The end of the politics of care

Perhaps, rather than asking what made Jacinda Ardern decide to resign from her job as prime minister, it might be more useful to ask what might have made her choose to keep going.

Always something of a reluctant prime minister, Ardern had been thrust in the role of leader of the opposition weeks out from a general election that Labour seemed destined not just to lose, but lose in historical fashion. For nearly a full decade, ever since Helen Clark, the party had blundered through a succession of leaders unable to articulate a cohesive political project, or speak to it with any credibility. Right from the start of her tenure, those missing qualities turned out to be Ardern’s key asset:  an unusual clarity and knack for coming across as authentic.

When Ardern defended the very moderate policies she had helped develop under her immediate predecessor, Andrew Little, you felt that they matched her values, that she believed in them. And afterwards, during her five and a half years in office, her rhetoric always seemed to accord with her public persona. Using a worn-out phrase, we might say she never appeared to have to second-guess herself, but that would do a disservice to her exceptional skills as an affective communicator.

Those skills were to be tested, first in the aftermath of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, then during the gradual and still unfolding course of the Covid-19 pandemic. In both of those circumstances, Ardern’s ability to display genuine compassion and then act upon it will no doubt stand as her paramount legacy, as well as a marker against which to measure future leaders.

In the case of the Mosque attacks, the way Ardern conducted herself in the days and weeks that followed made her stand out in the global progressive imaginary against the likes of Trump, Orban or Bolsonaro as the symbol of a different and, if not antithetical, at least more inclusive politics. This sentiment found its concrete expression in a ban on assault weapons, a limited proposal to strengthen legislation against hate speech, and the Christchurch Call, an international initiative aimed at curbing the circulation of supremacist material on mainstream social networks. I don’t mention these actions, nor is it my place, to excuse the institutional absences and failures that made the atrocity possible, and in which the New Zealand state remains deeply implicated. Ardern’s own politics and role will always have to be evaluated within the fullness of its historical context. But in that moment, her conduct mattered, and articulated some of our collective grief.

If we were to make a case for a ‘politics of care’ as a distinctive element of Jacinda Ardern’s time as prime minister, however, it would have to be in relation to Covid-19.

When the pandemic broke, New Zealand found itself in equal parts blessed by its geographical isolation and staggeringly unprepared due to decades of underinvestment in public health, making the decision to keep the virus out of the country at all costs devoid of meaningful alternatives. On paper, the government’s response might be seen as robust but conservative, tracking the Morrison government’s down to the creation of a separate class of unemployed people, those who lost their job as a result of Covid. Yet the clarity with which Ardern communicated the need for the swift implementation of shelter-in-place measures ensured extraordinary levels of public support, and extended their social license well beyond other Western countries—as well as, at home, long past the point when the entire conservative opposition and large chunks of the media had started lobbying against it in an increasing frenzy on behalf of intersecting business interests.

Even as it appealed to our sense of obligation to care for one another, Ardern’s was, let’s be clear, a pandemic response from above: it did not empower communities, but fully mobilised the machinery of the state—including the police—for its implementation. Yet it ultimately relied on the consent that Ardern and her officials built and maintained, with a degree of transparency we were not accustomed to.

The daily spectacle of televised briefings was not unique to New Zealand, and it may simply be the case that Ardern thrived when given the opportunity to speak to the public directly—in other words, that she was better than others at it. Alternatively, we could say that her rhetoric found in the pandemic the ground on which to turn into concrete action. Either way, the benefits we derived in terms of lives saved from the remarkable extension of that social license are literally incalculable.

That consensus also accounts for the fact that the 2020 general election was barely contested, returning Labour to the government benches with an outright majority that is almost unthinkable in a proportional electoral system. At the time, I described that victory as strangely hollow: Labour had annihilated its opposition, but it was left with no clear political programme. What seems clearer now is that those months of work and weeks on end of daily public briefings had taken a toll on Ardern that was commensurate with the magnitude of the crisis.


In the early days of the pandemic, speaking from one of its epicentres, a childhood friend in Italy expressed scepticism at the popular, wishful notion that our societies would find inspiration from the current crisis and become more caring. On the contrary, he wrote on his Facebook page, ‘we’ll come out of this morally exhausted’ as well as physically and economically weakened.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Ardern’s political fortunes started to turn, but it was some time after the first signs of that moral exhaustion had set in. Almost exactly a year ago, as many as a thousand protesters began a weeks’ long occupation of the grounds of parliament, working off a familiar global template. Coverage of the event allowed the imagery and vocabulary of the personal and highly gendered vilification of Ardern to seep from online forums and fringe groups into the mainstream.

Ardern was not the first nor is the only habitual target of such attacks. We are seeing them, compounded by racism, against Local Government and Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta, not only among far-right groups but in mainstream commentary that paints her as a darkly powerful force. The attacks on Mahuta, in turn, mirror the increasingly frequent attacks on wahine Māori in public life. But we should not mistake what is common for what is normal. Ardern says the stream of violent misogyny didn’t play a role in her decision to leave the job, and deserves to be taken at her word. However, we may want to reflect on the cumulative effect it might have had on a person citing the demands of her job as a reason for quitting, or on the dangers of normalising the notion that ‘the job’ should entail such demands.


It may be difficult to pinpoint when Ardern’s political fortunes started to turn, but it’s impossible to deny that they did. Perhaps she had simply become too closely associated with the pandemic, type-cast in the role of managing a crisis the country was anxious to leave behind. The borders were reopened. One by one, all restrictions were lifted—most of them reasonably, some not. Covid cases and casualties finally started to pile up, as we all knew they eventually would but, incongruously, just as the pandemic was said to be winding down. Against the backdrop of a cost-of-living crisis, and as we stared at the prospect of an engineered recession, our collective return to normal has been anything but smooth.


Jacinda Ardern was never a political radical, yet as she left office her incrementalism received praise among trade unionists, poverty campaigners and (cautiously) Māori. The introduction of sector Fair Pay Agreements, successive increases in the minimum wage and the extension of paid parental leave may be remembered as her main policy achievements, while the failure to raise benefits to the levels preceding their decimation in the 1991 Tory budget—the chief recommendation of an expert working group on welfare set up by her own government—is likely to be remembered as the biggest squandered opportunity. These don’t come around too often.

In the meantime, as Labour’s new leadership team ominously sets out to ‘rein in projects that aren’t essential right now’, we may wonder what would make anyone want to preside over a politics-as-usual that seems as incommensurate as ever to the problems facing our country and the world, and whose price of participation is so high.

Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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  1. Really good article – and sadly very prescient.
    Assuming there ever was a shared Aotearoa moral compass, now, three months after publishing this, Ardern has gone to much greener pastures, we have drifted more off any caring course and are now even more ‘morally exhausted’ – perhaps a nicer way of saying we couldn’t give a stuff about the fabric of our society.
    Caring without fairness has never been enough and Labour, aside from a few carrots like extending scant masking requirements, is once again even less prepared or willing to invest in an infrastructure and tax structure to enable a fair society – or to risk an election on policies the majority of the electorate seem to have no taste for.

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