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Why can’t more politicians be like Jacinda Ardern?

In the wake of the Christchurch shootings, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown us what true leadership looks like, says Lucy Mangan.

“Just a less annoying Justin Trudeau with an easier country to run.”

So one attendee at January’s World Economic Forum at Davos dismissed Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, who in 2017 drove her party to victory at the age of 37.

He was wrong then, and he has been proved wrong beyond doubt now. Two weeks ago, New Zealand suffered its worst ever domestic terrorist attack when a self-proclaimed white nationalist opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon in two mosques in the city of Christchurch, killing 50 Muslim worshippers and injuring another 50. Suddenly, New Zealand was not an easy country to run, but one full of shock and grief. One prey as all of us are in the wake of tragedy – to the basest fears and instincts.

And Ardern has stepped up like few – including, one can only assume, herself – can ever have expected she would have to. The most global attention she had received until that point was when she announced last year that she was to have a baby and then had to deal with international panicked screaming about how a pregnant woman could possibly govern.

In response, she then proved it was entirely possible, by doing it. Now she is showing the world, in the aftermath of her country’s horror, what else is possible.

Ardern after announcing that New Zealand will ban all military style semi-automatics and assault rifles following the Christchurch attacks

Authentic response

Ardern has reacted to the terrorist atrocity with normal, human emotion, wrapping her arms around the bereaved, naked sorrow on her face. She has denounced the accused shooter – a white Australian national currently under arrest – while refusing to say his name, denying him the publicity his ilk crave for their murderous actions, and encouraging everyone to focus on the victims.

She has put clear water between him and her country’s values and its people, and she has made sure that all creeds and colours are understood to be included in those people. The victims – who came from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Somalia and Afghanistan as well as New Zealand – “are us,” she said. “The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not.” 

She has condemned as “a disgrace” the Australian senator who blamed the dead (as followers of a “savage” religion) for the shootings, dispatched her foreign minister to challenge Turkey’s President Erdogan about his inflammatory promise to make those responsible for the deaths “pay for it” if New Zealand does not, and spoken out against sites who streamed live video footage of the massacre.

Of most practical importance, perhaps, she immediately announced that gun laws would change. Last Thursday, they did. Assault rifles and semi- automatic rifles are now illegal in New Zealand.

She has, in short, done things differently. She hasn’t bothered with any of the usual political bullshit. The talking tough. The endless bloviating. The promising of big, showy changes that will either come to naught or affect the wrong people if they succeed. There has been none of the snuffling self-interest or agenda- pushing that can usually be sensed nosing along underneath a post-disaster politician’s posturing.

Ardern lays flowers at the Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington, New Zealand, on 17 March

A new way to lead

That’s a leader. That’s a leader you want. And while of course it’s not all down to her being a woman – Obama behaved similarly during his term, while our own Theresa May doesn’t come across as very empathetic and couldn’t subordinate her self-interest if the country’s very survival was at stake as we have seen.

But I think it is worth noting that Ardern has been that much freer to behave with authenticity. To do as she sees fit. She has not been as bound, as I suspect male politicians consider themselves, to tamp down her compassion and opt for fighting talk and immediate, ill-thought-out action. 

An outsider to the traditional elite who made those rules, she has been able to acknowledge grief, focus on different methods of repair and reframe the debate away from revenge and blame and all the other things that do us no good in the end.

It is tempting to say that she has added a maternal element to the traditional role, and if that didn’t risk being interpreted – though it shouldn’t be – as reductive, I would. But what if we called it parental? Because the ideal government, or leader, is like an ideal parent – it grants opportunities, paves the way for a populace to maximise its potential and, in times of trauma especially, teaches people to ignore their baser instincts and encourages them to be their better selves. It is this that, among the Trumps and Erdogans of this world, is so depressingly, enragingly and terrifyingly lacking, and which makes Ardern’s response so precious and so striking.

Jacinda Ardern and Theresa May at Downing Street

“Our own Theresa May doesn’t come across as very empathetic”: Ardern and May hold talks at Downing Street in April 2018

Of course, she is not perfect, and we must also be careful to avoid creating a variation on the ‘white saviour’ narrative, and exalting the leadership she has shown and the hope she has given us to such an extent that it in any way obscures the terrible tragedy that has taken place, the lives lost, the bravery shown and the hundreds of people left shattered and stricken.

But. Terrible things do happen, and they happen with increasing frequency. We are all, reluctantly but of necessity, more adept at looking through the detritus of despair for hope. We must continue to do so, and we must allow ourselves to hold onto it if we find it, because if we don’t it will become impossible to go on. And we must go on, otherwise the people with the very worst instincts, the worst visions for humanity get their way.

So let’s cleave if not to Ardern as a person then at least to her willingness to rewrite the rulebook on how a leader should behave.

The Christchurch shootings were the result of an ancient evil. But perhaps they may give rise to a new reaction and from there, in tiny steps, to a greater good.

Images: Getty Images 

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