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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Tess McClure in Rātana

Selfies, sendoffs and star power as Jacinda Ardern has her last day in the sun

 New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looks on during Rātana Celebrations on January 24, 2023 in Whanganui, New Zealand. The 2023 Rātana Celebrations mark the last day as Prime Minister for Jacinda Ardern following her resignation on January 19.
New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern looks on during Rātana celebrations on 24 January 2023 in Whanganui, New Zealand. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

From the moment of her arrival, Jacinda Ardern is surrounded by a crush of people: hundreds gather to ask for final selfies, record video messages for friends and relatives, or simply watch her pass by. A group of running children weaves through bystanders’ legs, pushing for a better view.

Over and over, she obliges, smiling for cameraphones, asking people’s names and jobs, cracking jokes, signing a worn blue and yellow basketball for a boy who pushes through the crowd.

A politician who always excelled at creating moments of humour and human connection, Ardern’s much-discussed star power was firmly on display in the North Island village of Rātana on Tuesday for her last formal engagement as the prime minister of New Zealand.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern receives a hug during Rātana Celebrations on 24 January 2023 in Whanganui, New Zealand.
Ardern receives a hug during Rātana celebrations. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

“It’s like, ‘touch her cloak, touch her cloak like Jesus’,” a woman laughs to her friend.

“Where is she? Is she coming?” a girl asked, craning for a glimpse.

“I just want to tell her thank you,” a woman outside the Rātana temple tells a policeman standing nearby. “For everything.”

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

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

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister Kiri Allen walk onto the marae during Rātana Celebrations
Ardern and minister Kiri Allen walk onto the marae during Rātana celebrations. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

New Zealand – and the world – is still reckoning with Ardern’s shock departure, the whirlwind selection of her replacement, and the question of how to define her political legacy. On her final full day as the country’s leader, however, some of the thornier and more controversial questions of her political legacy and legislative record seemed to fade into the background.


Rātana traditionally marks the beginning of New Zealand’s political year, with party leaders descending on the village to give their first major speeches after the summer break. This year was different, it also marked the ending of an era.

The scenes recalled some of the electric fandom Ardern provoked when she first took the leadership in 2017 – greeted by scrums of hopeful selfie-takers and fans. Five years of difficult decisions and political struggles had worn much of that glitter away, particularly in the polls, where voters had punished the prime minister and her party for a year of economic headwinds.

But on Tuesday, the shine was back on. A few metres away, the incoming prime minister Chris Hipkins stands in a circle of reporters, answering questions – for the most part, the crowd doesn’t look his way.

Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi enters the marae during Rātana Celebrations on January 24, 2023 in Whanganui, New Zealand.
Maori Party co-leader Rawiri Waititi enters the marae during Rātana celebrations. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

There was no sign on Tuesday of the small, furious knot of protesters who had become an increasingly recurrent presence at Ardern’s public appearances – sometimes bearing signs and anti-vaccine slogans, other times chasing her van and screaming obscenities.

Ardern has said threats and abuse were not contributing factors to her resignation, but her departure has still prompted the start of an uncomfortable reckoning in New Zealand with the scope and volume of misogynistic, violent rhetoric, abuse and threats channelled the leader’s way. Speaking briefly to reporters, she said that her enduring experience of the job had been positive.

“I would hate for anyone to view my departure as a negative commentary on New Zealand,” she said.

“I have experienced such love, compassion, empathy and kindness in the job. That has been my predominant experience. So I leave feeling gratitude for having this wonderful role for so many years … My only words are words of thanks.”


As they waited for the prime minister, tribal elders and politicians sheltered in plastic marquees from the blast of late-summer sun. The grass lining the roads to the marae (meeting place) has grown long and parched, worn down to fibre by the summer heat and signalling a season winding down. As her tenure ends, the question of Ardern’s ongoing influence on the direction and tone of New Zealand politics remains open.

Even before she arrived at Rātana’s borders, the figure of Ardern loomed large over the political speeches of the day. Centre-right opposition leader Christopher Luxon made no explicit mention of the prime minister, but chose to speak about his vision of the “kindness politics” that she ushered in. We will “demonstrate kindness, demonstrate that we care, through careful stewardship of the economy”, he said – a choice of framing that seemed only to illustrate the degree to which Ardern had come to determine the language and frames of reference of New Zealand’s political conversation.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Incoming Labour leader and Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins, arrive during Rātana Celebrations
Ardern and incoming Labour leader and prime minister, Chris Hipkins, arrive at Rātana celebrations. Photograph: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Most of the leaders paid their tributes more overtly. “You were the captain calling the shots on the waka [canoe] that navigated us through truly tough times,” said Rahui Papa, a leader within the Tainui and Māori king movements.

“You were the right person to lead our nation through terrible times,” said Che Wilson, previous president of the Māori party. “I wear my political allegiances here,” he said, pointing to the Indigenous designs patterning his attire, “but prime minister, it is only right that we say thank you,” he said, as the crowd erupted into applause.

Asked if she had a parting word for the public, the prime minister said she would not be disappearing entirely. “You will see me out and about, but you won’t see me in the centre, in the cut and thrust of politics,” she said. On whether she would miss that, Ardern replied simply: “I’m going to miss people. Because that’s been the joy of the job.”


The celebrations at Rātana are an appropriate final bookend for Ardern’s term. In 2018 – just two months into her prime ministership and a few days after her pregnancy with daughter Neve was announced – she appeared at Rātana. That year, Rātana elders offered her a Māori middle name for her child: Waru, a sacred number for the church. Over the years that followed, the gathering has marked milestones and moments of Ardern’s tenure as a leader – and watched her family grow up, with Neve occasionally making appearances to toddle through the crowds, chased by security guards.

In a final, brief standup for reporters, Ardern said it was spending more time in that role – as mother and family member – that she was looking forward to.

“I’m ready to be lots of things,” she said. “I’m ready to be a backbench MP. I’m ready to be a sister, and a mum.” Then she turned, replaced her sunglasses, and walked away from the last cluster of microphones she would face as prime minister.

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