The New Zealand prime minister earned international acclaim for her leadership in the face of tragedy. Now she has to persuade her country to keep the faith
History came fast at Jacinda Ardern. Just a few years ago, in 2017, having been a local Member of Parliament for a matter of months, she became a Hail Mary candidate for Prime Minister, a millennial woman thrown into an election at the last minute to resurrect the fortunes of her slumping party in a Pacific Island nation of 4.8 million people. With a mere seven weeks left in the campaign, she put together enough votes and allies to form a government. She officially became her country’s leader around the same time she learned she was pregnant with her first child. In the past year, she has been confronted with a mass shooting committed by a far-right extremist, a suddenly active and deadly volcano and, most recently, a global virus that originated in her nation’s most important trading partner.
Nearly any of those would have been enough to capsize an experienced captain with a crack crew of advisers, let alone a rookie with an untested team whose platform was built on kindness, acceptance and inclusion. But Ardern’s deft and quietly revolutionary management of these crises, especially the Christchurch shootings, got noticed around the globe. Her gender and youth (she’s 39) were always going to make her stand out in a field dominated mainly by old gray men. Those attributes, however, are just the wrapping. Ardern’s real gift is her ability to articulate a form of leadership that embodies strength and sanity, while also pushing an agenda of compassion and community–or, as she would put it, “pragmatic idealism.”
Her response to the events of the past 12 months has propelled her to the kind of global prominence none of her predecessors enjoyed while in office. She has been named one of the most powerful women internationally, mentioned in connection with a Nobel Peace Prize and profiled in glossy media around the world. “Wherever I go,” says the actor Sam Neill, another of New Zealand’s more globally celebrated human resources, “people say, ‘You think we could have Jacinda this week? Could we just borrow her for a while?'”
Now her challenge is to prove this new style of leadership can get meaningful results, ahead of general elections in September. In other countries, voters have been drawn to strongmen and salesmen, wooed by the promise of simple answers to complex questions. People have lost trust in their institutions, whether they be government, media, organized religion or the scientific community. When voters feel powerless and disenfranchised, Ardern told TIME in an interview in her modest Auckland electoral office on Feb. 7, “we can either stoke it with fear and blame, or we can respond to it by taking some responsibility and giving some hope that our democratic institutions, our politicians, actually can do something about what they’re feeling.”
By far the biggest test of Ardern’s leadership arrived on March 15 last year, when an Australian gunman shot dead 51 worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch. As well as killing New Zealand citizens, the shooter murdered nationals from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, India and Egypt among other places. Ardern was in a van on the way to a school in the coastal town of New Plymouth and had just picked up the local mayor (she likes to carpool). Their conversation was interrupted when her press secretary handed her a call from the Police Minister. The van spun around and headed for a local police station, where she–and a PR person on her third day of work–were stashed in an upper room as the situation unfolded.
Between calls, Ardern began to scribble thoughts on scraps of paper. “I just remember feeling this overwhelming sense of, here are people who’ve made New Zealand their home,” she says. “Regardless of whether someone had been in New Zealand for a generation or whether or not they moved here a year ago, this was their home, and they should have been safe and they should have been able to worship here, and that was when I wrote down those words: they are us.”
She called Grant Robertson, her Finance Minister and one of her closest advisers, and ran her thinking by him. After an hour, she went back to her rural hotel, and the ingredients for a national broadcast–a large event space, two cameras, a single table with black tablecloth–were hastily assembled. “I walked into this big empty room and sat down at this table and tried to convey a message.”
That message, and her authentic embrace of New Zealand’s Muslim community, resonated around the world at a time when many nations are defined more by the abundance of dividing lines than the boldness of their unity. When she then wore a headscarf to visit a mosque in Wellington, the images hit screens from Dar es Salaam to Dublin.
Her demonstration that during a crisis it is possible to lead without telegraphing aggression or playing on anxieties was a beacon in a world where the kinds of principles Ardern champions seem to be on the wane. She made a plausible case that kindness was a strength, compassion was actionable, and inclusion was possible. “I think this whole model of leadership that says you’ve got to be tough, and tough means you can’t be kind, is just wrong,” says Robertson. “And she’s showing that.”
Ardern claims she was at first unaware of her impact, because she was focused on more immediate problems. “I can’t overstate how difficult I found the victim-identification process,” she says. She knew that Islamic tradition calls for burial within 24 hours of death, which would clash with crime-scene protocols. “I felt that pressure every single hour that we still had those loved ones’ bodies in the state’s care.” When she arrived at Christchurch, the communication between the police and families was already agitated, as people clamored for access to their relatives’ remains before forensics had been performed. “I remember just asking people if they could sit. And we had silence for a moment, and then I just tried to talk it through.”
While allowing room for the nation to mourn, Ardern was moving swiftly on other fronts. Within days, she had proposed and passed New Zealand’s first meaningful gun legislation in decades; only one member of Parliament voted against it. “It was definitely heartening to see how quickly she and her administration acted,” says Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action, a U.S. nonprofit group advocating for gun-safety legislation. “It was a very important lesson across the world that we don’t have to live like this.”
Ardern also made a point of never saying the shooter’s name, which jolted a lot of media outlets into following suit. The attacker had live-streamed his actions on Facebook. The video and an 87-page white-nationalist “manifesto” were up for hours and widely shared. But Ardern resisted the temptation to push through or call for regulations on tech companies. “I was mindful that we were going to be able to have a greater impact if we actually started some dialogue.”
The worried tech giants’ government handlers put in pre-emptive calls explaining what they were doing and asking if she wanted to meet. Ardern let them flap in the wind for a few weeks, she says, while formulating a strategy. Sometimes it’s handy to be world famous. She had discussions with such leaders as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron, who had started looking at the tech companies after the 2015 Paris attacks, which included a mass shooting at the Bataclan theater.
She also talked to Microsoft president Brad Smith about what might be possible. “And yeah, I called and spoke directly to [Facebook’s] Mark Zuckerberg, [YouTube’s] Susan Wojcicki, [Twitter’s] Jack Dorsey, you know–I just called around,” she says. “Some tech companies might have questioned whether or not it was relevant to them–we asked quite a wide range of companies to be involved. But there was no one who was adverse or opposed to the principles of what we were trying to do.”
Exactly two months after the shooting, the world at large got to see what Ardern, Macron and their team had come up with: the Christchurch Call, a meeting of heads of state and tech companies in Paris to commit to prevent the spreading of online terrorist and violent extremist content. It offers the famously competitive, secretive and regulation-averse tech companies an avenue for working together and collaborating with governments to shut down their information hoses if they start spewing something toxic. The commitments are voluntary, but Ardern noted that the response to a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany, in October seemed to suggest the protocols were starting to make a difference. Twitch, the platform on which that attack was live-streamed, said the footage had been viewed live by five people and then seen by 2,200 others before the company took it down. Similarly, the attempted live-streaming of a gunman’s attack in Thailand on Feb. 8 of this year was shut down within four hours.
“The Christchurch Call was a step change in how governments, industry, and civil society collaborate,” said Nick Pickles, head of global public-policy strategy at Twitter, in a statement that also highlighted Ardern’s “willingness to convene honest and sometimes difficult conversations” as a key factor in its success.
Ardern is also helping to oversee the expansion of the scope and size of a group that had already been set up by some of the larger social-media networks to reckon with the influence of ISIS online. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) will coordinate between governments and the networks to study, respond to and prevent extremist and terrorist activity on the sharing platforms. “I feel responsible for that,” says Ardern. “That’s not to say this started from zero, it did not. The work that Jordan had done was really critical. And equally the likes of the U.K. and France. But I do think that the GIFCT will be a fundamentally different body because of the Christchurch Call.”
New Zealand isn’t the first country to have a mass shooting, or even a mass shooting that goes viral. But Ardern was the first to move enough chess pieces among the public, governments and industry to offer the beginnings of a coherent international response to a problem against which traditional power structures have proved ineffective.
Ardern was already a figure of global interest, thanks to her age, gender and baby, but her sure-footedness after a disaster of that magnitude really pushed her into the spotlight. Though she claims, possibly to reassure her constituents, to be focused like a zoom lens on local issues, she’s not opposed to using her international following to bring some heat to her policy priorities. She was the first world leader to come to the U.N. General Assembly with a baby, Neve, who both stoked the media interest in her speech and served as a nifty visual aid for her contention that as far as the climate was concerned, time was running out.
Her view of the current global political climate is driven by her view of inclusion. She believes the upsurge in populism and extremism is a reaction to the same forces to which she is responding. “If I look around the world at what has given rise to some of those movements, and these leaders that we may not have expected to find power, I don’t think we should be cynical about the origins of that,” she says. “People are feeling either disenfranchised or like they are just struggling to survive and that their democracies haven’t heard that.”
New Zealand, as Sam Neill says affectionately, “is tiny, obscure and remote.” Its chief export, milk in some form, is not the kind of commodity nations fight over. A country with its attributes has two methods for making itself heard on foreign policy: joining forces with others and modeling the behavior it wants. Ardern has done the former, signing several multilateral treaties with such like-minded nations as Norway, Iceland and Fiji to fight climate change and discourage nukes, but it’s the latter that comes most naturally to her.
“It is very important for New Zealand that the only kind of leadership that we can offer globally is moral,” says Bronwyn Hayward, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. “When you have particular individuals who can harness the moral voice with authenticity and sincerity, that becomes a very powerful moment.”
New Zealand has several claims to setting moral precedents. Famously, it was the first country to give women the vote–Ardern is its third female national leader–the first to introduce some form of social security for its elderly and the first to ban vessels carrying nuclear weapons from entering its waters.
Ardern has tried to continue this example-setting trend when forming foreign policy. While Australia has been mired in a crisis over the migrant workers to whom it has denied entry and detained on islands off its coast, Ardern has said New Zealand would take 150 of them. Starting this year, she raised the number of refugees her country would accept by 50%. And she has refocused some of New Zealand’s attention on its near neighbors in the Pacific (her father, a former police officer, is a diplomat in the region), offering $150 million to help those on smaller islands deal with rising sea levels.
But many of these are little more than symbolic gestures. She probably knew Australia would ignore her offer, fearing it would set up a backdoor entry for the migrants. New Zealand’s new refugee intake is still only 1,500. Sweden, with about double New Zealand’s population, took 23,000 in 2018.
When dealing with larger neighbors, New Zealand is at an obvious power disadvantage. Take China, for example; New Zealand was the first country to support China’s inclusion in the World Trade Organization, and in 2008 became the first Western country to sign a free-trade agreement with it. But it rejected Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s first application to provide some of its 5G infrastructure. Giving it the green light after it tries again might anger the U.S., which has called on all its allies to deny Huawei access for security reasons. But refusal could be bad for its most significant trading relationship. Officially the position is that Huawei is welcome to rejigger its offer so it meets New Zealand’s regulations, and then reapply. The coronavirus has already revealed the extent to which New Zealand’s economic health is tied to China’s; in February, Ardern’s government had to relax some regulations on New Zealand’s lobster industry when Chinese New Year celebrations were scaled back, and start a plan for how best to prop up its timber industry as supply chains were disrupted.
However, Ardern has infused New Zealand with a new kind of soft power. When she visited the U.K. to meet Queen Elizabeth II, who is still New Zealand’s head of state, she wore a kahu huruhuru, a feathered cloak bestowed by Maoris on people of honor. Lots of world leaders try the trick of celebrating a nation’s first peoples by donning the local dress. But Ardern, visibly pregnant at the time, didn’t wear her gift with the awkwardness of Western leaders who show up at local photo shoots in guayaberas or floral headdresses. She rocked it. “Other countries want to be associated with what she represents,” says Hayward. “That’s what’s unusual. She’s not having to ask for the time. The doors are opened because it’s helpful for other leaders to be associated with her.”
Ardern claims that she has not set out to make her personal life political, but is merely trying to be open and human. Yet after she became only the second woman in the modern era to have a baby while leading a country (Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan was the other), she and her partner Clarke Gayford–a celebrity TV fisherman–arranged their family life in the most obvious yet surprising way possible; he is the primary childcare provider, with other relatives subbing in. Ardern is at pains to note that this domestic situation was organized for practical purposes and not to make a statement. “It wasn’t like we sat down at the table and said, ‘Well, which one of us is going to stay at home?'” she says. “That was decided.” The next time the couple gets to rethink that arrangement may come on Sept. 19, the anniversary of the day New Zealand women were given the vote, and the date for which Ardern has called an election.
“Know us by our deeds,” Ardern tells the audience at Big Gay Out, a rally in Auckland organized by the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. Enormously popular in the rainbow community, Ardern has come to the festival to announce more funding for LGBTQI+ mental health and research and then meet some voters.
After her speech, she gets so jammed up by selfie takers and huggers that her Labour Party guide, who is wearing a red tuxedo jacket and a striped shorts-and-vest ensemble, has difficulty clearing a path alongside the drag-queen ukulele duos and catwalk contests and military recruiters to the Labour Party’s tent, where a line of about 50 young people are waiting for more selfies and hugs. It’s an exuberant event among her fan base–Ardern gave up her Mormon faith partly because it conflicted with her work to advance LGBTQI+ rights.
The days ahead may not all be so sunny. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t admire her authenticity and compassion, but there’s a sense among her supporters that she may have bitten off more than she can chew and among her opponents that her government has failed on most of its promises. Ardern wants people to know her administration by its deeds, but it may not have successfully done enough of them to have earned their trust. Polls suggest that the Nationals will draw 46% of the votes, Labour 41% and the Greens 5%, which puts them neck and neck. But 46% of people would opt for Ardern as Prime Minister and only 11% her opponent.
It’s not as if Ardern’s government has sat on its hands: the minimum wage has risen from $15.75 to $17.70 in local currency, and will reach $18.90 in April. Teachers and nurses, among others, got a raise. Ardern introduced a well-being budget, so that any project requiring funding has to demonstrate how it makes people’s lives better. Paid parental leave was increased from 18 weeks to 22 weeks. Almost 150 million trees were planted.
In perhaps her boldest strike against climate change, she canceled all further offshore oil and gas exploration. “We’re moving to 100% imported energy,” says Auckland financier and developer James Kellow. “We used to be a net exporter of energy. That was quite a shock to business.” Apart from that, he says, the business community is content with the Labour government. “They haven’t had that big an effect on the economy because they haven’t changed that much,” he says. Unemployment is at 4% and annual GDP growth is at 2.7%, which is higher than in the U.S. and the U.K.
But Ardern finds her more ambitious dreams stymied by domestic setbacks. To deal with New Zealand’s astronomically high housing prices, Ardern promised 100,000 affordable homes in a decade and 1,000 in her first year in office, but only 47 houses later, those targets were scrapped as infeasible. As of the end of last year, 315 houses had been built. Infrastructure has also proved to be a challenge; Labour canceled the roads projects started by the outgoing government to use the funds elsewhere, but has recently restarted them. And Ardern tried and failed to pass a capital gains tax to redress income inequality.
Most frustrating of all is the issue of children. Ardern is fond of saying she wants New Zealand to be the best place in the world to be a child. So far it just isn’t. On average, a child is killed there every five weeks. The country has the highest rate of 15- to 19-year-old suicide in the developed world. Ardern appointed herself the Minister for Child-Poverty Reduction and, while still on parental leave, announced that all families would receive a benefit of $60 a week for the first year of a child’s life and some for three years as part of a larger Families Package. In a video from her couch, she called it “the thing I’m most proud of” since she took office.
But 2½ years into her tenure, the numbers haven’t budged. “There has been a spectacular change in emphasis that we would never have dreamed about when I arrived,” says Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft, who has been in the role of national watchdog for children’s rights for three years and who praises Ardern for the steps she has taken so far. “But on the statistics we have to date, we don’t have the evidence that there has been any fundamental change in the welfare of children.” There’s an 18-month lag in reporting, so he hopes to see some improvement soon. But he points to the difference in the welfare of New Zealand’s elderly, who receive government assistance indexed to economic growth, and the nation’s children, who have been disadvantaged by stagnant welfare payments. He would like the government to use the budget surplus it has been growing since 2015 to redress this imbalance. “In a sense, the growth for New Zealand has been at the expense of its most marginalized children for the last 30 years,” he says.
Ardern’s hands are tied to some extent, because her center-left party is in a coalition government with two other parties, the far-left Greens and center-right NZ First, which have their own priorities. The system relies on compromise to get things done, which can limit the rate of progress. She set a challenging target for greenhouse-gas emissions, reducing them to net zero by 2050 but, under pressure from NZ First, had to exclude the biogenic methane produced by the agricultural industry–the country’s biggest.
Many of her supporters suggest that her party and administration have a knowledge and experience gap; before Ardern took power, the Labour Party had been in opposition for nine years. Drawing enough votes for Labour in the election could allow Ardern to form a coalition with only the Greens and have a better shot at governing the way she wants.
If Ardern is anxious about any of this, she doesn’t show it at a soiree for the press at the official Prime Minister’s residence in Wellington on Feb. 12. She and Gayford are dressed casually (she in sneakers, he barefoot in shorts), trying to keep their 19-month-old daughter, also in shorts, from poking all the finger food. They switch off watching over her, with an aide swooping in as needed.
At one point, Neve is allowed to bang on the grand piano, although her performance goes largely ignored. She does, however, have a surefire party trick. Ardern runs through various animals, and Neve, without removing her bottle from her mouth, imitates the noises they make. Eventually Ardern asks how adults sound. “Blah blah blah,” her daughter chants, to much laughter.
If Ardern loses the election, she will have plenty of options, including simply spending more time with the aforementioned small piano player. Robertson, the Finance Minister, sees her taking on one of the more forward-looking issues, like climate change or child poverty. Many of her antecedents went on to serve in global institutions. New Zealand’s second national female Prime Minister, Helen Clark, was head of the United Nations Development Programme and narrowly missed becoming the first female U.N. Secretary-General. Another Prime Minister, Mike Moore, was the head of the World Trade Organization. She could follow his example. In some ways, she already has. “Leadership,” Moore once said, “is more than finding an angry crowd and agreeing with it.”
Ardern says she has no idea what she will do next. “Absolutely zero plan B. But actually that’s not new,” she adds. “That’s always been my way of being. It’s probably how I’ve ended up in politics.”