Why Jacinda Ardern Is A Leader For Our Times

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meets with members of the Muslin community in the wake of the mass shooting at two Christchurch mosques, on March 16, 2019.


I first met Jacinda Ardern when I was invited to listen to her speak at New Zealand House in London last year. As a New Zealander, born and raised, I had admired her from afar since her election as Prime Minister in 2017 – the youngest female Prime Minister New Zealand has ever had, and only the second world leader to give birth while in office. I felt she represented something entirely different: here stood a woman who seemed to embody New Zealand’s best attributes of optimism, common sense, approachability and, most of all, empathy.

Jacinda Ardern returned to Christchurch as the community prepared for burials.

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Months later, Jacinda chose to wear an Emilia Wickstead dress for her debut speech to the United Nations Assembly, in New York. Incredibly honoured and moved, I remember being struck by her artful turn of phrase, and her ability to put into words what people felt but couldn’t articulate. Take for instance her reflection that, for true progression for all, “MeToo must become WeToo”. Her wise and worldly views, asking for global cooperation and kindness from all leaders present, met with a thunderous applause.

Last Friday, Jacinda Ardern went from being a Prime Minister we admired to a world leader who represents humankind in all its glorious diversity. As our grief-stricken nation mourned the deaths of the 50 people killed during prayers at two mosques in central Christchurch on March 15, Jacinda chose a meaningful path of kindness and inclusivity. She has shown that not only is she deeply empathetic, but she has nerves of steel – and can lead in times of chaos and tragedy.

Jacinda Ardern receives a hug from a student during her visit to Cashmere High School, which lost two students during the mass shooting on March 20, 2019 in Christchurch.

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Shifting the global focus from the gunman to the victims is one example of Jacinda’s compassionate handling of the worst terrorist attack in our nation’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.” Days later she again refused to waste breath speaking 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: 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.”

Jacinda Ardern meets with first responders to the scene at the Christchurch mosque massacre.

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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 families in mourning in the aftermath of the atrocity while wearing a black headscarf. On Tuesday, following in the same vein, she addressed 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 “families of the fallen” in their native languages. On Friday 22 March, a week on from the attack, the lunchtime call to prayer will be broadcast nationally, followed by a 2-minute silence.

Jacinda Ardern looks on during her visit to Cashmere High School, which lost two students during the mass shooting in Christchurch.

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But it’s her linguistic skills that have really helped to unite a country that appears to have lost its moorings. Her phrase, “they are us”, particularly resonated with me – an inclusive message that fits with her drive for the celebration of 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. I feel privileged that she is there to show us the way.


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