Jacinda Ardern undoubtedly didn’t intend to reflect her religious upbringing when she reappeared in Parliament this week to deliver her farewell speech dressed in a pale gown, a feathered cloak, hair falling to her shoulders like so many depictions of the divine.
She probably didn’t deliberately time her departure to occur in the middle of the holiest week in the Christian calendar, and she had a self-deprecating laugh when she mentioned a message from her mother reminding her, “Even Jesus had people who didn’t like him.”
But there was something of the Easter sacrifice in her revelation to television interviewers that she made her decision to resign not only for herself but for New Zealand. “I felt it would be good for New Zealand,” she said.
As was often the case when I’ve watched her speaking, I wondered if that was entirely true. She did not say this back in January when she announced her decision. It sounded more like the consequence she has observed since leaving, something she would like to have known at the time.
New Zealand has been quieter since she left. Chris Hipkins does not arouse the intensity she did, either of support or antagonism. The affection for her was easy to understand, the intensity of the antagonism much harder.
Some of it, I think, had to do with her manner, the gushing voice, the constant smile that looked to me like a public mask for a more sombre and less certain person underneath. Often, watching her, I wished she would just relax, talk normally and be real.
She did let the mask down at times in a beautifully written valedictory address on Wednesday evening. Near the end she revealed she had always been a “worrier”, believing if the worst can happen, it will, (which helps explain prolonged lockdowns) and was usually so nervous before Question Time in the House she could not eat.
She described herself as a sensitive person, a crier, a hugger, a mother. She wanted to turn those qualities into an inspiration for those who share them and might therefore fear a political career. “You can be that person,” she said from the front bench of Parliament, “and you can be here.”
Yet she quit. After just five years, she quit. To her credit she does not cite family demands. Her partner, she revealed, thought she should carry on, her infant daughter, she suspects, is now wondering why Mum is following her around so much.
She vehemently denies she was driven from office by trolls and misogyny. Both TV interviewers this week, Samantha Hayes and John Campbell, appeared not to believe her but I do. Or perhaps I just want to believe that a warm and sensitive young woman with her attributes and a child can survive at the top.
She quit, she says, because “it was time”, there was “not enough left in the tank”. Knowing what we know now, I think she also quit because she was a party to the decision to ditch so much of her Government’s programme and she did not want to be the one to do it.
She was an idealist, or, as she puts it, “aspirational”. She remains unapologetic that her Government had no idea how to implement many of the ideals it espoused because that is apparently what “aspirational” means.
Like many an idealist of the left, she seems to think that is the only “idealism” there is, and that principles that fail the test of practicality are somehow valid, which is a religious mindset.
Her time in office will be remembered mainly for the unprecedented restrictions she had to announce during the pandemic. It is still too soon to judge the wisdom of the world’s response, let alone New Zealand’s, second only to China in its aspiration to eliminate the virus.
But there can be no doubting the pressure those decisions would put on a Prime Minister, and no denying her achievement in taking the country with her. The scale of her 2020 election victory will stand out in our history.
Historians will wonder what began to happen a year later. So does she. “I will forever think back, ‘Is there a way I could have kept that cohesion?’” she said this week, “I don’t know the answer.” Well, I can suggest one.
A week into the occupation of Parliament grounds, the Cabinet decided to review vaccine mandates. She could have made that a magnificent gesture to the campers. She could have had a few in, she could have acknowledged their case. Mandates were no longer needed and already regrettable.
Inclusive gestures were her strength. We lost something important when she quit.