WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND — Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern bowed out of parliament Wednesday, ending a career marked by empathetic leadership during times of crisis even as she faced escalating abuse online.
Ardern shocked New Zealand earlier this year when she announced she was stepping down as prime minister and retiring from politics, saying she no longer had “enough in the tank.”
The 42-year-old, once the youngest woman leader in the world, said in her final speech to parliament that she never expected to take the nation’s top job.
“It was a cross between a sense of duty to steer a moving freight train… and being hit by one,” she quipped during her valedictory address.
“And that’s probably because my internal reluctance to lead was matched only by a huge sense of responsibility.”
Ardern steered New Zealand through natural disasters, the Covid-19 pandemic and the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre — in which a white supremacist gunman killed 51 Muslim worshippers.
“These stories and phases remain etched in my mind and likely will forever. That is the responsibility and privilege of the role of prime minister.”
Ardern dedicated a significant section of her speech to climate change, urging the country’s politicians to band together.
“Climate change is a crisis. It is upon us,” she said.
“And so one of the very few things I will ask of this house on my departure is that you please take the politics out of climate change.”
She will now devote herself to stamping out online extremism as part of the Christchurch Call project, which she set up as prime minister in the wake of the mosque attack.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who took part in the first Christchurch Call summit, said he was reassured to see Ardern continuing to “fight terrorist and violent extremist content online.”
Ardern will also become a trustee of Prince William’s Earthshot Prize, which hunts for solutions to the planet’s most urgent environmental challenges.
Despite her glittering reputation on the international stage — she graced the cover of Time Magazine in 2020 — Ardern was far from universally adored at home.
She became a lightning rod for online abuse as her premiership wore on, and was regularly targeted in social media posts filled with violent and sexist language.
A recent study by the University of Auckland found Ardern was targeted by 50 times more abuse online than any other high-profile figure in New Zealand.
Earlier this year, a New Zealand man was sentenced to spend more than a year in prison after threatening to kill her.
But Ardern has been reluctant to blame such attacks for her resignation, instead emphasising the desire to spend more time with her young daughter, Neve.