Fupon arrival, Jacinda Ardern is surrounded by a throng of people: hundreds gather to ask for final selfies, record video messages for friends and loved ones, or just watch her go by. A group of running children weave their way between the legs of passers-by, pushing for a better view.
Again and again she obliges, smiling for the camera phones, asking people’s names and jobs, cracking jokes, signing a worn blue and yellow basketball for a boy pushing through the crowd.
A politician who has always excelled in creating moments of humor and human connection, Ardern’s much-discussed star power was firmly on display in the North Island village of Rātana on Tuesday for her final official engagement as prime minister of New Zealand.
“It’s like, ‘touch his coat, touch his coat like Jesus,'” one woman laughs at her friend.
“Where is she? Is she coming from?” a girl asked, reaching out for a glimpse.
“I just want to say thank you to him,” a woman outside the Rātana Temple says to a policeman standing nearby. “For everything.”
A man spends a minute vigorously and continuously shaking her hand.
“You’re going to have to let go at some point,” remarks a viewer, and the crowd laughs.
New Zealand – and the world – are still counting on the shock departure of Ardern, the quick selection of his replacement, and the question of how to define his political legacy. However, on her last full day as leader of the country, some of the thorniest and most contentious issues of her political legacy and legislative record seemed to fade away.
Rātana traditionally marks the start of the New Zealand political year, with party leaders traveling to the village to deliver their first major speeches after the summer holidays. This year was different, it also marked the end of an era.
The scenes recalled some of the electric fandom Ardern sparked when she first took charge in 2017 – greeted by swarms of hopefuls and fans alike. Five years of tough decisions and political struggles had worn away much of that glitter, especially in the polls, where voters had punished the prime minister and his party for a year of economic headwinds.
But on Tuesday, the shine was back. A few meters away, the Prime Minister entering Chris Hipkins stands in a circle of reporters, answering questions – most of the time the crowd isn’t looking in his direction.
There was no sign on Tuesday of the furious little group of protesters who had become an increasingly recurring presence at Ardern’s public appearances – sometimes carrying signs and anti-vaccine slogans, other times chasing his van and shouting obscenities.
Ardern said threats and abuse were not contributing factors to his resignation, but his departure still sparked the start of an uncomfortable judgment in New Zealand with the scale and volume of misogynistic rhetoric and violent, abuse and threats channeled in the way of the leader. Speaking briefly to reporters, she said her enduring experience of the job had been positive.
“I would hate for anyone to take my departure as a negative comment on New Zealand,” she said.
“I have experienced so much love, compassion, empathy and kindness in the job. That has been my defining experience, so I leave with a sense of gratitude for playing this wonderful role for so many years… My only words are words of thanks.
As they waited for the prime minister, tribal elders and politicians sheltered under plastic marquees from the blast of the late summer sun. The grass lining the roads leading to the marae (meeting place) has become long and parched, worn down by the summer heat and signaling the end of the season. At the end of his tenure, the question of Ardern’s continued influence on the direction and tone of New Zealand politics remains open.
Even before she arrived at the borders of Rātana, the figure of Ardern occupied an important place in the political discourses of the time. Centre-right opposition leader Christopher Luxon made no explicit mention of the prime minister, but chose to speak about her vision for the “politics of kindness” she ushered in. economy,” he said – a choice of framing that only seemed to illustrate how far Ardern had come to determine the language and frames of reference for New Zealand political conversation.
Most leaders paid their respects more openly. “You were the captain who called the shots on the waka [canoe] who guided us through really difficult times,” said Rahui Papa, a leader within the Tainui and Māori kings movements.
“You were the right person to lead our nation through terrible times,” said former Maori party chairman Che Wilson. “I carry my political allegiances here,” he said, pointing to the indigenous designs adorning his outfit, “but Prime Minister, it’s only right that we say thank you,” he said, as the crowd burst into applause.
When asked if she had a parting note for the public, the Prime Minister replied that she would not disappear completely. “You’ll see me everywhere, but you won’t see me in the center, in the cleaver of politics,” she said. As to whether he would miss it, Ardern simply replied, “I will miss people. Because it was the joy of work.
Jhe celebrations in Rātana are a fitting end to Ardern’s tenure. In 2018 – just two months into her term as prime minister and days after announcing her pregnancy with daughter Neve – she appeared in Rātana. That year, the elders of Rātana offered her a Maori middle name for her child: Waru, a sacred number for the church. In the years since, the rally has marked milestones and moments in Ardern’s tenure as leader – and has seen his family grow, with Neve occasionally making appearances to weave through crowds being chased by officers of security.
In a final brief statement for reporters, Ardern said she’s been spending more time in this role — as a mother and family member — than she’s been looking forward to.
“I’m ready to be a lot of things,” she said. “I’m ready to be a backbencher. I am ready to be a sister and a mother. Then she turned around, replaced her sunglasses and walked away from the last group of microphones she would face as prime minister.