JACINDA ARDERN, A Leader of our Times
Young, dynamic, enterprising, and intelligent – Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand and an emerging global leader, indeed has everything going for her. The 38-year-old gorgeous Jacinda has already made a remarkable impact on the global political canvas. In the wake of the notorious Christchurch shootings, the former researcher has proven that she is a true contemporary leader, a leader that citizens can bank on.
Jacinda, who has the distinction of being the youngest female Prime Minister of the Tasman country, has been hugely admired ever since her election to the top post in 2017. Right from the beginning, she has been a whip of fresh air. Here stood a woman, who seemed to embody New Zealand’s best attributes of optimism, common sense, approachability and, most of all, empathy.
Months later after her election, Jacinda chose to wear an Emilia Wickstead dress for her debut speech to the United Nations Assembly in New York. People were struck by her artful turn of phrase and her ability to put into words what people felt but could not articulate. Take for instance her reflection that, “#MeToo must become #WeToo”. This stands for true progression for all. Her wise and worldly views, asking for global cooperation and kindness from all leaders present,met with a thunderous applause.
Christchurch Mosque Terror Attack and Jacinda
Post the Christchurch Mosque terror attack and her passionate and humane response thereafter, Jacinda transformed from being an admired Prime Minister to a world leader, who represents humankind in all its glorious diversity. A bone-chilling terrorist massacre shook the New Zealand city of Christchurch, in which a self-proclaimed white supremacist took the lives of 50 Muslims including two children and injured dozens more,during their Friday prayers. The man who claimed responsibility for the shooting was an Australian national, who had promoted white nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments.
As the grief-stricken nation mourned the deaths of the 50 people killed during their prayers on March 15, Jacinda chose a meaningful path of kindness and inclusivity. She showed that not only is she deeply empathetic, she also has nerves of steel and can effectively lead in times of chaos and tragedy.
Shifting the global focus from the gunman to the victims is one example of Jacinda’s compassionate handling of the worst terrorist attack in New Zealand’s modern history. Speaking of the gunman, with anger in her voice, she refused to give him the profile he sought. “You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you,” was the nuanced response from Jacinda.
Days later, she again refused to take the name of the attacker saying, “He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is an extremist, but he will, when I speak, be nameless, and to others I implore you to speak the names of those who were lost rather than the name of the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we in New Zealand will give him nothing – not even his name.”
Her decision to wear a hijab while visiting those affected by the tragedy was another small but powerful indication of her powers of empathy. A highly visible symbol of respect, she was photographed embracing and giving heartfelt condolences to the families in mourning in the aftermath of the atrocity, while wearing a black headscarf. Later, following in the same vein, she addressed the parliament with the Arabic greeting, “As-Salaam-Alaikum! Peace be upon you. Peace be upon all of us.”
Her political response has been equally progressive. Within 36 hours of the shooting, she had mobilised politicians to tighten up gun laws – and less than a week later, on March 21, she announced sweeping and immediate changes banning assault rifles and military-style semi-automatics. She also made immediate moves to offer emotional and financial support to the “families of the fallen” in their native languages. On Friday, March 22, a week after the attack, a lunchtime call to prayer was broadcast nationally followed by a 2-minute silence.
However, her linguistic skills have really helped to unite a country that appears to have lost its moorings. Particularly, her phrase, “they are us” resonated an inclusive message that fits with her drive for the celebrating all of New Zealand’s cultures rather than trying to homogenise them. She has pledged, after all, that the Maori language will be taught in all schools by 2025. Against a backdrop of terror, Jacinda has managed to unite and inspire.
Across the country, people unified in hundreds and thousands to express their solidarity. Emotional vigils were held with letters, flowers, candles and performances of the traditional Māori haka dance, extended as gestures of cross-cultural kinship.
Media Failed Again
However, Britain’s newspapers revealed cognitive dissonance with story after story about the terrorist that read as hagiography. The Mirror ran a front page story with a headline on an “angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer”. The Mail Online described how “a blond little boy turned into a far-right mass killer”. The Telegraph published a profile on the killer with the lede, “Clutched tightly by his adoring father, the fair-haired blue-eyed toddler was the picture of innocence.”The description of a white supremacist mass-murderer using the saccharine language of “blond little boy”, “angelic”, “fair-haired blue-eyed toddler”, “the picture of innocence” reprimands the perpetrator of the violence while fuelling his ideology.
It is half-hearted criticism. Rather than incontrovertibly denouncing white supremacy as we ought to expect, the equation of the killer’s blond hair and blue eyes with innate goodness reaffirms it, instead.
The Daily Mail blamed childhood bullying. Its Australian counterpart additionally censured video games, while The Times found the killer’s height to be the root cause for the attack. All considered greater threats than the ideology on which the attacker himself wrote 73 pages. However, to admit white supremacy to be the problem would necessitate examination of foundational beliefs reflected on their own pages.
The people’s campaigns, inspired by their Prime Minister, focused on preventing copycat mass shootings. “Don’t name them’ and “No notoriety”, ask that perpetrators not be named or pictured so as not to give them the spotlight they seek. Those newspapers, however, not only lionized the Christchurch attacker but also sought backstory justification to make him both sympathetic and to paint him as an exception divorced from historical lineage and active groups.
When the real threat of white supremacy is evident by the story itself, ignorance of the impact of repeating its values is near impossible to claim. Ben Wallace, the UK Security Minister, said that a similar attack could happen in Great Britain due to a growing threat from the farright. Going forward, he said that UK needs to follow Prime Minister Jacinda’s example by immediately acting on the cultural blind spots that tacitly accommodate hate crimes, starting with the accountability of messengers.
People look to politicians and the press to be the nation’s thought leaders and moral compasses, and it is no secret that anti-immigrant, white supremacist and Islamophobic rhetoric has rapidly been normalised throughout the decade.
When the attacker names the US President as principal inspiration, there is no longer a believable place for leaders to claim ignorance of the impact of their rhetoric. People with platforms or in positions of power can no longer condemn the actors of violence while working as the ghostwriters of their thoughts. Leaders must be held to higher standards, immediately, with the complicity of their words considered so. Jacinda acted to prove that safer countries could be built in a day.
Jacinda’s Rise to Power
Jacinda Kate Laurell Ardern, born on 26 July 1980, is serving as the 40th and current Prime Minister of New Zealand since October 26, 2017. She has also served as the Leader of the Labour Party since August 1, 2017. Jacinda has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for the Mount Albert electorate since March 8, 2017. She was first elected to the House of Representatives as a list MP during the 2008 general elections.
After graduating from the University of Waikato in 2001, Jacinda began her career working as a researcher in the office of the Prime Minister Helen Clark. She later worked in the United Kingdom as a policy advisor to the British Prime Minister Tony Blair.In 2008, she was elected the President of the International Union of Socialist Youth.
Jacinda became a list MP in 2008, a position she held for almost ten years until her election to the Mount Albert electorate in the 2017 by-election, held on February 25. She was unanimously elected as the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party on March 1, 2017, following the resignation of Annette King. Jacinda became the Leader of the Labour Party on August 1 2017, after Andrew Little resigned from the position following a historically low poll result for the party.
She is credited with increasing her party’s rating in opinion polls. In the general election of September 23, 2017, the Labour Party won 46 seats (a net gain of 14), putting it behind the National Party, which won 56 seats. After negotiations with National and Labour, the New Zealand First Party chose to enter into a minority coalition government with Labour, supported by the Greens, with Jacinda as Prime Minister.
Ideologically, Jacinda describes herself as a social democrat and a progressive.She is the world’s youngest female head of a government, having taken office at the age of 37 years. Jacinda became the world’s second elected head of government to give birth while in office, when her daughter was born on June 21, 2018.
Early Life and Education
Born in Hamilton in New Zealand, Jacinda grew up in Morrinsville and Murupara, where her father, Ross Ardern, worked as a police officer, and her mother, Laurell (Bottomley) Ardern, worked as a school catering assistant. She studied at Morrinsville College, where she was the student representative on the school’s Board of Trustees. She then attended the University of Waikato, graduating in 2001 with a Bachelor of Communication Studies (BCS) in politics and public relations.
Jacinda was brought into politics by her aunt, Marie Ardern, a longstanding member of the Labour Party, who recruited the teenaged Jacinda to help her with campaigning for New Plymouth MP Harry Duynhoven during his re-election campaign at the 1999 general election.
Jacinda joined the Labour Party at age 17, and became a senior figure in the Young Labour sector of the party. After graduating from university, she spent time working in the offices of Phil Goff and of Helen Clark as a researcher. After spending some time volunteering at a soup kitchen in New York City,Jacinda moved to London to work as a senior policy adviser in an 80-person policy unit of then British Prime Minister Tony Blair.She never met Blair in London, but did question him about the invasion of Iraq at an event in New Zealand in 2011. Jacinda was also seconded to the Home Office to help with a review of policing in England and Wales.
In early 2008, Jacinda was elected as the President of the International Union of Socialist Youth, a role that saw her spend time in several countries including Jordan, Israel, Algeria and China.
Early Political Career
Ahead of the 2008 election, Jacinda was ranked 20th on the Labour’s Party list. This was a very high placement for someone, who was not already a sitting MP and virtually assured her of a seat in the Parliament. Accordingly, Jacinda returned from London to campaign full-time. She also became Labour’s candidate for the safe National Electorate of Waikato. Jacinda was unsuccessful in the electorate vote, but her high placement on Labour Party’s list allowed her to enter the Parliament as a list MP. Upon election, she became the youngest sitting MP in the Parliament, succeeding fellow Labour MP Darren Hughes, and remained the youngest MP until the election of Gareth Hughes on February 11, 2010.
Jacinda contested the Auckland Central seat for Labour Party during the 2011 general elections, standing against the incumbent National MP Nikki Kaye for National and Greenscandidate Denise Roche. Despite targeting Green voters to vote strategically for her, she lost to Kaye by 717 votes. However, she returned to Parliament via the party list, on which she was ranked 13th. She maintained an office within the electorate while being a listed MP based in Auckland Central.
After opposition leader Philips Goff resigned from the Party leadership following his defeat during the 2011 election, Jacinda supported David Shearer over David Cunliffe. She was elevated to the fourth-ranking position in the Shadow Cabinet on December 19, 2011, becoming a spokesperson for social development under new leader David Shearer.
Jacinda stood again in Auckland Central during the 2014 general election. She again finished second although her own votes increased. She reduced Kaye’s majority from 717 to 600. Ranked fifth on the Labour’s list, Jacinda still returned to Parliament where she became the Shadow spokesperson for Justice, Children, Small Business and Arts and Culture under the new leader Andrew Little.
After this, Jacinda put forward her name for the Labour nomination for the Mount Albert by-election held in February 2017 following the resignation of former Labour leader David Shearer on December 8, 2016. When nominations for the Labour Party closed on January 12, 2017, Jacinda was the only nominee and was selected unopposed. On January 21, Jacinda participated in the 2017 Women’s March, a worldwide protest in opposition to Donald Trump, the newly inaugurated President of the United States. She was confirmed as the Labour candidate at a meeting on January 22.Jacinda won a landslide victory, gaining 77 percent of votes cast in the preliminary results.
Following her win in the by-election, Jacinda was unanimously elected as deputy leader of the Labour Party on March 7, 2017, following the resignation of Annette King, who was intending to retire during the next election.
On August 1 2017, just seven weeks before the 2017 general elections, she assumed the position of leader of the Labour Party and consequently became Leader of the Opposition following the resignation of Andrew Little. Little stood down due to the party’s historically low polling. Jacinda was unanimously confirmed in an election to choose a new leader at a caucus meeting the same day. At 37, Jacinda became the youngest leader of the Labour Party in its history. She is also the second female leader of the party after Helen Clark.
At her first press conference following her election as the leader, she said that the forthcoming election campaign would be one of “relentless positivity”.Immediately following her appointment, the public inundated the party with donations, which reached NZ$700 per minute at its peak. Jacinda’s election was followed by a spate of positive coverage from many sections of the media, including international outlets such as CNN,with commentators referring to a ‘Jacinda Effect’ and ‘Jacindamania’.
After Jacinda’s ascension to the leadership, Labour rose dramatically in opinion polls. By late August, they had risen to 43 percent in the Colmar Brunton poll (having been 24 percent under Little’s leadership) as well as managing to overtake National in opinion polls for the first time in over a decade.
In mid-August 2017, Jacinda stated that a Labour government would establish a tax-working group to explore the possibility of introducing a capital gains tax but ruled out taxing family homes. In response to negative publicity, Jacinda abandoned plans to introduce a capital gains tax during the first term of the Labour government. Finance spokesperson Grant Robertsonlater clarified that Labour would not introduce new taxes until after the 2020 election. The policy shift accompanied strident allegations by the Minister of Finance Steven Joyce that Labour had an $11.7 billion “hole” in its tax policy.
The Labour and Green Parties’ proposed water and pollution taxes also generated criticism from farmers. On September 18, the farming lobby group Federated Farmers staged a protest against the taxes in Jacinda’s hometown of Morrinsville. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters attended the protest to campaign, but was jeered at by the farmers because they suspected that he was also in favour of the taxes.
During the protest, one farmer displayed a sign calling Jacinda a “pretty Communist”. This was criticised as misogynistic by former Prime Minister Helen Clark. During the campaign trail, Jacinda expressed her support for decriminalising abortion by removing it from the 1961 Crimes Act. In September, Jacinda said that she wanted New Zealand to have a debate related to removing the monarch of New Zealand as the head of state.
2017 Election Results
Preliminary results from the general elections indicated that the party got a more modest 35.79 percent of the vote to the National’s 46.03 percent. Labour gained 14 seats, increasing its parliamentary representation to 45 seats. This was the best result for Labour since losing power in 2008.Following the elections, Jacinda and deputy leader Kelvin Davis entered into negotiations with the Greens and New Zealand First parties to explore forming a coalition since the rival National Party lacked sufficient seats to govern alone.
Under the country’s mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system, New Zealand First held the balance of power, and was, therefore, able to choose the party that would lead a coalition government. Following the release of special (including overseas voting) results on October 7, Labour gained an extra seat on the initial result, raising its presence in the parliament to 46 seats.
On October 19, 2017, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters agreed to form a coalition with Labour, making Jacinda the next Prime Minister. This coalition will receive confidence and supply from the Green Party. Jacinda named Peters as the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. She also gave New Zealand First five ministerial posts in her government, with Peters and three other ministers serving in the Cabinet.
On October 20, Jacinda confirmed that she would hold the ministerial portfolios of National Security and Intelligence, Arts, Culture and Heritage and Vulnerable Children, reflecting the shadow positions she held as Leader of the Opposition.However, as of October 25, 2017, her position as Minister for Vulnerable Children had been replaced with the role of Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, while New Zealand First MP Tracey Martin took on the role of Minister for Children.
Jacinda intends to halve child poverty in New Zealand within a decade.She was officially sworn in by the Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy on October 26, alongside her ministry.Upon taking office, Jacinda said that her government would be “focused, empathetic and strong”.
Jacinda is New Zealand’s third female prime minister after Jenny Shipley (1997–1999) and Helen Clark (1999–2008). She is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders.
On November 5, 2017, Jacinda made her first official overseas trip to Australia, where she met Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for the first time. Relations between the two countries had been strained in the preceding months because of Australia’s treatment of New Zealanders living in the country, and shortly before taking office, Jacinda had spoken of the need to rectify this situation and to develop a better working relationship with the Australian government. Turnbull described the meeting in cordial terms. “We trust each other…The fact we are from different political traditions is irrelevant,” he said.
Jacinda flew to Vietnam on November 9 for her first visit to an APEC summit.
In December 2017, Jacinda voiced support for the UN resolution criticising US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, saying that some decisions “that we saw by international actors like the United States recently … took us backwards, not forward.”
On February 2, Jacinda travelled to Waitangi for the annual Waitangi Day commemoration. She stayed in Waitangi for five days, an unprecedented length. Jacinda became the first female Prime Minister to speak from the top Marae. Her visit was largely well received by Māori leaders, with commentators noting a sharp contrast with the acrimonious responses received by several of her predecessors.
On April 20, Jacinda attended the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2018 in London, where she was selected to deliver a toast to the Commonwealth at a state banquet of world leaders. She also had her first private audience with the Queen.
On September 24, Jacinda became the first female head of government to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting with her infant. Her address to the General Assembly on September 27 praised the United Nations for its multilateralism, expressed support for the world’s youth and called for immediate attention to the effects and causes of climate change, for the equality of women, and for kindness as the basis for action.
In October 2018, Jacinda raised the issue of Xinjiang re-education camps and human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslim minority in China. China has imprisoned more than one million Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s northwestern province of Xinjiang in concentration camps, where they are held without charge or any terms of release.
Jacinda raised concerns over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. In November 2018, she met Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi and offered any help New Zealand could give to resolve the Rohingya crisis.
Socio-Political Stance of Jacinda
Jacinda has described herself as a social democrat, a progressive, a republican and a feminist, citing Helen Clark as a political hero, and has called capitalism a “blatant failure” due to the extent of homelessness in New Zealand. She advocates a lower rate of immigration, suggesting a drop of around 20,000–30,000. Calling it an “infrastructure issue”, she argues, “There has not been enough planning about population growth and we have not necessarily targeted our skill shortages properly”.
Jacinda believes that the retention or abolition of Māori electorates should be decided by Māori, stating, “Māori have not raised the need for those seats to go, so why would we ask the question?” She supports compulsory teaching of the Māori language in schools.
On social issues, Jacinda voted in favour of same-sex marriages and believes abortion should be removed from the Crimes Act.She is opposed to criminalising people who use cannabis and has pledged to hold a referendum on whether or not to legalise cannabis in her first term as prime minister. In 2018, she became the first prime minister of New Zealand to march in a gay pride parade.
Referring to New Zealand’s nuclear-free policy, she described taking action on climate change as “my generation’s nuclear-free moment”.
Jacinda has voiced her support for a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.She has condemned the deaths of Palestinians during protests at the Gaza border.
Raised as a Mormon, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jacinda left the church in 2005 because, she said, it conflicted with her personal views, in particular her support for gay rights. In January 2017, Jacinda identified as “agnostic”.
Jacinda’s partner is television presenter Clarke Gayford. The couple first met in 2012, when they were introduced by mutual friend Colin Mathura-Jeffree, a New Zealand television host and model, but they did not spend time together until Gayford contacted Jacinda regarding a controversial Government Communications Security Bureau bill.On January 19, 2018, Jacinda announced that she was expecting her first child in June, making her New Zealand’s first Prime Minister to be pregnant in office.
Once talking to a crowd at an event in Auckland, she revealed a childhood aspiration to be a clown. Then she makes an improbable, but perhaps logical, comparison between clowning and politics. “Everything I’ve ever thought about doing has been in some sense about helping people,” she explains. Jacinda reminds the audience that she is a “small-town girl,” only the second in her family to go to university. “I did not think I would be the Prime Minister, because I did not consider it. However,that is the power of saying yes, because there will be a moment when someone asks you to do something beyond your comfort zone. I am not unique.”
New Zealand has had two women prime ministers before, but neither made possibility and opportunity feel as contagious as Jacinda, whose election slogan was cheerfully assertive. It was, “Let’s do this.” Yet she became prime minister only after a tense period of negotiations and compromise with the nationalist NZ First party. Through it all, she has spoken about issues of poverty and homelessness in her country with a blend of Bernie Sanders’s bluntness and Elizabeth Warren’s fearlessness. “Yes, we believe in globalization and trade, but we also believe in you being able to benefit from that more,” says Jacinda. “For too long, we progressives have seemed like part of the system. We need to start thinking about whether or not it is delivering for us now.”
“Jacinda communicates a radicalism that is part of the Zeitgeist,” says Edwards, The Herald’s political commentator. It helps that this populist rallying cry is being delivered from a modest three-bedroom house. It helps, too, that Jacinda, the daughter of a police officer and a school-cafeteria worker, grew up just south of Auckland in the Waikato region, which is working class and conservative. As a side business, her parents cultivated apples and pears for export. Jacinda would help on the tractor after school.
Post-Christchurch Leadership Hailed
“Martin Luther King said genuine leaders did not search for consensus but moulded it,” Suzanne Moore wrote in the British paper The Guardian, “Ardern has moulded a different consensus, demonstrating action, care and unity. Terrorism sees difference and wants to annihilate it. Ardern sees difference and wants to respect it, embrace it and connect with it.”The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor wrote, “Ardern has become the face of her nation’s sorrow and grief, and its resolve”. Annabel Crabb wrote on the ABC Australia website, “having been confronted with the worst news a leader can receive… Ms Ardern has yet to put a foot wrong”. Grace Back put it simply in Marie Claire Australia, “This is what a leader looks like.”
The praise did not just come from commentators. Mohammad Faisal, from Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Jacinda “has won the hearts of Pakistanis”, while the King Center – a memorial to Martin Luther King in the US – tweeted “there’s a leader with love on full display in New Zealand”.
Closer home, in New Zealand, BBC News correspondent Hywel Griffith says he has “heard her words – ‘we are one, they are us’– spoken back to me by the families of victims here in Christchurch”. Even Judith Collins, from the opposition National Party, told parliament that the prime minister had been “outstanding”.
Colin James, a political analyst in New Zealand, tells BBC News that having spent “quite a bit of time” with Jacinda, he is not surprised by the praise she is now getting.
“She was firm, sombre, positive and in charge,” he said. “And this is something I’ve said often – there’s not a nasty cell in her body, but she’s not a pushover. It’s an unusual combination.”
When she first started campaigning in 2017, she was regularly compared to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the French President Emmanuel Macron. It made some sense; all three seemed progressive, ambitious, and young.
Sushil Aaron wrote in the New York Times that she “is emerging as the definitive progressive antithesis to the crowded field of right-wing strongmen… whose careers thrive on illiberal, anti-Muslim rhetoric”.
One clear example of this is her request of President Donald Trump, who asked her what support the US could provide. “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities,” she replied.
Another is her simple description of Australian Senator Fraser Anning’s comments blaming the attack on immigration “A disgrace.”
The images of a sincere Jacinda comforting victims the day after the attack have been contrasted with politically similar leaders, too. Al Jazeera journalist Sana Saeed said that she “can’t recall Trudeau showing this depth of humanity for the victims of the Quebec mosque massacre” in 2017, adding that former US President Barack Obama did not visit the victims of the Oak Creek Gurdwara shooting in Wisconsin in 2012 (then-First Lady Michelle Obama went instead).
Media Niceties: Exploring Jacinda, the Person
Jacinda has been a welcoming presence, who occasionally spoke to reporters directly in the beginning stages of her leadership, instead of going through a spokesperson.
An Australian journalist from ABC Radio said shortly after Jacinda was named the country’s next Prime Minister, he called her office to determine how to pronounce her last name.
He said on Twitter and Jacinda later confirmed, according to the Associated Press that it was Jacinda who unexpectedly answered the phone.
She became a mother while in office, and after a six-week-long break, was back to work, with partner taking care of the child being at home all hours for some weeks more. When her daughter was three-month-old, Jacinda brought her to the United Nations General Assembly in hopes of creating “a path for other women.I want to normalize it,” she told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, “If we want to make workplaces more open, we need to acknowledge logistical challenges … by being more open it might create a path for other women.”
Less than a year ago, Jacinda attended two major international summits in quick succession –the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, at which Trump may have mistaken the New Zealander for Sophie Trudeau, wife of the Canadian prime minister, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Jacinda shared the story about Trump with a comedian friend, who then told a radio host on-air. She is now more circumspect about describing her dealings with the president. “But we’ll work with anyone!” she says with mock seriousness. At an APEC dinner, Trump pointed to Jacinda and, referring to the results of New Zealand’s vote, said, “This lady just caused a lot of upset in her country.” Her reply? “No one marched when I was elected.”
After the Christchurch mosque shooting, Jacinda told BBC of the shooting, “What New Zealand experienced here was violence brought against us by someone who grew up and learned their ideology somewhere else. If we want to make sure globally that we are a safe and tolerant and inclusive world, we cannot think about this in terms of boundaries.”
Moral Leadership Evolving Globally
Jacinda is clear-eyed about what a prime minister of New Zealand, a country with a population of under five million, can achieve on the world stage. “We’re small,” she says, “but we do our bit by standing up for what we believe in.” She points to New Zealand’s long-standing nuclear-free policy as an example and wants to apply that same moral leadership to action on climate change.
“We’re surrounded by island nations who will feel the brunt of climate change. So I see us as having a responsibility.” Of course, New Zealand is a tiny contributor, overall, to the warming planet – and yet carbon-heavy industries like farming, horticulture, and forestry are the country’s biggest businesses. Jacinda is ready to take those sectors on. “The most difficult thing for us to do is to mitigate and offset our agricultural emissions,” she says. “If we find a way to do that, then we’re showing other countries how to do it too.”
That Jacinda has such a specific vision for what needs to be done is all the more remarkable when you consider that high office was very much thrust upon her.
Closer to home, within her nation, Jacinda has always maintained that she wants her brand of politics to be kinder and you can feel that energy in the air, a kind of gracious optimism. “It’s going to take some time,” she says, “but in the meantime I hope people feel differently about their government.”
Today, when nations one after another are facing terrorism in various hues and degrees, she has literally re-defined how a nation should face reality and grieve in such a situation and has resisted war rhetoric. Since the modern era of terrorism began, on September 11, 2001, world leaders have responded to terror by promising vengeance and waged war, rhetorically and militarily. George W. Bush set the tone, with a statement on the morning of the World Trade Center attacks, “Make no mistake. The United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.” He elaborated in a televised address later that day. “Today, our fellow-citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack,” he said. He named the emotions evoked by the chaos in lower Manhattan, “disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger.” He pledged war. “A great people has been moved to defend a great nation,” he said. “Our military is powerful, and it’s prepared. . . . America and our friends and allies . . . stand together to win the war against terrorism. . . . America has stood down enemies before, and we will do so this time.”
In the years since then, many other leaders have given speeches that shared key elements of Bush’s rhetoric – interpreting acts of terrorism as a declaration of war on an entire country; calling the attackers cowardly and asserting the country’s own courage; and promising to hunt down the terrorists.
“Today, France was attacked at its very heart, in Paris, at the offices of a newspaper,” the French President Francois Hollande said, on January 7, 2015, the day twelve people were killed at the headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
“We will not be intimidated,” the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, said, in a statement following a massacre carried out by the white supremacist Anders Breivik, in July 2011. Stoltenberg called Breivik’s attack an “act of cowardice.”
While Barack Obama avoided war rhetoric in his responses to terror, in his first statement on the Boston Marathon bombing, in 2013, he promised to “get to the bottom of this.” In 2015, responding to a shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, he twice called the attacker a coward.
Jacinda, on the other hand, immediately showed that she had no time for the perpetrator of the mosque shootings.“Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand; they may even be refugees here,” she said. “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not us. He has no place in New Zealand. There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence.”
These phrases are remarkable for what they do not contain a promise to find the perpetrator and bring him to justice, any attempt to degrade him, any recognition of his desire to be seen, recognized, and fought. The opposite of terror is not courage, victory, or even justice, and it is certainly not “war on terror.” The opposite of terror is disregard for the terrorist, and compassion and oneness with the victims.
Jacinda’s insistence on disregarding the killer, while recognizing the enormity of the loss he has caused, reflects a deeper understanding: some people kill people. Ideology of any sort is secondary to the violent impulse. It is no coincidence that most terrorists have a history of violent behaviour, particularly at their homes. In the face of this fact, a society, and its leaders, can do only two things – grieve and work to reduce the opportunity to kill. These are precisely the tasks Jacinda has taken on.
“One of the roles I never anticipated having, and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation,” she told Parliament. “At this time, it has been second only to securing the care of those affected and the safety of everyone.” She has become New Zealand’s mourner-in-chief. Indeed, the most effective way to fight violence is to make the violence less efficient. Less than a week after the attacks, Jacinda’s government announced a ban on military-style weapons. Even before the terms of the ban were worked out, Jacinda encouraged people to begin surrendering weapons to the police, and at least several dozen people did. The gun ban thus became, at least to a degree, a matter of political agreement, rather than an emergency measure or a restriction imposed by the government.
This is what political leaders should do in the face of a senseless tragedy: they grieve with their people, they think with their people, and they act together with their people. None of those tasks requires a declaration of war.
Sushil Aaron of New York Times is right. New Zealand’s prime minister is emerging as the progressive antithesis to right-wing strongmen like Donald Trump (USA), Victor Orban (Israel), and Narendra Modi (India), whose careers thrive on illiberal, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant rhetoric.