Jacinda Ardern rarely repeats her mistakes. When she rose to power in 2017 New Zealand’s newly elected prime minister became a subject of fascination for progressives around the world; they regarded her as a kind of avatar of anti-Trumpism; a symbol of resistance to rightwing populism. This fascination intensified when she announced her pregnancy in early 2018. It grew again in the wake of the 15 March terror attack in 2019. She was praised as a beacon of hope; her image projected on to the side of the Burj Khalifa. The flattering media profiles multiplied.
Initially, Ardern leaned into this. New Zealand is small and remote – publishers of international maps forget we’re down here. So we’re often flattered when distance looks our way. Someone noticed we exist! Ardern’s international coverage was picked up by local media, delivering coverage the prime minister’s competitors couldn’t possibly match. Her global news presence was a deliberate strategy and a powerful weapon.
Until it wasn’t. Many of those glowing features were written by reporters who’d never been to New Zealand. Their cultural and political knowledge of the country seemed limited to Lord of the Rings references and a singular admiration for Ardern. Some of them were hilariously terrible. And Ardern’s indulgence for international reporters hit a sour note with local journalists who were denied requests for sit-downs with her to discuss the housing crisis, or homelessness, or the nation’s relationship with China.
The last few weeks have seen controversies emerge around an Ardern biography and feature film. The outcry these projects provoked – and Ardern’s explicit rejection of them – demonstrate how the prime minister’s glowing international image complicates her challenges at home.
It isn’t the first time these tensions have surfaced. In 2019 Ardern appeared on the cover of an edition of British Vogue, and in the same week her government announced it was abandoning its high profile election promise to build 100,000 new homes. The juxtaposition gave Ardern’s opponents and critics license to contrast her soaring rhetoric and international celebrity with domestic policy failures. 2020 was an election year, and Ardern pivoted to focus on domestic media and her digital channels.
Then came the virus. Ardern eliminated both it and her opposition, winning re-election on a scale that was unprecedented in modern New Zealand politics. Since then there have been very few foreign media profiles. Her office advised me that they now turn down “the vast bulk” of overseas media requests. Not all of them: she does international interviews that promote the nation’s trade interests, or tourism, or other strategic goals; or advance her personal causes like promoting women in politics.
Ardern might be less interested in international media, but international media is still interested in her, and it’s becoming a distraction. This month saw the announcement of a film about her response to the Christchurch terror attack. She had won global praise for recasting the mass murderer as a nameless terrorist attacking multicultural liberal democracy, and centring the focus on the victims of the atrocity and their community. “They are us,” she said at the time. Now, that phrase has become the title of the movie, the future of which looks uncertain after extensive backlash and anger from the Muslim community. Arden distanced herself from the project. “While there are many stories that should be told at some point, I don’t consider mine to be one of them,” Ardern said.
Next came the book. Jacinda Ardern: Leading with Empathy was published last week. Promoted as a “major biography of one of the most important and inspirational leaders of the twenty-first century”, it was written by two overseas journalists who apparently obtained their exclusive interview with Ardern on the pretext that they were writing a larger work about women in leadership. Like many of her international admirers, the authors seemed to know less about the nation Ardern governs or its internal politics, more that they admired Jacinda; or, at least, the luminous construct of her that their book uncritically accepts and amplifies. Its blunders were eviscerated by local reviewers. Ardern, again, publicly rebuked the authors and distanced herself from the project.
New Zealand often functions as an empty signifier, a mysterious and remote utopia for the rest of the world to project its fantasies on to. Whenever there’s a distressing election result in a developed nation – a Trump or a Brexit, say – social media fills up with embittered vows to move to New Zealand. And we’ve become a popular destination for luxury doomsday bunkers constructed by tech industry oligarchs. What better place to retreat to when the real world comes to an end? Ardern has become tangled in these fantasies. Now the shining mythical Jacinda – beacon to the world – is tripping up the real prime minister as she struggles to address climate change, crumbling infrastructure, a broken health system and housing hyperinflation; complicating the pedestrian but demanding work of governing an imaginary country that actually exists.