Selfies, goodbyes and star power as Jacinda Ardern spends her last day in the sun

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From the moment she arrives, Jacinda Ardern is surrounded by a throng of people: hundreds gather to ask for one last selfie, record a video message for friends and relatives, or just watch her pass by. A group of running children squeeze through the legs of passers-by, trying to get a better view.

He obliges again and again, smiling for cameras, asking people for names and occupations, telling jokes, signing a used blue and yellow basketball for a boy who pushes his way through the crowd.

Ardern, a politician who has always excelled at creating moments of humor and human connection, was heavily discussed in the North Island village of Rātana during her last official engagement as New Zealand’s prime minister.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is hugged during the Rātana celebrations on January 24, 2023 in Whanganui, New Zealand.

Ardern is hugged during the Rātana celebration. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

“It’s like ‘touch her coat, touch her coat like Jesus,'” the woman laughs to her friend.

“Where is she? Is she coming?” the girl asked, craning her neck to take a look.

“I just want to thank her,” says a woman outside the Rātana Temple to a nearby policeman. “For all.”

One man spends a minute vigorously and constantly shaking her hand.

Related: From stardust to an empty tank: one-of-a-kind leader Jacinda Ardern knew her time was up

“You’re going to have to let go at some point,” one viewer remarks, and the crowd laughs.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister Kiri Allen ascend the marae during the Rātana celebrations

Ardern and minister Kiri Allen ascend the marae during the Rātana celebrations. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

New Zealand – and the world – is still reckoning with Ardern’s shocking departure, the tumultuous choice of her successor, and the question of how to define her political legacy. However, during her last full day as the country’s leader, some of the more sensitive and controversial issues related to her political legacy and legislative achievements seemed to recede into the background.

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Rātana traditionally marks the beginning of New Zealand’s political year when party leaders arrive in the village to deliver their first major speeches after the summer break. This year was different, it also marked the end of an era.

The scenes were reminiscent of the electric fandom Ardern sparked when she first assumed leadership in 2017 – greeted by crowds of hopeful selfie-takers and fans. Five years of tough decisions and political struggles have washed away much of that glamor, especially in polls where voters have chastised the prime minister and her party for a year-long economic crisis.

But on Tuesday, the glow was back. A few yards away, incumbent Prime Minister Chris Hipkins stands in a circle of reporters, answering questions – most of the crowd is not looking his way.

Māori Party co-chairman Rawiri Waititi walks the marae during the Rātana celebrations on January 24, 2023 in Whanganui, New Zealand.

Māori Party co-chairman Rawiri Waititi ascends the marae during the Rātana celebrations. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

On Tuesday, there was no sign of the small, angry group of protesters who increasingly appeared 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 still set off an uncomfortable New Zealand reckoning with the extent and amount of misogynistic, violent rhetoric, abuse and leadership-led threats. Speaking briefly to reporters, she said her enduring experience at the job was positive.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to see my departure as a negative comment about New Zealand,” she said.

“I have experienced such love, compassion, empathy and kindness at work. This was my dominant experience. So I leave with gratitude for fulfilling this wonderful role for so many years… My only words are words of thanks.”

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While they waited for the prime minister, tribal elders and politicians sheltered in plastic tents from the blasts of the late summer sun. The grass along the roads leading to the marae (meeting place) has grown and dried, worn to fibers by the summer heat and signaling the end of the season. As her term comes to an end, the question of Ardern’s continued influence on the direction and tone of New Zealand politics remains open.

Even before she reached the borders of Rātana, the figure of Ardern towered above the political speeches of the day. The leader of the centre-right opposition, Christopher Luxon, did not explicitly mention the prime minister, but chose to speak about his vision of the “policy of kindness” that she initiated. economics,” he said – a choice of framework that only seemed to illustrate the extent to which Ardern had come to define the language and frame of reference for political conversation in New Zealand.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Labor Party leader and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins arrive during the Rātana celebrations

Ardern and future Labor Party leader and Prime Minister Chris Hipkins arrive for the Rātana celebrations. Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Most leaders paid tribute more openly. “You were the captain who ruled the waka [canoe] that have guided us through some really difficult times,” said Rahui Papa, leader of the Tainui and Maori kings movements.

“You were the right person to lead our nation through terrible times,” said Che Wilson, former Maori party chairman. “I wear my political allegiance here,” he said, pointing to the indigenous designs modeled after his outfit, “but Prime Minister, it’s right for us to say thank you,” he said as the crowd burst into applause.

Asked if she had a parting word for the public, the prime minister said she would not go away completely. “You will see me on the outside, but not in the center, in the center of politics,” she said. On whether she will miss it, Ardern replied simply: “I will miss people. Because that was the joy of the job.”

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The celebrations at Rātana are a fitting end to Ardern’s tenure. In 2018 – just two months after taking office as prime minister and a few days after announcing her pregnancy with her daughter Neve – she appeared in Rātana. That same year, Ratana’s elders suggested her a Māori middle name for her child: Waru, a sacred number for the church. In the years that followed, the gathering marked milestones and moments in Ardern’s tenure as leader – and watched her family grow up, with Neve occasionally appearing to weave through the crowd, pursued by bodyguards.

In a recent brief appearance to reporters, Ardern said she was spending more time in that role – as a mother and family member – which she was looking forward to.

“I’m ready for a lot of things,” she said. “I am ready to become a backroom MP. I’m ready to be a sister and a mother.” Then she turned, put on her sunglasses, and walked away from the last cluster of microphones she’d faced as Prime Minister.

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