By Naomi Boulter
A leader that sparked a craze labelled Jacindamania, Jacinda Ardern is the wearer of many hats in her home country of New Zealand. In addition to being Prime Minister and a leader of strength and compassion post-terrorist attack in Christchurch, Ardern is also the Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, Minister of National Security and Intelligence, and Minister of Child Poverty Reduction. Curiously, Ardern was voted most likely to become Prime Minister amongst her class at school. So it appears fitting that we delve deep into the profile of a head of government who is the definition of leadership for our times.
Starting from a young age, Ardern’s involvement in politics began as a teenager when she participated in a re-election campaign for a local minister. Having studied public relations and politics at university, Ardern joined the youth arm of the New Zealand Labour Party and worked as a researcher for then Prime Minister, Helen Clarke. Later, Ardern travelled to the United Kingdom to work as a policy advisor for former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. She also managed to fit in a brief stint working in a New York soup kitchen! In 2008, Ardern was elected President of the International Union of Socialist Youth and in the same year became the youngest minister sitting in New Zealand Parliament.
In 2017, Ardern’s rising star excelled her to leadership for New Zealand’s Labour Party, when the previous leader resigned due to low polling in the lead up to the national election. This brought with it a large amount of public and international attention, with commentators speculating Ardern to be in similar standing to Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau due to her youth, charisma and progressive views. However, when the votes for the national election were counted, the opposing New Zealand National Party won more seats. In a turn of events, it came down to a minority coalition government formed between Ardern’s Labour Party and other minor parties which propelled her to the top job of Prime Minister.
You would be wrong to think that Ardern’s path to leadership was full of ambitious goals and PR opportunities. In fact, Ardern was uninterested in vying for the top job in the Labour Party due to personal concerns that her anxiety would burden her ability to perform the role and meet expectations. However, after her journey to becoming Prime Minister, Ardern has grown to acknowledge that she needs to believe in herself stating “you can’t ask other people to believe you and vote for you if you don’t back yourself”.
And backing herself is what Ardern did when she announced her pregnancy after a few months of being in office. Ardern became the second head of government in the world to give birth whilst in office. The first was former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, who gave birth in secrecy in 1990 after keeping her pregnancy hidden. Bhutto was back in the office the next day. However, Ardern took six weeks maternity leave. Although this length of time might appear short compared to the average paid parental leave of 22 weeks in New Zealand, Ardern and her partner, Clarke Gayford, are parenting in their own style, as Gayford is the main carer for their daughter, Neve. Ardern has also proven that being a mother has not impacted on her duty to govern and vice-versa. Especially in the well-received public appearance of Neve at the United Nations (UN) general assembly last year.
Since taking the reigns as prime minister, Ardern is certainly making changes for the better. Policies introduced by Ardern that are being discussed internationally are an increase to paid parental leave, halting a raise in salary for politicians and increasing the number of refugees New Zealand accepts to resettle beginning in 2020. That is in addition to policies to freeze offshore drilling for oil and gas, and focus on renewable energy to make the country carbon neutral by 2050. This comes after New Zealand was named one of the most wasteful in the developed world for 2018. So all eyes will be watching Ardern’s government negotiate an eco-conscious framework if the waste issue is to be tackled.
New Zealanders also face social challenges, holding one of the worst rates of family and intimate-partner violence in the world. To address this issue, a world first law introduced by Ardern’s government allows victims of domestic violence extra paid leave from work, in addition to all other leave entitlements. This law can assist victims with the time needed to seek services for protection, and even time to relocate. Although in its infancy, this solution to a huge social issue is desperately needed for a country that was noted to have 80% of violent incidents in the home go unreported in 2017.
This brings us to the terrorist attack in Christchurch in March this year, described by Ardern as “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”. In the aftermath of the attack, Ardern was quick to address the gun laws that allowed this act of violence to occur. Similar to the United States, New Zealand’s gun laws are lax. What marks a strong difference to that of the U.S. is that the New Zealand government went beyond “thoughts and prayers” in the wake of the attack. The government collectively enacted changes to gun laws, with Ardern announcing a ban to semi-automatic firearms less than one week after the attack.
Finally, it is Ardern as a leader of strength and compassion that is truly impactful post-terrorist attack. She has shown strength in her powerful statement to parliament admonishing the attacker as a nameless person, imploring them to “speak the names of those who were lost”. Ardern has also shown compassion and empathy when meeting with the families and friends of victims, wearing a hijab as a mark of respect and solidarity with the Muslim community. Her unwavering personal representation as a human first and head of government second has shaped the definition of leadership. That definition is simply Jacinda Ardern.
Naomi Boulter is an exchange student from Australia, where she studies an International Relations degree. When she is away from her natural habitat of the kitchen, she is found watching reality TV, practising yoga and trying to study the Swedish language with a cup of green tea constantly glued in her hands. She is looking forward to absorbing vitamin D when she returns home and snuggling with her cat affectionately named “Spaghetti”.
Cover art work: Merle Ecker