“Focused, empathetic and strong,” this was how New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern described her government when she was officially sworn into office in October 2017. At 38, she is the youngest leader and the third female to hold the highest office in the land.
Ardern’s meteoric rise to political stardom was branded in both local and international media as “Jacindamania”. At the outset, she was hesitant to assume the top leadership post of her Labour Party, let alone becoming the prime minister of New Zealand. Yet eight weeks before the country’s national elections, she was forced to take over Labour after Andrew Little, her predecessor, stood down due to low public opinion over their party. Ardern was credited for her party’s remarkable turnaround during the general elections in September 2017. The “Jacindamania” phenomenon was attributed to her charismatic and relaxed demeanor that captured national attention and captivated the people’s hearts.
Rise to Power
Despite initial doubts over her competence due to her youth, Ardern has since proven to her domestic constituents that she is capable of running the country. Her exposure in politics has prepared her for state leadership early on at the age of 17, when she volunteered during the campaign of a member of parliament (MP) from Labour. After completing her Bachelor of Communication Studies majoring in Politics and Public Relations at the University of Waikato in 2001, Ardern began her political career working as a researcher in the office of Prime Minister Helen Clark. She later worked in the United Kingdom as a policy advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Ardern’s political career has undergone several setbacks before her assumption as the head of state. She previously lost several elections for a district seat, but became a list MP for Labour in 2008, a position elected from the party’s list rather than from a geographical constituency. New Zealand’s mixed member proportional (MMP) election system allows a party’s candidates to become an MP based on the percentage of nationwide votes that the party received. List MPs enter the parliament because of the number of votes that their party won, not the public votes they received personally.
In the country’s general election in September 2017, Labour won 47 seats, putting it behind the National Party, which won 56 seats. But with New Zealand First (9 seats) and Green Party (8 seats) supporting Labour, they have eventually formed a coalition government (total of 64 seats) surpassing Nationals number of seats in the parliament. As the front-runner of the coalition government, Labour’s top leader Ardern consequently became the country’s Prime Minister with New Zealand First’s party leader, Winston Peters, designated as her Deputy.
Following her assumption to office, Ardern is regarded as a refreshing face in a global line-up of state leaders, still dominated by greying men immersed in traditional politics. She is considered a welcome addition to the group of “rock-star” politicians from Western democracies that include Canada’s Justin Trudeau, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and former US President Barack Obama. They are deemed as “liberal leaders who used their youth, charisma and outspoken shows of social progressivism to bring their respective parties to power.”
While fate may have played a big part on her political rise, Ardern is no amateur when it comes to governance and public service. She describes herself as a social democrat, promoting greater democratic and egalitarian societies. She also considers herself as a progressive, supporting various policies to improve human conditions through advancements in science, technology, and economic development. Thus, her advocacies and portfolio in government include women and LGBT issues, poverty reduction, equal pay, family welfare, climate change, culture and heritage conservation.
A Positive Government
During her election campaign, Ardern’s campaign strategy of “relentless positivity” was criticized as “naive at best, if not deluded.” As one local observer pointed out “nice idealism is all very well, but you also need a killer instinct in your arsenal, in the rough and tumble of politics.” Thus, despite becoming Prime Minister (only because of internal political negotiations with minority parties and not due to wide public support for her Labour Party), Ardern still has to contend with domestic doubts about her capabilities to lead the country. For many New Zealanders, Ardern “may have their hearts but not their heads.”
it is uncertain whether or not her brand of compassionate leadership and
restorative politics will spread around the world — in the same way that
authoritarian leaders and populism became recent political trends.
Yet it is uncertain whether or not her brand of compassionate leadership and restorative politics will spread around the world — in the same way that authoritarian leaders and populism became recent political trends.
However, all these misgivings were laid to rest when Ardern had to confront the most gruesome mass shooting in New Zealand’s history. The attacks in two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, which was carried out by a white-supremacist Australian man, killed 51 people and injured 49 others. Such act of violence was largely considered as “unthinkable” for a safe and peaceful country like New Zealand. Yet Ardern’s display of moral leadership not only reduced cynicism about her idealism among her domestic constituency, but also garnered international attention that gave pride to this small nation.
What is striking about Ardern’s immediate response following the massacre is its emphasis on inclusivity and solidarity. For a state leader confronting a tragedy, the choice of language and style of communication (bot verbal and non-verbal) mattered enormously. The catchphrase of many of her speeches “they are us, we are one” resonated not only in New Zealand, but also to the Muslim communities around the world. There was none of the bellicose, fearmongering rhetoric that is so often uttered after a deadly attack. And by wearing a head scarf to comfort the victims’ families, Ardern became a symbol of solidarity for the Muslim women who wear their faith so openly, and thus feel targeted and unsafe.
Yet her compassionate speeches are not just empty words without concrete actions. Ardern led the passage of the law banning all semi-automatic and military-style weapons in the country within 10 days following the attacks. She also announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry, typically reserved for “matters of the gravest public importance” that looks into the lapses of the country’s security and intelligence agencies after the terror attacks. In addition, she condemned Facebook’s failure to automatically shut down the gunman’s livestream because “it was not gruesome enough,” and pushed for a coordinated global response against harmful content that should be blocked on social media platforms.
An Alternative Leadership?
Amidst the darkness of this tragedy, Ardern has shone light as a beacon of optimism and kindness. She is an inspirational model for compassionate leadership in a world currently enthralled with populist and strong-man leaders such as America’s Donald Trump, Mexico’s López Obrador, or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. It is because of this trend that Ardern’s “restorative politics” is deemed crucial — one that seeks to heal rather than sow hatred, and pursues integration rather than entrench divisions. At a time when politicians are moved by soulless pragmatism, she provides a “glimmer of hope that a politics that heals the shattering effects of ethno-nationalist racism (and other forms of political divisions) is possible.”
The world has since praised Ardern for her authenticity, without the robotic nor scripted tone of political calculation that often guide other state leaders. But as one political commentator pointed out, what is so depressing about her example of “compassionate poise” is that “such a normal human response is now so unfamiliar, so rare, among political leaders. What should be the norm is elevated to exceptional.”
Yet it is uncertain whether or not her brand of compassionate leadership and restorative politics will spread around the world — in the same way that authoritarian leaders and populism became recent political trends. What is evident however is that there is a clamor for it (from some Australians no less) and a silent desire for it, especially from people disillusioned by the kind of politics and leaders they have in their countries. It is therefore important to take note of how Ardern’s leadership and politics will continue to play out in her government. This should go beyond managing a tragedy to administering the boring realities of day-to-day governance and policy making.
In the past, her expressions of kindness and trust in humanity might have been dismissed as slogans. Skeptics in New Zealand have predicted that the “Jacindamania” will slowly fade and the country’s politics will be “business as usual.” But the world has witnessed the positive impact of this “Jacinda” phenomenon, which makes a “focused, empathetic and strong” government a hopeful possibility.
In an interview, Ardern confesses that “I am an optimist. I was born one and politics has not beaten it out of me yet.” Though this may be credited to her youth, her positive leadership is gaining ground for the world to see. How she will be able to sustain it in her government with the public’s support for the long haul, will be an interesting case in pursuit of an alternative leadership.