Bryce Edwards: International fascination with Jacinda Ardern 

Bryce Edwards: International fascination with Jacinda Ardern 

As a political commentator, I’ve never experienced anything like it – the phone calls and email requests for interviews from international media have been constant. Broadcasters and journalists all want to discuss the Christchurch terrorist attack and the aftermath. But mostly they want to discuss Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

There is a huge fascination with who she is, what she is about, and how she has managed the events following the attacks on Muslims in Christchurch two weeks ago. For example, yesterday, I spent two hours talking to a German journalist who had flown over here specifically to write a major profile on Ardern for readers in that country.

The strong consensus – both here and abroad – is that Ardern has demonstrated extraordinarily impressive leadership since the terrorist atrocities. Numerous commentaries have celebrated her emotional and empathetic response, combined with her strength and “steeliness” in taking decisive action on matters such as gun control and victim support, her correctness in labelling the murders as “terrorism”, and her ability to project and foster unity (when there is a tendency towards division, even from many of her own supporters).

Below are some of the more interesting articles published in response to Ardern’s handling of the terrorist attacks.

One of the first important international articles praising Ardern’s performance was by academic and Washington Post foreign affairs writer, Ishaan Tharoor – see: The world is watching New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. In this, he outlined the Prime Minister’s previous progressive credentials, which had “burnished her image as a global feminist icon”, and painted her handling of the Christchurch situation as a continuation of this trend.

Also in the Washington Post, Anna Fifield has written a good overall account of the global reaction – see: New Zealand’s prime minister receives worldwide praise for her response to the mosque shootings.

Writing in India, Ahamad Fuwad puts together a list of seven reasons Ardern’s leadership since the atrocity has been a success – see: How to deal with tragedy: New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern sets an example for world leaders, emerges as liberal mascot.

Writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Nick O’Malley and Deborah Snow labelled Ardern’s leadership as: A masterclass from New Zealand in responding to terror. They asserted Ardern’s achievements: “If there had been quiet criticism in some circles that she was an inexperienced leader with as much stardust as substance, that has now been put to rest. Ardern has been a commanding figure of poise, compassion and strength, a textbook example to other world leaders about how to respond in the face of mass casualty terrorist attacks.”

I’m quoted in this article, on the strategic nature of Ardern’s careful leadership: “Firstly, she seeks to ensure that the division the gunman sought to sow between New Zealand Muslims and the greater community does not take hold. Secondly, she wants to head off the potential for a culture war inside her country, with elements of the left seeking to identify racism in New Zealand society as the cause of the attack and sections of the right using it to impugn immigration or the Islamic community itself. Thirdly Ardern – no doubt on the advice of police and intelligence agencies – has security implications in mind… By positioning New Zealand itself as the victim of the attack as well as its Muslim community, and by demonstrating unity with that community, Ardern is intent on reducing the potential for revenge attacks.”

Writing on this last point, the Guardian’s Jonathan Powell praises Ardern, saying she has “almost single-handedly managed to avoid the attacks becoming a cause of further tit-for-tat violence around the world” – see: If Jacinda Ardern was in No 10, imagine how different Brexit would be.

Powell’s column compares Ardern and Theresa May, saying both are having “to lead as their countries confront one of the greatest man-made crises they have ever faced.” He imagines a scenario in which the countries have swapped leaders: “If the United Kingdom had been led by Ardern we might still have had Brexit, but we would not have ended up with this national humiliation, a divided society and an imperilled economy. If May had been prime minister of New Zealand at her robotic worst, God knows what would have happened after the massacres.”

Ardern’s very high level of emotional intelligence is cited by Powell as the key strength that has allowed her to triumph. And he explains the importance of this quality for leaders dealing with national tragedies: “That is the sort of intelligence a leader needs. They must be able to understand what people feel and channel it, as Blair did at the time of Princess Diana’s death. Ardern managed that brilliantly in the way she expressed the grief of the people of New Zealand about the mass-murder in the mosques.”

Jamila Rizvi, the editor of Future Women magazine discusses whether Ardern’s “typically feminine behaviour” has served her and New Zealand so well – see: Jacinda Ardern just proved typically ‘feminine’ behaviour is powerful.

Rizvi suggests that Ardern is leading in a very different way to her counterparts, throwing away the “traditional script for a world leader reacting to a terrorist attack on home soil”, which is normally about “power and retribution”. As well as pointing out that Ardern has focused on the victims instead of the perpetrator, and put her energy into fostering unity rather than division, she says Ardern is outwardly-focused, rather than trying to get people to concentrate on her: “Instead, she listens. She comforts not by instruction but by making space for the thoughts and feelings of others.”

And politicians everywhere, male and female, could learn from this: “Authenticity and compassion go beyond gender, or race, or religion, or next week’s polling numbers. Authenticity is an atheist leader donning hijab without thinking about the ‘optics’, but simply because it’s the right and respectful thing to do.”

This leads onto perhaps one of the best international pieces about Ardern’s leadership – Rosa Silverman’s Ardern shows the leadership the world has been missing.

First, Silverman outlines how she sees Ardern’s leadership over this period: “infused with emotional intelligence and warmth, she has thrown her arms around a grieving nation and is visibly striving, with every fibre of her being, to heal its still open wounds. This is what leadership looks like. Sometimes you have to see it up close to understand what it is you have been missing. Ardern has walked hand-in-hand with those affected by the horror – literally, but also figuratively. She has pressed her face against theirs, presenting to the world the most powerful image of unity we could hope a politician might give.”

Silverman also contrasts the New Zealand Prime Minister with Theresa May: “When Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, was confronted with a moment like this – the death of 72 people in the Grenfell Tower fire of June 2017 – her response was precisely the opposite: cold, stilted, detached. She projected none of Ardern’s conviction. She did not even meet with survivors the first time she visited the site. Here was a situation crying out for leadership, which our leader was ill-equipped to offer.”

Other world leaders are also being unfavourably compared to Ardern. The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore said “We have seen the qualities that define leadership in such a way that it is clear she is a lioness and that to call so many of our current leaders donkeys is a disservice to hardworking donkeys the world over” – see: Jacinda Ardern is showing the world what real leadership is: sympathy, love and integrity.

As with many such international pieces, this article seized on Ardern’s smackdown of US President Donald Trump: “Asked directly whether she agreed with Donald Trump that rightwing terrorism was not growing, she answered clearly: ‘No.’ How could the US help? ‘Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.’ Sympathy and love, what kind of leader talks like that in a world where to be tough is to build walls and imprison children or, on our own shores, elevate intransigence and prevarication to new heights?”

In the international media, Ardern is once again being positioned as the “anti-Trump”, and the Financial Times’ Jamie Smyth elaborates on this saying her recent leadership has “cemented her reputation globally as a standard bearer for progressive politics” – see: Jacinda Ardern’s ‘solace and steel’ seen uniting New Zealand.

This article also emphasises that she “confounded domestic critics by displaying a toughness that some doubted she had, publicly criticising Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for attempting to exploit the attacks ahead of the country’s upcoming election.”

All of these actions and words have led to many suggestions that Ardern should receive the Nobel Peace Prize. For the best discussion of this, see Stephanie Mitchell’s International petition pushes for Jacinda Ardern to get the Nobel Peace Prize.

There’s no doubt that Ardern’s moral mandate and authority has been enhanced in the last two weeks. Even critics and opponents have been full of praise for her. See, for example, 1News’ Judith Collins praises Jacinda Ardern’s handling of Christchurch attack, showing respect by wearing headscarf.

Rightwing political commentator Matthew Hooton has expressed his huge admiration for Ardern’s performance and has even compared her to his own political heroes: “For the Prime Minister, it is as if all her past life has been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. In the last week Jacinda Ardern has demonstrated the empathy of Ronald Reagan after the Challenger disaster and the steely resolve of Margaret Thatcher after the Brighton hotel bombing. Consequently, New Zealand will heal faster than it may have otherwise” – see: After Christchurch, Ardern’s moment has come.

As a result, he says, “the political context has changed. The Prime Minister has an opportunity to use her new-found ascendancy to act decisively across a range of issues. If she really believes in a CGT, for example, she can now be more assertive in demanding Winston Peters fall into line. Similarly, she need no longer defend failing programmes like KiwiBuild but has more freedom to replace them.”

This doesn’t mean that there are no criticisms of Ardern at all, and some are now starting to emerge, as reported by Tracy Watkins in her column, Will Jacinda Ardern keep her ‘halo’ once domestic realities resume?

This mainly covers a column this week in The Australian newspaper, in which economist Judith Sloan criticises the “deification” of the New Zealand prime minister while “selectively” ignoring failures of leadership – such as allowing only a relatively small increase in refugees, and very little progress on the flagship KiwiBuild housing programme. You can see Sloan’s critique of Ardern here: Remove the halo and Ardern is ordinary.

Watkins herself notes that such questions “will only get louder” and politics will return to usual for Ardern: “Once the realities of domestic politics intrude – and they have already, after a week-long political truce – those expectations may run far ahead of what Ardern can realistically deliver.”

Finally, there has been one particular photograph of Jacinda Ardern that has stood out in the aftermath of the Christchurch atrocities – a poignant image of a sorrowful leader in mourning behind coloured-glass. The story behind the image is also very interesting – see Glen McConnell’s Face of empathy: Jacinda Ardern photo resonates with the world after terror attack.