The Roots of Jacinda Ardern’s Extraordinary Leadership of New Zealand After the Christchurch Terrorist Attack
In October of 2017, when Jacinda Ardern became the Prime Minister of New Zealand—a country with a population of fewer than five million—she assumed leadership of a place not accustomed to making global headlines. It made few headlines, at least, apart from those about Ardern’s appointment itself, which was a major news item across the world. The wave of Jacindamania had a way of flattening the Prime Minister’s story. Ardern’s center-left party, Labour, did not win the election outright but, instead, struck an unlikely partnership with N.Z. First, a party that, as its name suggests, has made occasional swerves into nationalism. Ardern was not, as was often assumed, the youngest ever Prime Minister of New Zealand, though, at thirty-seven, she was the youngest in a hundred and fifty years. Nor was she the first woman; New Zealand, which, in 1893, was the first country to grant women the right to vote in parliamentary elections, had already seen two female Prime Ministers. Internationally, though, these nuances didn’t matter so much. Ardern’s rapid ascent was a welcome contrast to the painful evidence emerging from the #MeToo movement of men’s abuse of power. When she gave birth, in June of last year, Ardern was again the subject of adulatory global attention.
New Zealanders were proud of their Prime Minister, but they expected Ardern to get on with things in the Kiwi way, with a minimum of fanfare. (Reflecting the national M.O., her no-frills campaign slogan was “Let’s Do This.”) When I visited Ardern at her Auckland home, in late 2017, for a profile in Vogue, I was struck by the resolute ordinariness of her existence. She and her partner, Clarke Gayford, a celebrity TV fisherman (a species native to New Zealand), lived in the same three-bedroom suburban house they had shared before Ardern became Prime Minister. They had just renovated, painting the walls themselves. I asked what her recently assigned security detail thought of the house. “They were pretty happy we had a fence,” she said. Back then, neither she nor her constituency could ever have imagined that they would face horror like what happened last week, an event that one local political commentator described to me as “New Zealand’s own 9/11”: fifty people killed at two mosques in the small city of Christchurch, shot dead by a terrorist, as they prayed.
Much of the coverage of Ardern’s extraordinary response to the Christchurch killings has praised her compassion, and it’s true that she has displayed an uncommon ability to speak on behalf of a grieving nation. A few hours after the attack, she addressed the terrorist directly with words that exuded both eloquence and strength. (“You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.”) The next day, wearing a black head scarf, she met with Muslim leaders and asked them what they would like her to do: “Our time is for you to determine.” She also hasn’t shied away from naming racism and, in particular, Islamophobia as a root cause. When, on Tuesday of this week, she addressed Parliament for the first time since the attack, she opened with the Arabic greeting of “As salaam alaikum.” When Donald Trump made a condolence call and asked what support the U.S. could offer, she told him, “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.”
After a few days, though, Ardern made clear that she was interested in more than a gesture of tolerance. On Wednesday, she made an explicit connection between Facebook, where the shooter uploaded footage of his attack in real time, and the rise of extremism. “There are some things we need to confront collectively as leaders internationally,” she said. “We cannot, for instance, allow some of the challenges we face with social media to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.” The tech platforms, Ardern said, needed to take responsibility for spreading hate; she had just spoken to British Prime Minister Theresa May about it. Then, on Thursday, Ardern did something that Americans, in particular, might find unthinkable: with the agreement of the conservative opposition party, she enacted immediate and sweeping changes to the country’s gun laws, banning all assault rifles and military-style semi-automatics—a major achievement in a country with a sizable rural population. (Although there are multiple steps currently involved in buying most guns in New Zealand, registration for owners is haphazard; authorities still don’t know where the Christchurch shooter acquired one of his weapons.)
Ardern’s extraordinary display of empathy in the wake of Christchurch has been linked to the fact that she’s a woman. (“Jacinda Ardern just proved typically ‘feminine’ behavior is powerful,” one publication declared.) It could equally be a result of her upbringing, by a police officer and a school cafeteria worker who instilled in her and her sister a strong sense of service. In either case, she possesses something else, which is an unwavering interest in enacting change. From the beginning of her time in office, she has emphasized an outward-looking vision of New Zealand. In our interview, she said that she wanted the country to act as a moral leader in confronting the most vexing global problems of our time. On climate change, for instance, she acknowledged, “We’re small, and our contribution to the global emissions profile is even smaller, but we are surrounded by island nations who will feel the brunt of climate change acutely. I see ourselves as having a responsibility to demonstrate that we can and we will lead the charge.” That focus on results has always been there—as she told me, “I’ve been ambitious to change the world but never ambitious for a title to do it”—even if it is not generally described as distinctly female the way that compassion is.
One way in which Ardern is inarguably modelling a new type of gendered leadership is in her dual roles as a mother and a world leader. Last year, she became the first head of a government to give birth in office since Benazir Bhutto. In capitalist societies, it’s convenient to think that the hardest work of parenting ends when a woman returns from her maternity leave. (That’s if she gets any leave at all.) But I’ve thought often in recent days about the fact that Ardern has a nine-month-old baby at home. In light of this, her focussed, relentless performance this past week becomes even more awe-inspiring. When I profiled Ardern, she had not yet made public that she was pregnant, though she had spoken previously about her desire for a family. I asked her if, given the fact of a warming planet, she worried about bringing a child into the world. It must have been overwhelming to realize that she now had a role to play in addressing the climate crisis. “But that means I have the power to change things, too,” Ardern replied. “It just depends whether you want to take that as a weight of responsibility or just the opportunity of a lifetime.”