From the moment she arrived, Jacinda Ardern was surrounded by a throng of people: hundreds gathered to ask for last selfies, record video messages for friends and family or simply watch her pass. A group of running children weave through the legs of passers-by, jostling for a better view.
Again and again she obeys, smiling into camera phones, asking people their names and jobs, cracking jokes, signing a worn blue-and-yellow basketball to a boy pushing through the crowd.
A politician who has always excelled at creating moments of humor and human connection, Ardern’s much-discussed star power was on strong display in the North Island village of Ratana on Tuesday for her final official engagement as New Zealand prime minister.
Ardern gets a hug during Ratana’s celebrations. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
“It’s like, ‘touch her cloak, touch her cloak like Jesus,'” a woman laughs to her friend.
“Where is she? Is she coming?” asked a girl, reaching out to catch a glimpse of him.
“I just want to thank her,” a woman outside the Ratana Temple tells a policeman standing nearby. “For everything.”
A man spends a minute vigorously and continuously squeezing her hand.
“You’re going to have to give up at some point,” observes one observer, and the crowd laughs.
Ardern and Minister Kerry Allen walk the marae during the Rattana celebrations. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
New Zealand – and the world – is still coming to terms with Ardern’s shock exit, the tumultuous choice of her replacement and the question of how to define her political legacy. On her last full day as the country’s leader, however, some of the more thorny and contentious questions about her political legacy and legislative experience seemed to fade into the background.
Rātana traditionally marks the start of New Zealand’s political year, with party leaders descending on the village to deliver their first major speeches since the summer break. This year was different, it also marked the end of an era.
The scenes recalled some of the electric fandom that Ardern provoked when she first took the leadership in 2017 – greeted by clashes of hopeful selfies and fans. Five years of tough decisions and political infighting had erased much of that luster, particularly in the polls, where voters had punished the prime minister and her party for a year of economic hardship.
But on Tuesday, the shine returned. A few meters away, prime minister-to-be Chris Hipkins stands in a circle of reporters and answers questions – the crowd, for the most part, not looking in his direction.
Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi enters the marae during the Ratana celebrations. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
On Tuesday, there was no sign of the small, angry knot of protesters who have become increasingly present at Ardern’s public appearances — sometimes carrying anti-vaccine signs and slogans, other times chasing her van and shouting obscenities.
Ardern said the threats and abuse did not contribute to her resignation, but her departure nevertheless triggered an embarrassing reckoning in New Zealand with the scope and volume of misogyny, violent rhetoric, abuse and threats directed at the leader. Speaking briefly to reporters, she said her ongoing work experience has been positive.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to see my departure as a negative comment on New Zealand,” she said.
“I experienced such love, compassion, empathy and kindness at work. This has been my overwhelming experience. So I leave feeling grateful to have had this wonderful role for so many years… My only words are words of gratitude.”
As they waited for the prime minister, tribal elders and politicians hid in plastic tents from the late summer sun. The grass lining the roads to the marae (meeting place) has grown long and dry, worn to the grain by the summer heat and signaling the approaching season. As her term ends, the question of Ardern’s continued influence on the direction and tone of New Zealand politics remains open.
Even before arriving at Rattana’s borders, Ardern’s figure looms large over the political speeches of the day. Center-right opposition leader Christopher Luxon did not specifically mention the prime minister, but chose to talk about his vision for the “politics of kindness” she introduced. We will “show kindness, show we care, through careful economic management”, he said – a choice of framing that seemed only to illustrate the extent to which Ardern has come to define the language and frames of reference of political conversation in New Zealand.
Ardern and future Labor leader and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins arrive at the Rattana celebrations. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images
Most of the leaders paid their respects more openly. “You were the captain who ran the waka [canoe] it got us through some really tough times,” said Rahui Papa, a leader in the Tainui and Māori royal movements.
“You were the right person to lead our nation through terrible times,” said Che Wilson, a former president of the Maori Party. “I’m wearing my political bias here,” he said, pointing to the indigenous motifs of his clothing, “but Prime Minister, it’s only right that we thank you,” he said as the crowd erupted in applause.
Asked if she had a parting word for the public, the prime minister said she would not disappear completely. “You’ll see me out and about, but you won’t see me at the center, in the thick and thin of politics,” she said. Asked if she would miss it, Ardern said simply: “I will miss the people. Because that was the joy of the job.”
The Rātana celebrations are a fitting final bookend to Ardern’s tenure. In 2018 – just two months after her premiership and a few days after announcing her pregnancy with daughter Niv – she appeared in Rātana. That same year, Ratana’s elders suggested a Maori middle name for her child: Waru, a sacred number for the church. In the years since, the gathering has marked milestones and moments from Ardern’s tenure as leader – and watched her family grow, with Neave occasionally emerging to slip through the crowds, chased by security.
In a recent brief statement to reporters, Ardern said she was looking forward to spending more time in that role — as a mother and family member.
“I’m willing to be many things,” she said. “I am ready to be a representative of the people. I am ready to be a sister and a mother.” She then turned, put on her sunglasses and walked away from the last set of microphones she would face as prime minister.