Almost everything about Ardern’s term as Prime Minister has broken boundaries when it comes to engagement. New Zealand’s top leadership positions have generally always had a level of relatability few other countries can imagine, but Ardern has always made relating to the people a top priority.
Stretching back to her days as a junior Labour MP, Ardern has constantly kept a close relationship with her constitutes – giving updates on Facebook Live and replying directly to messages.
In June 2018, Ardern made clear her capacity to be a working woman and a mother was nothing out of the ordinary in modern New Zealand – but all commentators could agree giving birth while in office was both an exceptionally ordinary feat while simultaneously being an almost unprecedented event.
During this time, Ardern managed expectations of media and public alike, announcing Neve Te Aroha’s birth on social media, followed by a short talk to reporters where she requested privacy for her six weeks of maternity leave. New Zealanders, and the world, by in large celebrated Ardern becoming only the second elected head of government in the world to give birth in office – a milestone and example for working mothers everywhere.
While the prime minister stepped away from the public eye for Neve’s first six weeks, she was still visibly prime minister and kept across the nation’s issues – even announcing her long-promised families’ package with a Facebook Live message from her couch.
But Ardern’s influence in New Zealand has never been more keenly felt – or desperately needed – than on 15 March, when New Zealand’s Muslim community were targeted in the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history. From the outset, Ardern’s response was that of inclusivity and solidarity – leading by example for the country and setting a precedent the world over.
Just hours after the attack, Ardern faced media to confirm the death toll and make a now-famous statement: “We, New Zealand, were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of those things.”
In every address since, Ardern continued to repeat a phrase she first used shortly after the attack: “They are us”.
In the days following the tragedy, Ardern rallied New Zealanders with the “We are one” unifying rhetoric, and channelled the country’s – and specifically the Muslim community’s – grief with dignity when she opened speeches with Arabic greetings and wore a headscarf in solidarity with the targeted community. She also announced she would never speak the name of the killer – acknowledging the global trend of media coverage of killers and their manifestos playing a part in copycat acts.
Her words were powerful, surpassed only by the images that hit headlines globally. An image of Ardern wearing a hijab and hugging a woman in the aftermath of the shootings quickly spread around the world – it was projected on the world’s tallest building in the United Arab Emirates and painted onto silo in Melbourne alongside the Arabic word for peace.
Ardern quickly asserted New Zealand’s position when confronted with a mass shooting to be far removed from that of the United States. While the US is known for offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ in the wake of gun violence, Ardern immediately responded that gun laws would change. Within 72 hours of the terrorist act, Cabinet agreed to overhaul the law. Six days after the attack, Ardern announced a ban on all military style-semi automatics and assault rifles in New Zealand.
Her speech at the Christchurch remembrance service on 29 March was also met with praise from global commentators. One journalist for The Guardian described the address rising “far above the merely dutiful. It was inspiring, consoling and defiant in equal measure.”
In April 2019, Ardern was named in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people for the second year in a row. While the list does not differentiate between those recognised for well- meaning influence – such as youth climate change campaigner Greta Thunberg and US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – and those who make headlines for the wrong reasons – such as US president Donald Trump and infamous Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh – the words by mayor of London Sadiq Khan accompanying Ardern’s appearance on the list leave no room for speculation.
“Jacinda Ardern’s leadership since the attack has been an inspiration to us all,” Khan wrote. “Not only is she delivering such swift action on gun control, she has sent a powerful message around the world about our shared values – that those who seek to divide us will never succeed, and that New Zealand will always protect and celebrate the diversity and openness that make our countries so great.”
In April, Ardern was named the world’s second greatest leader in Fortune Magazine’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. Ardern was behind only Bill and Melinda Gates on the list, whose philanthropy has deployed $45.5 billion to global health organisations. For Ardern, the kudos was bestowed in the wake of the terror attack.
“She [Ardern] set the standard for dignity in the face of violence by refusing to speak the attacker’s name,” Fortune said. “And she won near-unanimous support for a ban on semi-automatic weapons of the kind used in the attack. Future leaders can look to Ardern for a master class in how to guide a country through a crisis.”
Since becoming New Zealand’s youngest-ever prime minister in 2017, Ardern has raised the bar of what we can expect from politicians in the public eye. With next year being an election year, it’ll be interesting to see what’s next.
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