As It Happens·As It Happens Q&A

Jacinda Ardern's former chief of staff says she taught him 'a different kind of politics'

Before Neale Jones started working for Jacinda Ardern, he says he’d never met a politician who wasn’t willing to play dirty.

As New Zealand's PM gets ready to step down, her former staffer remarks on her 'particular charisma'

A woman with long brown hair sits in front of a microphone and smiles brightly.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation at the War Memorial Centre in Napier, N.Z., on Thursday. (Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Before Neale Jones started working for Jacinda Ardern, he says he'd never met a politician who wasn't willing to play dirty.

Ardern announced her resignation as New Zealand's prime minister on Thursday. Her final day in office will be Feb. 7.

"I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple," she told reporters during her emotional resignation speech.

"I hope … I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused. That you can be your own kind of leader – one that knows when it's time to go."

Jones is a former Labour Party adviser and was Ardern's chief of staff during her election campaign in 2017. He is now a political commentator and managing director of the public relations firm Capital. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

This was clearly an emotional decision, and a surprise to many. What was it like for you to hear [Ardern's resignation speech]?

I found it a bit of a shock, to be honest. I'd heard a few rumours that she might leave, but you sort of assume she would see it through to the 2023 election.

I take the prime minister at her word when she says she had nothing left in the tank, that she was just exhausted. And I think most people I talk to understand that.

They understand that she has taken New Zealand through a period of its history that has been probably more stressful and tumultuous than any prime minister has had to deal with since the Great Depression and the Second World War. And so I think people kind of understand it and wish her the best, mostly.

WATCH | Jacina Ardern's resignation speech: 

Jacinda Ardern resigns, saying 'I am human'

2 months ago
Duration 1:44
In an emotional speech, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Thursday she will not seek re-election, saying the job has had challenges, and that she no longer has 'enough in the tank to do it justice.'

From your conversations since that resignation announcement, what are New Zealanders making of what she said? Because it was a very different kind of statement than we often hear from politicians.

I think it's no secret that she's been working some very long hours. I mean, the COVID response in New Zealand, in particular, has taken a lot out of her. 

The other thing I think that people have sort of reflected on is she has been a victim of a fair amount of quite vile misogyny and abuse by some quarters. I find that, personally, quite disappointing as a New Zealander. I thought we'd moved beyond that. But I think sometimes the criticism of her went beyond the legitimate criticism that you expect of any prime minister and sort of became quite personalized and polarized.

We've had the same sort of COVID conspiracies and movement in New Zealand, as in other parts of the world. And some of that has taken on quite a threatening, violent character. And so she's had some real security threats which, you know, I don't think were a primary motivation, but would have weighed on her, I'm sure.

That's the first time I ever heard a politician say: I don't want to do cheap and negative attacks on my opponents. I want to talk about values.- Neale Jones, Jacdina Ardern's former chief of staff

There is a portion of the population in New Zealand that's angry about how she handled the pandemic. One voter told the Herald that she was "running away before getting thrown out" and blaming her for other things, including increased crime and the rising living costs in New Zealand.

She did say in that speech yesterday that she feels her party is very well-positioned to win. But I wonder if those things that I just listed, or that voter talked about to the Herald, might have been part of her decision — that she was concerned personally about her ability to get the party to the finish line?

Look, her popularity had declined from the heights of the peak of the pandemic in the 2020 election, where she gained an absolute majority in Parliament, which was unprecedented in New Zealand's proportional representation system. 

But the grumpy sort of anti-COVID measure vote is quite small. Most people still do think she did a good job in the pandemic.

And I think people who have appreciated her work in the pandemic, they've kind of banked that and moved on and are saying: "Well, what's next?" And that the big challenge that she's been facing has been cost of living.

Like most other countries in the world, New Zealand has high inflation. That's hurting people in the pocket, and that has taken a toll on her popularity and her government's popularity.

Latest polls before she resigned had Labour up to five points behind the opposition National Party. That's not an insurmountable amount to make up in an election year, but certainly I think Labour's election chances got harder with her leaving.

Two women in face masks hold hands and look each other in the eyes.
Ardern meeting with international students at Auckland University on Sept. 2, 2022, after the country opened its borders to all international students and visitors following years of COVID-19-related closures. (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

You ... worked very closely together, obviously, and I wondered: What did she teach you about leadership?

One of the things I learned from her was a different kind of politics. 

One of my first memories working with her as leader was we did that classic thing where I was the chief of staff and the research unit came to me and said: We found some embarrassing story about one of our opponents.

And I went and saw her and said: "I'm going to be going to release this out through the media." And she said, "No, please don't."

And I said, "Oh, don't worry. It won't be our party's name on it. We'll just give it to a journalist and it'll just go out anonymously." And she said, "No, I'm not going to do that kind of politics, Neale. I want a different kind of politics."

That's the first time I ever heard a politician say: I don't want to do cheap and negative attacks on my opponents. I want to talk about values.

Is there a wider space now for that kind of politician?

I'd like to think there is, but I just don't think our political and media environment is set up for that kind of politics. It takes, I think, a politician of particular charisma, like a Jacinda Ardern, who can really communicate over the top of the political day-to-day noise. And I'd like to think that that's a legacy she leaves, but I'm not sure it's going to be picked up in the future.

Two women in headscarves embrace in a crowd of people.
Ardern hugging a worshipper at the Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington, N.Z., on March 17, 2019, after the deadly Christchurch attack. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

How do you think the history books will reflect on her time in office?

I think she will be remembered in New Zealand as a consequential prime minister, and around the world as well.

[After] the Christchurch mosque attack, where a terrorist gunned down [51] Muslims at prayer, you know, her response in New Zealand of bringing the country together and making the Muslim community in New Zealand feel loved and protected and part of our community, and that it was an attack on all of us — I think that was a great piece of nation-building from her in a very difficult time.

And I think, obviously, the COVID pandemic, New Zealand's response, while there is some noise and controversy, as there is around the world, most New Zealanders realize that the prime minister probably saved 20,000 lives by shielding New Zealand through the worst part of the pandemic.

There are various other bits of domestic policy that I think she's made good progress on. But those two things for me — the Christchurch mosque attack and the pandemic — are her legacy.

Interview produced by Katie Geleff. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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