Former PM Jacinda Ardern meeting members of the Christchurch mosque after the 2019 attack

The Sunday before the 2017 election I had been scheduled to interview Jacinda Ardern before she fronted a big rally in Hamilton.

She suggested we do it over lunch at a Hamilton café.

Looking back, the strengths and the weaknesses of her Prime Ministership were already evident though maybe they are more visible now with the benefit of hindsight.

Perhaps the most obvious was captured in the headline above the story when it was published the next day: “Ardern: I need to prove myself.”

She did, but not in the way we could have imagined in that Hamilton café.

The week before had seen a farmers’ protest in her home town of Morrinsville, provoked by comments from David Parker about imposing a tax on water.

Clearly, there is a divide between urban and rural New Zealand, or at least urban Labour and rural New Zealand.

“I know that I need to prove that this isn’t a them and us; that this is about what we can achieve together,” she said.

“I know I need to prove that I understand and believe in the role that the dairy industry plays in New Zealand.

“I need to prove that. I get that.”

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The current level of opposition to the Government from the farming community would suggest that she has failed and that the weight of regulation and legislation introduced by her Government that affects farming has provoked that opposition.

Despite that, last night, in her valedictory address in Parliament, she reasserted her faith in reaching an agreement with farming over greenhouse gas emissions, a faith that has been heavily criticised by Greenpeace and other environmental lobby groups.

But the rural antagonism, reflected, for example, in the Groundswell movement, is now so hostile that those farmers won’t even support National or the mainstream farm lobby groups like Dairy NZ or Beef and Lamb NZ  and instead are backing ACT.

Though that antagonism had its origins in rural New Zealand, it quickly spread after she became Prime Minister to the cities and in the first instance, there were questions about her age — and experience.

When she became Prime Minister, she had been in Parliament for nine years and was 37.

David Lange had been in Parliament for only seven years and was 41 when he became New Zealand’s youngest 20th century Prime Minister in 1984.’

(If Christopher Luxon becomes Prime Minister after this year’s election he will have been in Parliament only three years.)

However, Lange never pretended to be a voice for his generation. In contrast, whether Ardern intended it or not, she was seen as one and as, therefore, an agent in the inter-generational divisions that were beginning to appear in New Zealand politics five years ago.

We discussed generational politics in that 2017 interview which ironically was interrupted in the café where it was being interrupted by Jason Kerresin from the early 2000’s rock band, OpShop, who explained that he would be in Kenya on election day but was hoping to watch the election results live on the web.

Ardern’s comfort and obvious familiarity with people like Kerresin defined her early on as someone different from the mainly baby-boomer Parliament she was a member of.

I don’t think it is only one generation who has an interest in that.

“I’ve seen parents and grandparents as worried about the future for their kids as my generation is worried.

“I don’t think it is confined to one demographic.

“I do think everyone wants to see us keep improving the lot for the next generation coming through.

“So, again, I see that as a view we are united by rather than divided by.”

Ironically, Kerrisin would break with Ardern and join the anti-vax protest occupation of Parliament grounds last year.

In a way his trajectory during her Government defined it.

She was to be defined not by her ambitions on climate policy, or as she tried to emphasise in Parliament yesterday, child poverty, but by two events; during her time on the ninth floor.

The first was the March 15, 2019,  mass shooting at the Christchurch mosque.

Her tone was pitch perfect from the word go, with the hazy image of her clad in a head scarf through to her refusal to speak the shooter’s name.

If anything made her name internationally, it was her response to that shooting.

She became an international icon symbolising tolerance and kindness.

Within New Zealand, however, there was still a reluctance to embrace her; by early 2020, she and the Simon Bridges-led National Party were neck and neck in the polls, and she faced the possibility that she could be a one-term Labour Prime Minister.

Her problem was that Labour had not really accomplished much.

She could partly blame her unwieldy three-party coalition with the Greens and NZ First for that.

However, her surrender to New Zealand First and its donors over their opposition to a capital gains tax sent a strong signal that hers was a weak leadership.

Yet back in 2017, economic matters had been at the top of her election agenda. And she saw education as the key.

“Unlike other countries, we haven’t seen an increase in our productivity being shared fairly among the workforce,” she said.

“That brings us back to the discussion we’ve been trying to have in this election which we haven’t got very far with because the Government continues to argue that the labour productivity is good; we would argue it’s not.

“We’ve been trying to have that discussion where the OECD is saying education is where you have to lift your game.

“We’ve got a set of policies that are designed to do that.”

And in her rally speech yesterday she highlighted Labour’s proposal for three years free post-school training and a policy which brings big applause, the reinstatement of night schools.

“But those policies will not only help us with productivity but also with the future of work and the challenges around automation.

“We can’t predict what will happen, but if we create an environment  where we are continuing to educate and we think that will make a difference.”

Ardern’s Government has so far failed to produce any real results in improving productivity.

In 2021, the Productivity Commission, whose Commissioners had largely been replaced by Labour appointees, produced a depressing report on productivity.

“Although the specific circumstances have likely changed over time, poor productivity performance is a longstanding problem for New Zealand,” the report said.

“Yet it is apparent that no initiative or combination of initiatives has had the cut-through over recent decades to lift New Zealand’s productivity.

“New Zealand’s challenge now is to transition from working ever more hours and depleting capital stocks (especially natural capital) to lifting wellbeing by generating more value from productive inputs.”

Ardern herself often seemed disinterested in the economy; her speech last night didn’t mention the word, and what she did say about economic matters was largely confined to her comments on child poverty.

She was a different politician, a very female politician, someone who responded to an emotional crisis as acutely as her male counterparts might respond to bad economic indicators.

Ultimately what defined her was partly the Christchurch massacre but really her response to Covid.

Obviously, that wasn’t talked about in the 2017 interview.

But last night, she offered some revealing insights into her response.

“A few weeks ago to mark my departure, Dame Juliet (Gerrard, Chief Science Advisor) gave me a mug. It had on it a graph depicting excess lives lost, lives saved, across developed nations. New Zealand had fared the best,” Ardern said.

“If it wasn’t so unorthodox for a valedictory, I would probably hold it up for no other reason than I love a house prop and to remind everyone what it was all for.

“You saved people’s lives. Was it hard, absolutely, but we’ll never know who you kept on this earth to know how truly worth it it was.”

Her voice broke as she said this, a testament to how personal the whole two years had been.

Her compassion and calm rescued her in 2020 and gave her the landslide election victory that year.

What has been remarkable, though, has been how quickly that support slumped and the adulation directed at her which has given way to a surge in National Party support and a revival of the kind of bitter, sexist, sometimes violent vitriol that has been increasingly directed at her on social media and increasingly in public.

Much of it is inexplicable. Social media explains a lot.

But also it may be that Covid was like a giant corset, containing all the other issues that normally occupy a government. When Covid ended, all that stored-up angst and anger spilled out in a concentrated surge directed at Ardern.

And just maybe, the electorate sensed that Covid had changed her.

There was a curious statement, also yesterday, published on Newsroom from an interview with Chris Hipkins.

“It’s not a criticism of Jacinda, it’s just a criticism of anyone who has done the top job over a prolonged period of time – it becomes harder to admit your mistakes, whereas I’ve always tried in my time as a minister, and in the brief period I’ve been Prime Minister, to just be human,’ he said.

“And that means you don’t get everything perfect, and there’s no point being defensive about it – you just have to own it.”

Ardern’s departure from the Beehive suggests that, perhaps with some gentle persuasion from her colleagues, she now owns it.

In doing so, she has given her party a chance to hold on to power.

If that happens, her retirement may eventually be her greatest victory.