WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — In her final speech to New Zealand’s Parliament on Wednesday, Jacinda Ardern described in emotional terms how she’d navigated a pandemic and a mass-shooting during her tumultuous five-year tenure as prime minister.
She also told humorous anecdotes like how a European leader so admired the striking hair of Ardern’s chief-of-staff that he fluffed it like a hairdresser — which she joked had helped secure a free-trade deal — and how her mother once sent her a uplifting, if somewhat grandiose, message: “Remember, even Jesus had people who didn’t like him.”
On a more serious note, she urged lawmakers to take the politics out of climate change.
“There will always be policy differences,” Ardern said during her valedictory address, wearing a traditional Māori cloak called a korowai. “But beneath that, we have what we need to make the progress we must.”
When Ardern finished speaking after about 35 minutes, she she was greeted with a standing ovation by lawmakers from across the political spectrum and rousing renditions of several Indigenous Māori songs.
A global icon of the left and an inspiration to women around the world, Ardern in January stepped down as prime minister, saying, “I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.” But she stayed on as a lawmaker until April to avoid triggering a special election ahead of the nation’s general elections in October.
Later this month, Ardern will begin a new, unpaid role combating online extremism as Special Envoy for the Christchurch Call. It’s an initiative she started with French President Emmanuel Macron in May 2019, two months after a white supremacist gunman killed 51 people at two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch.
She has also announced she’s joining the board of trustees for The Earthshot Prize, an environmental charity started by Britain’s Prince William.
Ardern said she entered politics based on her convictions but got used to her tenure being defined by a different list.
“A domestic terror attack. A volcanic eruption. A pandemic. A series of events where I found myself in people’s lives during their most grief-stricken or traumatic moments,” she said. “Their stories and faces remain etched in my mind, and likely will forever.”
She also described how she and fiancé Clarke Gayford thought they couldn’t have children after a failed round of IVF.
“Rather than process that, I campaigned to become prime minister,” she joked. “A rather good distraction as far as they go. Imagine my surprise when a couple of months later, I discovered I was pregnant.”
Ardern became just the second elected world leader to give birth while holding office after she and Gayford had daughter Neve in 2018.
Ardern described how she’d approached the COVID-19 pandemic on a scientific basis and how New Zealand had fared best among developed nations when measuring excess mortality.
She said she once tried to argue with a lone protester about a false conspiracy theory.
“But after many of these same experiences, and seeing the rage that often sat behind these conspiracies, I had to accept I was wrong,” she said. “I could not single-handedly pull someone out of a rabbit hole.”
Ardern said she worried that during the pandemic, the nation had lost a sense of security, and the ability to engage in robust debate in a respectful way.
She also described how she never thought she was meant to have the role of prime minister, and how it came about through a surprising chain of events.
While she couldn’t control how her tenure would be defined by others, Ardern said, she hoped it had demonstrated something else.
“That you can be anxious, sensitive, kind and wear your heart on your sleeve,” she said. “You can be a mother, or not, you can be an ex-Mormon, or not, you can be a nerd, a crier, a hugger, you can be all of these things, and not only can you be here, you can lead, just like me.”