The deep political significance of Jacinda Ardern’s choice of baby name

Posted by
Moya Crockett
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

The New Zealand Prime Minister has chosen a beautiful – and very meaningful – name for her first daughter. 

On Thursday (21 June), Jacinda Ardern became the second elected leader in history to give birth while in office. Announcing the arrival of her first child with partner Clarke Gayford, the prime minister of New Zealand said in a statement: “I’m sure we’re going through all of the emotions new parents go through, but at the same time feeling so grateful for all the kindness and best wishes from so many people.”

The world’s youngest female head of government, Ardern, 37, is also the youngest New Zealand PM in 150 years. As the leader of New Zealand’s Labour party, she’s a staunch progressive and feminist whose priorities include tackling climate change and homelessness, supporting refugees and reforming the country’s outdated abortion laws.

Ardern has also repeatedly asserted her commitment to ensuring the rights and honouring the culture and history of the Māori, the indigenous first people of New Zealand. So it makes perfect sense that she and her partner would pay tribute to Māori culture with their choice of baby name: Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford.

The name ‘Neve’ is an anglicised form of the Irish name Niamh. According to The Telegraph, Ardern said the name means “bright and radiant” and “snow”, and was chosen to reflect the fact that Neve was born in the middle of the New Zealand winter, during the traditional Māori New Year.

‘Te Aroha’, meanwhile, means “love” in te reo Māori, one of New Zealand’s official languages. Ardern said the name was a nod to the many Māori iwi (tribes) that had offered names as a gift while she was pregnant.

“Te Aroha was our way of reflecting on the amount of love this baby’s been shown before she even arrived, and all of the names we were gifted along the way,” said Ardern.

“I thought, how do I reflect the generosity – particularly from all of the iwi who gifted us names – and Te Aroha seemed to me to be a way we could show that love and generosity.”

By choosing a Māori name for their daughter, Ardern and Gayford are making a significant political statement. The Māori are a marginalised group in New Zealand, facing widespread racial discrimination and inequalities in education, employment and income. Teo reo Māori is also a language vulnerable to extinction, according to UNESCO, while Māori names rarely make the top 100 most popular baby names in New Zealand. As a result, it’s a big deal for the country’s most powerful politician to introduce a Māori name into her own family.

However, Ardern’s decision to honour New Zealand’s first people with her choice of baby name isn’t entirely unprecedented. In April, the prime minister made international headlines when she visited Buckingham Palace wearing a kahu huruhuru, a traditional Māori cloak.

Writing for at the time, New Zealand journalist Janina Matthewson described the cloak as “a way of demonstrating that Ardern represents a multi-ethnic country, that she is working for all New Zealanders… Seeing our Prime Minister reaffirm the fact that Māori culture is a crucial part of our national identity feels personal.” 

Jacinda Ardern wearing a traditional kahu huruhuru at Buckingham Palace 

In February, meanwhile, Ardern was widely praised for her compassionate and respectful approach when she travelled to New Zealand’s North Islands for Waitangi Day.

Waitangi Day is a commemoration of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, an 1840 agreement between the British crown and Māori chiefs. The day has long been the focus of demonstrations by Māori leaders and protesters, many of whom believe the treaty fraudulently robbed their ancestors of their land.

As a result, many of Ardern’s political predecessors declined to visit the Northern Islands for Waitangi Day – but she stayed there for five days, speaking with tribal leaders, community groups and schoolchildren.

Ardern was invited by Māori leaders to bury the placenta of her then-unborn baby on tribal grounds at Waitangi, and given a wahakura – a baby basket – by local weavers. With permission from the Ngāpuhi tribe, she went on to become the first female prime minister to speak on the marae (meeting ground), where she pledged that her government would take action to improve health, education, housing, roads and employment for Māori communities.

During that speech, Ardern spoke of her desire to show her daughter that she and her administration had lived up to their promises.

“Hold us to account. Because one day I want to be able to tell my child that I earned the right to stand here. And only you can tell me when I have done that,” she said.

Images: Getty Images