The regular earthquakes in New Zealand earned the country its nickname as the “Shaky Isles,” but it was the resignation of its most internationally recognized prime minister in years that’s rumbling through the world’s political circles.
Jacinda Ardern said, at age 42, she was stepping away from her leadership role because she simply doesn’t have the energy to continue.
“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said. “It is that simple.”
Many greeted the statement as a surprise, even in a world where high-ranking politicians often cite “spending more time with family” as a reason for leaving.
What is striking about Ardern’s comments on her resignation is that she was so blunt about being exhausted. Politicians tend to insist on putting on the bravest face they can; one admitting they just aren’t up to it anymore seems rare, and experts say many more are likely in similar straits.
Fighting back tears, Ardern told reporters in Napier that Feb. 7 would be her last day as prime minister after five and a half years.
At 37, when she became leader, Ardern was praised around the world for her handling of the both the nation’s worst mass shooting and the early stages of the pandemic.
But while being lauded by international media, she faced mounting political pressures at home and a level of hateful rhetoric from some that hadn’t been experienced by previous New Zealand leaders.
Following the start of Canada’s weeks-long anti-mandate protests in Ottawa, a similar movement popped up in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, on the grounds of Parliament.
The country had seen some of the world’s strictest lockdowns and those efforts were credited for a low COVID death toll.
But some grew tired of the measures and with 77 per cent of the public getting vaccinated Ardern had promised, days before the protest began, she would not institute more lockdowns and was set about easing restrictions. Still, protesters descended on Wellington.
Three days into the demonstration, police had cleared the grounds and arrested 120 protesters who had refused to leave. Since then, the leader has faced questions about the approach the government took to COVID as concerns about a recession loom.
Meanwhile, polls have her Labour party trailing the Conservatives as an election looms in October. Ardern insists those numbers are not why she’s taking her leave.
“I’m not leaving because I believe we can’t win the election, but because I believe we can and will, and we need a fresh set of shoulders for that challenge,” Ardern said in her resignation speech.
“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.”
Fiona Barker, a senior lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, said the more she thought about Arden’s sudden resignation as prime minister the more it made sense.
Ardern’s years in office were marked with one crisis after another, and — particularly during the past two years of the pandemic — vitriol and misogyny. The abuse and threats directed toward Ardern were “relentless,” Barker said. “Once you take that context into account, it’s less surprising.”
As her time in office continued, the abuse from some members of the public ramped up. Much of it came from camps opposed to anti-COVID measures.
The discontent brought sexist attacks on her, her appearance and her family. Barker said that is additional stress that male politicians don’t have to deal with. She even cancelled a yearly barbecue she hosted out of security concerns, The Associated Press reported.
“It fits a pattern that’s happening globally,” Barker said. “Many of these people are conspiracy theorists and it’s global social media networks that are feeding into these attacks.
“I think it does highlight there are additional risks and dangers for women in politics.”
Michael Leiter, a former professor of psychology at Acadia University and an organizational consultant, said it’s hard to say whether Ardern was burned out, but that the job is ripe for it.
Politics can be taxing. There’s little in the way of vacation and the nature of the job can be very combative, he said.
“You don’t get long periods to really recover your energy,” said Leiter, an expert on burnout. “The need is so great.”
Exhaustion is one part of burnout, he said. The other two pieces include losing the love for your job and losing the ability to be effective at it.
But work is just one side of the coin, he added.
“I think really much more insidious, the thing that really pushes people to be cynical and really discouraged, are really negative social encounters with other people,” Leiter said.
“In politics, you know, being civil and polite to people on your side, well, that’s just fine. But with the other side, the political game is to make the other guy look bad.”
Vancouver MP Hedy Fry has been in politics for 30 years and said social media has certainly added pressure on women in working in politics and journalism. Vitriol and harassment make it hard for women to want to continue doing the work, Fry said.
“Those kinds of things suck your energy,” Fry said. “I can understand the concept of burnout but I also think contributing to that is all the threats she got online.”
Fry, who is a special representative on gender issues for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly, said all around the world women are dropping out of politics due to online abuse.
When she started her career it was much different, she said. Walking down the street as a politician may get you heckled on occasion but you would simply snap off a retort. If a threat came in, you knew who it was from and alerted police.
“Now also their families are threatened,” Fry said.
Many observers said sexist attitudes played a role in the anger directed at Ardern.
Some of the public debate following Ardern’s resignation has centred around the extent to which wanting to spend time with her family was a major factor. Ardern is one of the only female world leaders to have had a baby and take maternity leave while in office.
“Politics is absolutely sexist, from how you look to how you’re expected to act,” said Catherine McKenna, who resigned as Canada’s infrastructure minister in 2021 after six years in politics. She also served as environment minister.
“But there’s a new generation of female leaders like Ardern who are calling their shots and doing it their own way. She left on her own terms. I think it was incredible that she recognized it was time for someone else to continue on.”
McKenna told the Star it would be a mistake to construe Ardern’s departure as confirmation that people in leadership can’t “have it all.” But it’s also important to look at how to make political life more accessible, she said.
McKenna faced sexist name-calling by her critics, including the nickname “Climate Barbie.”
But she said the vitriol was not the reason for her departure. She wanted to focus her energy on fighting climate change from outside the government, and to spend more time with her kids.
At the end of her resignation speech, Ardern said she had no plans other than to spend more time with her family.
Thanking her partner, Clarke Gayford, and daughter Neve, she said they were “the ones that have sacrificed the most out of all of us.”
“To Neve: Mum is looking forward to being there when you start school this year. And to Clarke — let’s finally get married.”
With files from Rob Ferguson and The Associated Press
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