WELLINGTON, Jan 24 (Reuters) – Jacinda Ardern said an emotional farewell on Tuesday on her last day as prime minister, speaking of the kindness and empathy New Zealanders have shown her, but said she was ready to be a sister and a mother.
Days after stunning the world when she announced she had ‘nothing left in the tank’ to lead the country and would be stepping down, the 42-year-old arrived at a gathering of politicians and veterans Maoris in the small town of Ratana, north of the capital Wellington, and was immediately surrounded by supporters looking for photographs.
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for the greatest privilege of my life,” Ardern told the rally in a speech.
She will step down on Wednesday and be replaced by new Labor leader Chris Hipkins.
Ardern, along with Hipkins and opposition politicians, made an annual visit to Ratana, where a week-long celebration is held for the birth of Maori prophet Tahupotiki Wiremu Ratana.
Dressed in a black dress with her shoulders covered with a traditional Maori coat, called a korowai, she led her party members onto the community ground while a marching band played. The speeches and song and dance that followed saw the elders speak with humor and warmth of Ardern.
“Thank you so much for teaching us how to love fast,” an alum told Ardern.
Ardern responded, saying she hadn’t planned to speak but those who were there refused to give her an out.
“My overall experience in this work of New Zealand and New Zealanders in this work has been one of love, empathy and kindness,” she said.
The left-wing global icon has drawn attention for bringing her baby to a United Nations meeting and wearing a hijab after a massacre targeting Muslims. Although she became the target of online hate and abuse from right-wing extremists on social media, she said she left her job with love in her heart.
“I want you to know that I leave with more love and affection for Aotearoa New Zealand and its people than when I started.”
Before taking to the field, Ardern faced the media for perhaps the last time as prime minister, smiling broadly as he declined to answer political questions, saying they were now the responsibility of his successor.
“I’m ready to be a lot of things. I’m ready to be a backbencher (member of parliament). I’m ready to be a sister and a mum,” she said.
Her daughter Neve is 4 years old and starts school in June.
Hipkins, the country’s former COVID minister, was the only person nominated to take over as Labor leader. He was first elected to parliament in 2008.
Reporting by Lucy Craymer; edited by Praveen Menon and Gerry Doyle
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