‘Virulent Hatred’: Global Far-Right Celebrates Jacinda Ardern’s Resignation

The New Zealand prime minister was a prominent hate figure for international far-right and conspiracy theorist networks, whose vilification of her may have played a role in her resignation, experts tell VICE World News.
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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces her resignation. Photo: Kerry Marshall/Getty Images

Far-right networks around the world reacted jubilantly to Jacinda Ardern’s shock resignation as New Zealand’s prime minister Thursday, in the continuation of a global hate campaign that experts say likely played a role in her departure.

Ardern, who gained an unprecedented global profile for a New Zealand politician since becoming the country’s youngest-ever prime minister at the age of 37 in 2017, held back tears as she announced she was standing down next month as she no longer felt able to meet the demands of the job.

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“I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice,” she said.

"I know there will be much discussion in the aftermath of this decision as to what the so-called 'real' reason was ... The only interesting angle you will find is that after going on six years of some big challenges, that I am human," she said. "Politicians are human. We give all that we can, for as long as we can, and then it's time. And for me, it’s time."

While Ardern made no explicit reference to it in her announcement, others were quick to blame the intense and well-documented vilification and personal abuse she has faced in recent years, from overlapping far-right and conspiracist movements at home and abroad.  Debbie Ngarewa-Packer, co-leader of Te Pāti Māori (The Māori Party), said Ardern had “been driven from office [by] constant personalisation and vilification” that was unprecedented in New Zealand politics.

“Her whānau [family] have withstood the ugliest attacks over the last two years with what we believe to be the most demeaning form of politics we have ever seen.”

The leadership Ardern showed during the two defining events of her prime ministership – the 2019 white supremacist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, and her hardline response to coronavirus – gained her a platform on the global stage, where she won a reputation as a young figurehead of progressive, principled and compassionate politics in the era of Donald Trump. 

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But experts spoken to by VICE World News said that her responses to these events and the global platform they gave her – shot through with a large dose of misogyny and sexism – helped make her a lightning rod for hate from far-right and conspiracy theorist networks globally, spawning a wave of unhinged narratives about the New Zealand politician that in turn fuelled a wave of hate-filled rhetoric and threats from the extremist margins at home. 

That volatile domestic climate, previously unheard of in New Zealand politics, saw threats to Ardern triple from 2019 to 2021, with much of the animosity coming from anti-vax, conspiracist and far-right forces, such as those who occupied New Zealand parliament grounds in 2022.

Henry Cooke reported on New Zealand politics for Stuff, a leading local news site, from 2017, the year Ardern became prime minister, until last year. He watched the animosity and unhinged rhetoric around the young leader surge with her rising global profile, which eventually came to incorporate unhinged conspiracy theories.

“I'm sure that this barrage of abuse contributed to her decision to go,” he told VICE World News. 

He said that the animosity towards Ardern – who initially attracted global attention for her announcement that she was pregnant, a groundbreaking revelation for a female leader, let alone an unmarried one – clearly had misogynistic underpinnings.

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“Jacinda Ardern has undoubtedly faced a level of virulent hatred that a man in her place wouldn't,” said Cooke.

But he said the hate campaign against Ardern really took flight in response to “a simple act of empathy, wearing a hijab when visiting the families of the victims” of the 2019 terror attack that initially fired up her right-wing critics in New Zealand and overseas.

“As a reporter at the time, I got dozens of emails about ‘that woman’ being some kind of race traitor, seeking to undermine New Zealand's supposed Christian heritage,” he said.

The tone for the far-right response to Ardern’s resignation was set by Fox’s Tucker Carlson, who delivered a crowing take on the New Zealand leader’s imminent departure in a clip that was widely circulated among right-wing and conspiracist networks Thursday.

Introducing her announcement as “some rare good news,” he labelled Ardern “the lady with the big teeth who tormented her citizens,” “an appalling abuser of human rights,” and the “most authoritarian leader that country has ever had.”

“What are the chances she was a puppet of the Chinese government?” he said. “We don’t have enough evidence to prove that, but we would rate that as about 100 percent likely.”

Byron C. Clark, a New Zealand-based author and independent researcher on far-right and conspiracist networks, said the mood across New Zealand-centric far-right spaces he monitored was jubilant at Ardern’s resignation, with many posters apparently taking credit for having driven her out of her post. Carlson’s clip was being widely shared, he said, in an illustration of how the hostile characterisations of Ardern by international actors resonated domestically.

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He said that far-right and conspiracist groups in New Zealand worked “hard to influence the wider public” with their beliefs towards Ardern and her government, including coordinated mass commenting on news articles to create the impression their attitudes are actually mainstream. This had resulted in these attitudes leaching out into the mainstream and fuelling a more radicalised domestic political climate.

“I think that is having an impact, though it's hard to say how significant that impact is,” he said.

Joe Ondrak, head of investigation for Logically, an organisation that combats online misinformation, said Ardern had become a major hate figure for the global COVID conspiracy theorist networks that had galvanised during the pandemic. 

This had its roots in New Zealand’s successful elimination response at the outbreak of the pandemic, which allowed life in the island nation to continue as normal via extremely strict border controls while much of the world was in lockdown. Ardern was also a vocal proponent of the COVID vaccine, with her government, for a period, requiring mandatory vaccinations for teachers, police officers and members of the military, to the outrage of anti-vaxxers.

Ondrak said conspiracists had also latched on to Ardern’s affiliations to the Forum of Young Global Leaders, a World Economic Forum (WEF) initiative, to fuel a meta-conspiracy theory that she was an agent at the forefront of a push by sinister elites to install puppet leaders as the leaders of national governments, known as “The Great Reset.” This further positioned Ardern as a major hate figure for the anti-vax conspiracist scene.

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Cooke, who was New Zealand media outlet Stuff’s chief political reporter from 2020 until 2022 – the year of the occupation of Wellington’s parliament grounds by COVID conspiracists – said he saw similar narratives filtering through into New Zealand’s increasingly radicalised domestic political climate.

“The pandemic intensified everything,” he said. “It would be wrong to paint everyone who had an issue with the vaccine mandates as a crazed conspiracist. At the same time, almost everyone I talked to who was fiercely against the mandates seemed to believe they were only happening because Big Pharma was paying the government off.”

“Both in NZ and abroad, Ardern solidified her place as a major character in an emerging fantasy – that somehow the WEF were controlling all the world's governments,” Cooke said. “People [from outside New Zealand] who had never in the past had any reason to think about a New Zealand prime minister became very invested in this.”

He said that the barrage of abuse directed at Ardern extended to similarly unfounded conspiracy theories around her partner, Clarke Gayford, a high-profile TV presenter in New Zealand.

“At the Parliament occupation, I met several grown men who would talk reasonably to me about day to day life before proclaiming with complete confidence that he had been arrested, or would be on a very specific day,” he said, referring to false but prevalent rumours that he had somehow been involved in criminal activity. “Despite the fact these predictions were generally falsifiable and were in every case proven false, these rumours never stopped.”

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But Cooke said that while the torrent of abuse and misinformation directed at Ardern and her family would have played a part in her decision to leave, it would not have been the deciding factor for the resilient and adaptable young leader who had unexpectedly cemented her place in the history books.

“I wouldn't underestimate her ability to look at some of this stuff and laugh,” he said.

“There are plenty of other contributing factors to her decision to leave – not least that she looked likely to lose this year’s election.” Recent polling has consistently put the centre-right National Party ahead of Ardern’s centre-left Labour Party ahead of elections scheduled to take place in October.

Clark, the author of a soon-to-be-released book on extremism in New Zealand, said that despite the eagerness of far-right and conspiracist groups to claim responsibility for driving Ardern out of office, it remained unclear how much of a part they’d played.

But, justified or not, their belief in their power to do so was concerning in itself.

“If they believe they can oust a prime minister through abusive behaviour, anyone running for office on a progressive platform, in particular if they're a woman … is likely to be targeted,” he said.