

Why go now? Perhaps because there is no way she can surpass her achievements to date. Her unwavering leadership in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack will forever hold a place in Aotearoa’s history, while the outright majority she secured for Labour at the 2020 election following its world-leading pandemic response is a feat that may never again be accomplished under MMP.

Then there is Ardern’s own explanation, that “I no longer have enough in the tank to do [the job] justice”.

She has earned the right to be taken at her word, given her previous candour about handling anxiety and self-doubt, and the decision to declare what is effectively burnout to a global audience may in turn lead others to realise they need to step away from their own jobs.

Politics feels more toxic than ever, particularly for women, and it is not hard to imagine why a summer at home with her fiancé Clarke Gayford and young daughter Neve could lead her to conclude they needed to come first for once.

It is an admirable decision, but one that leaves the Labour Party in a bind nonetheless.

For the past five years, Labour and Ardern have been inextricably linked: “Join Jacinda and our movement today,” the party’s website still blares.

It is easy to forget just how dire the situation was before Ardern took over from Andrew Little in 2017. Labour was staring down the barrel of a third consecutive election of declining vote share, with the Green Party breathing down its neck.

Ardern’s ascent single-handedly returned the party to relevance in a manner similar to Don Brash’s 2005 Orewa speech – through sheer force of personality rather than policy, and with the electoral success that Brash couldn’t quite match.

Even now, with an ongoing global pandemic, a cost of living crisis and political polarisation that seems to grow by the day, Ardern still enjoys a healthy lead over National leader Christopher Luxon when Kiwis are asked to name their preferred prime minister.

It is that backdrop that has led commentators like senior Stuff journalist Andrea Vance to proclaim the prime minister has “just conceded the election” with her decision to step down.

No matter who replaces her, they will be unable to replicate the devotion she has earned from so many New Zealanders and others further afield, an invaluable asset when recruiting volunteers to knock on doors and sway undecided voters through phone banks.

But it is not inconceivable that Ardern’s departure could end up as a net positive for Labour.

None of those political machinations are Ardern’s concern any longer. Instead, there is a long-delayed wedding to plan, school stationery to buy, and a life pared back of complexity.

When looking at net approval ratings, a metric less likely to be skewed by incumbency bias than preferred prime minister, Ardern and Luxon have been in a dead heat since the middle of last year. After news of Ardern’s resignation broke on Thursday, the Taxpayers’ Union tweeted that its latest Curia poll, due for release today, showed the prime minister’s net favourability dropping into negative territory for the first time.

Just as love for Ardern is baked into a certain segment of the population, so too is dislike. Her successor may have a better chance at winning over soft National support and undecided voters (although it’s worth noting that Curia’s last poll in December gave Ardern a healthy lead on the latter front, at +1 percent net favourability against Luxon’s -29 percent).

Then there are all the policies that may be hindering Labour’s re-election chances, but which Ardern may have found difficult to discard given her previous support for them.

In contrast, a new leader’s prerogative is to chop and change as they see fit. Some on the right have been breathlessly speculating about a turn to the hard left, but it is far more likely that anything remotely controversial will find itself thrown on the scrapheap.

If reports of National Party MPs hugging each other as the news broke are correct, they certainly see Ardern’s departure as a boon to their chances of ending six painful years in opposition.

What does this mean for Luxon and National’s approach to the election? In one sense, very little: the economic fundamentals and global headwinds that make Labour’s re-election an uphill battle will not be moved by a new prime minister. The opposition will need to retool its campaign strategy to fit the policies and personality of a new ruler, but National’s attack lines have largely focused on the alleged deficiencies of the wider government rather than Ardern’s leadership alone.

But with National and ACT holding a small but significant lead over Labour and the Greens in almost every poll in the last half of 2022, and a surge in big-money donations following Luxon’s own election as leader, the perception that Ardern is fleeing a sinking ship could accelerate that shift towards the right as people look to back a winner.

Then there are the considerations for the minor parties, albeit ones that are unlikely to swing the overall balance of power. Will the Greens lure back more of their former supporters who were drawn to Ardern’s climate advocacy and progressive brand? How will ACT adjust its lines of attack, given it has been most forthright in singling out the prime minister for personal criticism?

None of those political machinations are Ardern’s concern any longer. Instead, there is a long-delayed wedding to plan, school stationery to buy, and a life pared back of complexity.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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