Whether Jacinda Ardern was baking a cake, getting turned away from a full cafe or taking her baby to work, her every move as New Zealand’s prime minister seemed to prompt breathless global coverage. “Jacinda rules,” declared a headline on the front of the New York Times opinion section. Stephen Colbert visited her at home. Meghan and Harry clamoured to work with her.
But since Ardern quit in January – citing burnout after more than five turbulent years as leader – the international attention that often sought to make New Zealand a model for western liberal democracy has started to wane. What remains as the circus leaves town is perhaps a more realistic picture of a small country facing the same problems that have long confronted it – but without a need to explain them in terms the rest of the world can understand.
The return to a normal level of attention for New Zealand is perhaps best typified by the fact the country’s two major political parties – which have traditionally not been poles apart ideologically – are now led by men named Chris. Last week the Labour prime minister, Chris Hipkins, and the opposition leader, the National party’s Christopher Luxon, traded digs as New Zealand lawmakers used to – without provoking viral videos abroad, as Ardern’s responses to criticism often did.
“We’ve reverted to domestic squabbling rather than fighting in the public square,” says David Cormack, the co-owner of a public relations firm and former staffer for the left-leaning Green party. “But the idea of being a global superstar nation I don’t think ever really sat comfortably on our shoulders.”
New Zealand’s leaders have held outsized influence on the world stage before, and part of the job entails canny personal marketing of the country abroad – not only on the basis of its picturesque vistas but also a representation of New Zealanders as laid-back, friendly progressives (no matter their political leanings). Ardern was not the first New Zealand leader to promise on US television that she would pick up her interviewer from the airport if he visited the country.
But she was the only one photographed by Vogue and boasting 1.7 million followers on Instagram. Hipkins has 21,000 followers; Luxon has 20,000.
“She was, I would almost say, a celebrity politician,” says Claire Trevett, a press gallery veteran and political editor for the New Zealand Herald who travelled with Ardern in New Zealand and abroad. Even at home – even when her popularity slumped in the polls – Ardern was mobbed for selfies wherever she went. Neither Chris inspires the same fervour.
“There was just kind of a fascination with her, and there isn’t the same fascination with Chris Hipkins, who isn’t as well-known overseas, or Christopher Luxon,” Trevett says. “It’s just back to normal old boring politicians in that regard.”
Ardern’s profile was bolstered because she faced more disasters during her tenure – a terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption and a pandemic – than any New Zealand leader of modern times. She made history, too, when she gave birth to a child while in office.
But the phenomenon known as Jacindamania had struck earlier, seemingly overnight, when she ascended to the Labour leadership in 2017 as the party floundered in opposition. It was the year after the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election, and shortly before the explosion of the #MeToo movement – so when Ardern faced sexist questions in some of her first interviews as leader and responded with calm wit, an overseas audience hungry for a new model of politician seized upon her.
The attention was sometimes a double-edged sword.
“Since she took over, and particularly after the Christchurch terrorist attack, New Zealand became an aspiration rather than a real place and so the rest of the world would look at us as this perfect little progressive paradise,” Cormack says. “We aren’t there by a long shot but people don’t want to hear that.”
When Ardern’s branding as a progressive hope abroad coincided with evidence to the contrary at home – amid crises of housing, the cost of living, child poverty and family violence, which have plagued successive governments – she was decried by her detractors for not living up to ideals she sometimes hadn’t claimed to begin with.
“People who have a particular value set projected their belief on to Jacinda Ardern because they wanted it to be shared by this mythical prime minister,” Cormack says.
That is not so likely to be a problem for New Zealand’s current crop of political leaders.
Ben Thomas, a political consultant and former National party staffer, was approached for comment by most of the world’s major news outlets during Ardern’s time in office, but says the articles were usually concerned with the leader herself rather than any specific details of New Zealand’s politics or electoral system. He doesn’t expect this year’s election to prompt the same interest.
Aside from Hipkins’ ascent to prime minister when Ardern departed, Thomas says he had received a single request for comment about the new leader – from a US reporter who wanted to know whether Hipkins’ well-documented love of sausage rolls (laid on for him by both King Charles and Rishi Sunak on a UK visit) would bother the New Zealand public.
“I was like, ‘I have bad news for you about the New Zealand public,’” Thomas says. New Zealanders like sausage rolls. They trust people who like sausage rolls.
“For five years we had this funny, beautiful, self-deprecating PM who looks like an actual princess when she goes to meet the Queen,” Thomas says. “And now we’ve got the sausage roll guy.”
Hipkins has embraced that persona.
The men leading the two major parties this year have tried to make much of what they claim as contrasting backgrounds: Hipkins, 44, entered student politics at university as Ardern did, and became a lawmaker in 2008. The Labour leader was formerly a minister of health and education during the pandemic and also held the Covid-19 response portfolio.
Luxon, 52, is a relative newcomer to parliament, becoming a lawmaker in 2020 after seven years as chief executive of the national carrier, Air New Zealand, and nearly two decades at Unilever. The National leader frequently points to his business experience as his credentials for becoming prime minister, while Hipkins presents himself as an everyman – and Luxon as out of touch.
Trevett says: “I think Hipkins has almost deliberately and also because it is his natural style set out to be more plainly spoken and just kind of say things as they are and in normal people language, rather than the highfalutin rhetoric which served Ardern, and actually served the country well during those times of great trial, but had started to wear thin.”
She expects that whoever holds the top job after October’s election will embrace the New Zealand leader’s traditional role as global cheerleader for the country’s trade and economy – which, before Ardern, was the way the prime minister of a small nation with little real power could best wield influence.
The departure of a celebrity leader was “a massive loss” to the country’s brand abroad, Thomas says. But it sets the stage for a more realistic view of New Zealand, he adds – including for New Zealanders, who always liked to claim that their country was something of a moral leader globally.
“I think with Ardern we actually got a taste of what it’s like to be a recognised player in international politics,” he says. “And that was so different that it probably puts our normal existence back into perspective.”