Global News with Annalisa Harris, Pamela Lovelace, and Amanda Kingsley Malo 23 March 2019
In the wake of the mosque attack that killed 50 people in New Zealand, the country’s prime minister has won international acclaim for her handling of the tragedy — with some even calling for her nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
“New Zealand mourns with you. We are one,” Jacinda Ardern said in a short speech to thousands of people who gathered to remember the dozens killed a week earlier.
Ardern has been applauded throughout the week for focusing on the victims, encouraging unity and moving swiftly to ban the weapons used in the assault.
All this from a politician who became the country’s youngest leader in more than 150 years, just weeks after winning the leadership of her party.
And all this from a leader whose 18 months in office have been the subject of many international headlines, in large part because she became the second world leader to give birth while holding office in modern times. Ardern is 38, and her daughter Neve is not yet one.
So what is it about Ardern’s leadership style that seems to resonate now, both at home and abroad?
For many, it boils down to her authenticity.
“All politicians are trying to be authentic or are trying to project authenticity and that’s something you can’t fake,” says Annalisa Harris, a former political advisor in Canada.
“People are really sensitive to politicians trying to fake emotions, but the prime minister of New Zealand just comes off as so genuine.”
There are reasons for that.
A typical world leader’s response to such an incident is often revenge, says Pamela Lovelace, a communications professor at Mount Saint Vincent University.
“She has set a tone unlike previous world leaders,” Lovelace says. “She’s not entering the battle of war. What she’s doing is setting the tone using rhetoric of love and respect and compassion and understanding.”
When tragedy strikes, Amanda Kingsley Malo often sees people calling for action that prioritizes the victims’ needs and wants.
And yet, says Kingsley Malo, founder of PoliticsNOW, a group that seeks to get more women involved in politics, people seem to struggle to listen instead of talk.
“I think a lot about the picture of her wearing the head coverings so that she can be respectful to the people she’s having conversations with,” she says.
“She’s listening to their pain and you can tell by her face that she’s really absorbing it. She’s really taking it in and she’s really letting that pain and suffering help guide her in the decisions she’s making.”
The decisions that followed Ardern’s words of support are key to her authenticity, Harris says. She didn’t mourn the victims and move on, she mourned the victims while announcing plans to ban the guns used to kill them.
“That’s especially important as Canadians, because we’re always comparing to the United States,” Harris says.
“After every school shooting, after Newtown [Connecticut, the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings], after all the different attacks, we hear the politicians and their rhetoric of, ‘Oh, we’re going to ban guns. This is the time, this is the time.’”
Except, she says, “they haven’t actually done it.” Ardern is doing it.
Ardern’s response, wrote the deputy political editor of the New Zealand Herald, has been one of “solace and steel.”
“There was no bigger test than this,” wrote Claire Trevett. “It is hard to think how anybody could have stepped up to it better than Ardern has.”
There’s no question that Ardern is bolstered in her ability to follow through by banning guns because she has a majority government, Harris says, “but she’s really breaking new ground because we don’t have that many models of female politicians in charge leading in times of crisis.”
It also isn’t just that she’s a woman, Harris says. It’s that she’s a young woman.
“The younger generation of people want to see emotions, expect emotions in a way that the older generations were more reticent,” she says, noting that older women, especially, were “afraid to show emotion in case it would make them seem weak or emotional.”
It’s even more than that, Lovelace thinks.
While Ardern is undoubtedly aware of patriarchal expectations placed on women in politics, she clearly doesn’t believe in them. There is something that Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the prime minister of Iceland, said at a UN meeting in New York earlier this month that Lovelace thinks applies here.
“The structure of power is created by men. If we want to think about what we want to achieve with women’s leadership, we need to change the structure of power.”
Ardern is such a strong leader, Lovelace believes, because she is operating outside that structure of power.
“Rather than pulling all the power into her office to act with this, ‘I’m going to enter the battlefield now with revenge’ approach … she’s placing that power in the community, to make a better community that cares for one another.”