Jacinda Ardern’s resignation has stunned the world, but it was a shocker even for those in the room, Marc Daalder reports
It was an announcement no one expected.
On Thursday afternoon, reporters crowded into a room at the Napier War Memorial Centre with lists of questions to put to Jacinda Ardern about the tough election race ahead. They left in frantic groups a half hour later, rushing off to report the Prime Minister’s shock resignation on live TV or to chase down Labour MPs leaving the party’s caucus retreat.
Unexpected but understood seems to be the theme of the day. Ardern kept the news quiet to all but a handful of close confidants – even her aides weren’t told until late on Tuesday and the majority of her caucus learned about it just hours before the public did.
Grant Robertson knew and, in multiple conversations over the summer, urged her to stay on. Chris Hipkins may also have been consulted, though he refused to confirm that.
Her partner Clarke Gayford was of course in on it, but their daughter Neve Te Aroha wasn’t told. “Four-year-olds are chatty,” Ardern explained with a chuckle after making the announcement.
Despite this, her MPs and staff all say they understand the decision, looking back on it.
The press conference started off with a surprise – the date of the election this year will be October 14. While the convention since John Key’s days is to announce the date at the start of election year, it usually happens at the first post-Cabinet press conference of the year. That takes place in the Beehive and is somewhat more politically neutral than a party conference.
Of course, Ardern needed to get the date out there so she could reveal what came next.
“I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging. You cannot, and should not do it unless you have a full tank, plus, a bit in reserve for those unexpected challenges,” she said.
Slowly realisation dawned on the gathered reporters about what was about to happen. The clacking of keyboard keys grew louder as Ardern began to tear up.
“This summer, I had hoped to find a way to prepare for not just another year, but another term – because that is what this year requires. I have not been able to do that,” she said, choking up a bit.
“And so today, I am announcing that I will not be seeking re-election and that my term as Prime Minister will conclude no later than the 7th of February.”
A moment of stunned silence and then a chorus of whispers, camera flashes and computer keys as Ardern went on.
“I am leaving because with such a privileged role, comes responsibility. The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also, when you are not. I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.”
It had been “the most fulfilling five and a half years of my life” but also the most challenging. Ardern’s reasons for leaving were personal, not political, she emphasised, and she is looking forward to spending more time with her family.
As the speech gave way to questions and answers, Ardern took the barrage of shouted queries in stride. As is her wont, she expertly dismissed doubts about the Labour Party’s electoral hopes without her and about the potential political- and polling-related reasons for her resignation.
But she also showed a personal side that the public hasn’t seen in quite a while. Under fire, Ardern tends to close up, returning to carefully polished responses that say little while sounding genuine.
Ardern has been under fire for the better part of a year, but those defences fell away, a bit, on Thursday as she reflected on her time in office. It was clearly bittersweet – a decision she wanted to make, but one which comes with many sacrifices. At times she teared up and looked to Gayford, sitting in the front row, for reassurance.
It’s hard to remember the last time we saw Ardern being this genuine. Even the personal moments she’s shared in the past, like the “little dance” she and Neve did in 2020 when the last active Covid-19 case recovered, felt a little choreographed. Not so on Thursday, when Ardern freely discussed the drain of the job as well as the reward of it.
“It’s fair to say that as we loomed closer to Christmas and the summer period, I decided to give myself a chance to really reflect on whether I had what was needed. I had hoped that I would find what I needed to carry on over that period, but unfortunately I haven’t. And I would be doing a disservice to New Zealand to continue.”
When she was done, she hugged Gayford and walked back to the conference room where Labour’s caucus showered her with applause and a rendition of Tūtira Mai Ngā Iwi.
MPs left the conference centre in groups, refusing to comment on the unexpected race for Labour leader and leader of the country. Some seemed shellshocked. All praised Ardern’s time in the job. Virtually all of them said it was a surprising decision, but one they could understand.
It was so unexpected that Newsroom’s political editor, currently on leave in Australia, thought it was a joke when a radio producer called her and broke the news.
The caucus was careful not to distract from the narrative of the day, which was commemorating Ardern. They wouldn’t be drawn on who might replace her – some interpreting caucus confidentiality to be so strict that they could not rule themselves out, even if they were clearly not candidates for the role. As reporters frantically pestered them with questions, they stayed on message in a show of unity.
Ardern herself made her getaway about an hour after her speech ended, exiting through a door at the rear of the conference centre, bundling into a ministerial SUV with Gayford and a handful of aides and speeding off.
Nearby, some of the MPs who will keep on carrying the Labour torch – Chris Hipkins and Kelvin Davis among them – gathered for a pint outside a local pub, soaking in the day’s events.