The corona virus pandemic may be the largest test of political leadership the world has ever witnessed. Every leader on the planet is facing the same potential threat. Every leader is reacting differently, in his or her own style. And every leader will be judged by the results.
Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old prime minister of New Zealand, is forging a path of her own. Her leadership style is one of empathy in a crisis that tempts people to fend for themselves. Her messages are clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing. And her approach isn’t just resonating with her people on an emotional level. It is also working remarkably well.
The second of two daughters born to a Mormon family, Ardern spent her first years in Murupara, a small town best known as a center of Maori gang activity, where seeing “children without shoes on their feet or anything to eat for lunch” inspired her to eventually enter politics. Her father—a career law-enforcement officer who later (2014) became the New Zealand government’s high commissioner to the island of Niue—moved his family to Morrinsville, southeast of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, where Ardern attended primary and secondary school. She matriculated to the University of Waikato in 1999.
Ardern was brought into politics by her aunt, Marie Ardern, a longstanding member of the Labour Party, who recruited the teenaged Ardern to help her with campaigning for New Plymouth MP Harry Duynhoven during his re-election campaign at the 1999 general election.
Ardern joined the Labour Party at the age of 17, and became a senior figure in the young Labour sector of the party.After graduating from university, she spent time working in the offices of Phil Goff and of Helen Clark as a researcher. Ardern moved to London where she became a senior policy adviser in an 80-person policy unit of then-British prime minister Tony Blair. She did not meet Blair in London, but did question him about the invasion of Iraq at an event in New Zealand in 2011. Ardern was also seconded to the Home Office to help with a review of policing in England and Wales. In early 2008, Ardern was elected as the president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, a role which saw her spend time in several countries, including Jordan, Israel, Algeria and China.
Ahead of the 2008 election, Ardern was ranked 20th on Labour’s party list. This was a very high placement for someone who was not already a sitting MP, and virtually assured her of a seat in Parliament. Accordingly, Ardern returned from London to campaign full-time. She also became Labour’s candidate for the safe National electorate of Waikato. Ardern was unsuccessful in the electorate vote, but her high placement on Labour’s party list allowed her to enter Parliament as a list MP. Upon election, she became the youngest sitting MP in Parliament, succeeding fellow Labour MP Darren Hughes, and remained the youngest MP until the election of Gareth Hughes on 11 February 2010.Opposition leader Phil Goff promoted Ardern to the front bench, naming her Labour’s spokesperson for Youth Affairs and as associate spokesperson for Justice (Youth Affairs).
In 2011 she ran for the seat representing Auckland Central that was held by another of New Zealand politics’ brightest young stars, Nikki Kaye of the New Zealand National Party, who was just five months older than Ardern. Kaye narrowly (717 votes) won the race, dubbed the “Battle of the Babes,” but once again Ardern returned to parliament as a well-placed list candidate.
After Goff resigned from the Party leadership following his defeat at the 2011 election, Ardern supported David Shearer over David Cunliffe. She was elevated to the fourth-ranking position in the Shadow Cabinet on 19 December 2011, becoming a spokesperson for social development under new leader David Shearer.In 2014 Ardern once again faced off with Kaye for the Auckland Central seat, this time losing by only 600 votes. Nonetheless, ensconced at the number five position on Labour’s list, Ardern easily returned to parliament. Labour leader Andrew Little expanded her portfolio to include positions as spokesperson for Arts, Culture, and Heritage, Children, Justice, and Small Business.
In 2017 Ardern registered a landslide victory in the parliamentary by-election for the vacant seat representing the solidly Labour district of Mount Albert in Auckland. When Labour’s deputy leader, Annette King, announced her resignation, Ardern was unanimously elected as her replacement. Meanwhile, as the general parliamentary election scheduled for September 2017 approached, Labour’s showing in preference polling was abysmal. Even after some nine consecutive years with the National Party in power, there was seemingly little interest among voters in trying Labour Party rule. A pair of polls in July found Labour Party support to be less than 25 percent—some 6 percent worse than the party’s standing in a June polling. With fewer than two months left before the election, Little stepped down as leader but not before securing Ardern’s pledge to stand as his replacement (reportedly, she refused seven times before agreeing). Running unopposed, Ardern was elected leader on August 1.
At her first press conference after her election as leader, she said that the forthcoming election campaign would be one of “relentless positivity”. Immediately following her appointment, the party was inundated with donations by the public, reaching NZ$700 per minute at its peak. Ardern’s election was followed by a spate of positive coverage from many sections of the media, including international outlets such as CNN, with commentators referring to a ‘Jacinda effect’ and ‘Jacindamania’.
Preliminary results from the general election indicated that Labour received 35.79 per cent of the vote to National’s 46.03 per cent. After special votes were counted, Labour increased its vote share to 36.89 while National dropped back to 44.45. Labour gained 14 seats, increasing its parliamentary representation to 46 seats. This was the best result for the party since losing power in 2008. After the election, Ardern and deputy leader Kelvin Davis negotiated with the Greens and New Zealand First parties about forming a coalition, as the rival National Party lacked sufficient seats to govern alone. Under the country’s mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system, New Zealand First held the balance of power and was, therefore, able to choose the party that would lead a coalition government.
On 19 October 2017, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters agreed to form a coalition with Labour, making Ardern the next prime minister. This coalition receives confidence and supply from the Green Party. Ardern named Peters as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. She also gave New Zealand First five posts in her government, with Peters and three other ministers serving in Cabinet.
The charismatic Jacinda Ardern gained fame by leading a struggling New Zealand Labour Party to a surprising victory in the 2017 parliamentary election. She earned a reputation as a “rock star” politician on the way to becoming New Zealand’s youngest prime minister in more than 150 years at age 37.
In 2019 Jacinda Ardern was called upon to lead and comfort her country after an attack on a mosque in central Christchurch and another on a mosque in suburban Linwood on March 15 resulted in the loss of at least 50 lives and injuries to about 50 other individuals.
On 14 March 2020, Ardern announced in response to the corona virus pandemic in New Zealand that the government would be requiring anyone entering the country from midnight 15 March to isolate themselves for 14 days. She said the new rules will mean New Zealand has the “widest ranging and toughest border restrictions of any country in the world”. On 19 March, Ardern stated that New Zealand’s borders would be closed to all non-citizens and non-permanent residents, after 11:59 pm on 20 March (NZDT). Ardern announced that New Zealand would move to alert level 4, including a nationwide lock down, at 11:59 pm on 25 March.National and international media covered the government response led by Ardern, praising her leadership and swift response to the outbreak in New Zealand. The Washington Post‘s Fifield described her regular use of interviews, press conferences and social media as a “masterclass in crisis communication.” Alastair Campbell, a journalist and adviser in Tony Blair’s British government, commended Ardern for addressing both the human and economic consequences of the corona virus pandemic.
Ardern has described herself as a social democrat, a progressive, a republican and a feminist, citing Helen Clark as a political hero, and has described capitalism as a “blatant failure” due to the extent of child poverty and homelessness in New Zealand.
Ardern is one of the most talented and a very kind leader to her people. Also she was a role-model for other leaders too.