New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s decision to step down shocked many. She would resign no later than early February and decline to run again. During her announcement broadcast by television while holding back tears, Ardern said that her term of office for five and a half years was a hard time. She has been a prime minister since 2017 and won a reelection in 2020.
My interest in Ardern arose when she won the victory as the Prime Minister of New Zealand for the second time in 2020. This event became an afterthought for anyone viewing leadership as a matter of democracy established on the foundation of public and humanitarian trust in the country. She is a leader of the country totalizing government and politics, humanity, honesty, and strong determination in the right fashion.
She opened her victory speech at the Auckland City Hall with a greeting in Te Reo Maori, an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the Māori people, the indigenous population of mainland New Zealand. Right from the beginning she reached out to those whose lands have been robbed, identities destroyed, and lives devastated by colonialism. She delivered a strong message, embracing the mosaic shaping her society which directly handles controversial problems in the past and present. Much has been done in the first period of her leadership.
Some have sold New Zealand’s success short in dealing with the Covid-19 problem following its small country with a population less than 5 million people. The underreckoning, however, springs out of those covering up their failure of mandated leadership.
In tackling Covid-19, Ardern did her best, taking seriously what she heard and had no fear to make tough decisions. At the outset, the country imposed strict travel restrictions and lockdown despite that fact the number of positive cases was still very small. Diverse measures were put in place to support the community and economy, including wage subsidies and rent freezes. Equally important is her empathy expressed for every loss of life due to Covid-19. The faces and names of Covid-19 victims are strictly disclosed. They have never been treated as sole statistics.
Empathy is deeply ingrained in Ardern’s personality, getting her close to the society. This was clearly shown following the shooting tragedy at two mosques in Christchurch in March 2019, which was carried out by a white Australian citizen. This incident has killed 50 people and injured dozens of others. Her response epitomized a genuine empathy.
She captured the very nature of heaviness thanks to her interaction with the victims’ families and friends. She demonstrated her responsibility as a leader of the country for many people who were seeking protection from persecution in her country but found death due to a blind hatred towards Islam instead.
Her visit to the mosque, her embrace of family members and friends of the victims, and her attitude of wearing hijab during the visit were seen as a sign of respect. She refused to name the perpetrator of the killing in her speech and simply named him a terrorist. For her, intolerance will not be tolerated. Her decision to broadcast the Friday call to prayer nationwide was also a signal to bigots who oppose her diverse and inclusive social vision. Along with her empathy, her decision to ban the possession of firearms and military semi-automatics in the aftermath of the Christchurch attacks confirmed her seriousness in translating her values and world view into concrete policies.
In the first three years of her term of office, Ardern introduced a complete agenda reflecting her as a young woman, as a social democrat, as a New Zealand, and most importantly as a humanist. This revolves around environmental problems (the government has banned disposable plastic bags) to gender sensitivity (sanitation products have been free for young women at school since 2021). Ardern joined the Labor Party at the age of 17 because of her concern for children’s poverty.
As she developed and matured politically for years, she remains true to her root in social beliefs; retains her uncanny ability to intermingle with anyone without hesitating over making difficult decisions. It is for this reason that the people of New Zealand are again entrusting their future in her hands.
While we are still witnessing Indonesian politicians appearing on stage with high confidence but falling in scandalous matters, Ardern has taught us how to ascend and descend politically with honor. Thank you, Ardern.
The writer is a lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities, Andalas University