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Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: How Far Will Jacinda Ardern Go?

Leaders Revealed by Covid-19: How Far Will Jacinda Ardern Go?
 David Camroux
Honorary Research Fellow at CERI and lecturer at Sciences Po

With only a few cases of contamination in February 2020, Wellington imposed a lockdown immediately nevertheless. This is because New Zealand is led by a modern woman with a firm grip on power. She put New Zealand in the spotlight during the terrorist attack in Christchurch, and she is at it again, determined to fight the virus. Where will Jacinda Ardern stop?

In order to help our readers answer this question, we asked Professor David Camroux, specialist on Australia and New Zealand, to provide this enlightening portrait: that of a singular leader, at the head of a country that is one of the "Asian counter-models" whose international stature seems to be strengthened by their success in managing the health crisis.

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor on Geopolitics, Editor in Chief of this series


Jacindamania in a "workers' paradise"

Queen Elizabeth, the British monarch, is still officially New Zealand’s Head of State.. On its coat of arms, dating back to the 1950s, on the left, there is a white woman carrying the New Zealand flag, and on the right, a Maori warrior.


The New Zealand coat of arms

The New Zealand coat of arms


The former bears an uncanny resemblance to the current Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in office since October 26, 2017, in this country of five million inhabitants. Is this merely fortuitous? Given this 40-year-old politician’s meteoric rise, one would think that, at this historical turning point, she somehow embodies her nation. The same could not be said about many politicians - and even fewer female politicians. In France, one could draw parallels with de Gaulle for the post-liberation period, or with Simone Weil, who advocated women’s liberation. We should therefore place Jacinda Ardern in the context of New Zealand's somewhat eventful history before turning to examining her qualities as a politician.

First of all, referring back to the New Zealand coat of arms. The indigenous Maori people were, along with the Afghans, the fiercest adversary the colonial armies of the British Empire ever had to face. It needs to be remembered that the bloody battles against the Maori ended up as a "Peace of the Brave" with the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. Despite its flaws, the Treaty of Waitangi granted the indigenous people certain rights that are sorely lacking, for example, in the case of Australia. Currently, 13% of New Zealand's population identifies itself as Maori, and Maori is an official language. 50 years after the treaty, in 1893, New Zealand was the world’s first country to give women the right to vote. Behind these two emblematic events in New Zealand's history lies a demand for reconciliation and consensus, pragmatism, and a certain thirst for equality. In the eyes of New Zealanders these are great attributes of their far away Nation.

No single party has had a majority in its Parliament. Building a coalition that achieves consensus is, thus, a potential Prime Minister’s first task - a task in which Jacinda Ardern has shown real talent.

These unique characteristics of New Zealand, proclaimed at the time as a "workers' paradise", did not escape the notice of the most perspicacious French observers of the last century. In 1904, André Siegfried, a pioneer of modern political sociology, defended his thesis and published his first book on Democracy in New Zealand. Albert Métin, his friend, co-author of the course on civic instruction, (radical) deputy of Doubs from 1909 to 1918, and Minister of Labor and Social Welfare in Aristide Briand's government, had previously published, in 1901, a book that is still cited: "Socialism without doctrines: the agrarian and labor questions in Australia and New Zealand". It should be pointed out that Métin, as "rapporteur" in the National Assembly, was inspired by the New Zealand model when he helped draft the first laws on retirement in France.

New Zealand did not escape the attention of another French political observer, Maurice Duverger, who had demonstrated the importance of electoral systems in framing political life. He indirectly showed that, once again, New Zealand was a pioneer in the field. From its first elections in 1853 until 1996, New Zealand used the archaic British system of "first past the post" (single-member plurality voting) for its unicameral Parliament. Duverger depicted this voting system as reinforcing a two-party system of government. In New Zealand’s case with a centre-left party (the Labour Party, which grew out of the trade union movement) and a centre-right party (the National Party). But such a system could have weaknesses: it might have been seen as not being representative enough, and could as well as being artificially divisive in a society, with a strong political culture of consensus. Thus, in 1993, New Zealand adopted by referendum a German-style system of mixed proportional representation. Since then, no single party has had a majority in its Parliament. Building a coalition that achieves consensus is, thus, a potential Prime Minister’s first task - a task in which Jacinda Ardern has shown real talent. For example, Winston Peters, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, who replaced her during her maternity leave, is the leader of a small party, the New Zealand First Party. James Shaw, leader of the Green Party, is both a member of her coalition and Minister for Climate Change.

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of consensus

Jacinda Ardern joined the Labour Party at the age of 17 and was appointed vice-president of the Young Labour Movement in 2003. She broke a first record in 2007, when she was elected Member of Parliament for a Waikato constituency (the city where she obtained a Bachelor’s degree in communication) while only 28 years old, thus becoming the youngest Member of Parliament. On August 1st, 2017, one decade later and seven weeks before the parliamentary elections which seemed lost in advance by the Labour opposition, she was propelled to become the head of that party. Two months later, after the elections at the age of 39, she was appointed Prime Minister, becoming one of the youngest Heads of State in a democratic country. How can this meteoric rise be explained?

Jacinda Ardern’s "spiritual mother" and political mentor is Helen Clark. Clark was Prime Minister of New Zealand for almost nine years, from 1999 to 2008. With years of experience as Helen Clark’s assistant and with the latter’s encouragement, Jacinda Ardern ran for election. Indeed, Helen Clark was the first woman who broke through the "glass ceiling", becoming the first long-serving female Prime Minister of New Zealand. It was also Helen Clark who demonstrated that a female political leader could simultaneously possess a Thatcher-like moral (and ideological) rigor, while pursuing a progressive agenda, and being generous in the process. Above all, Helen Clark propelled the "Land of the Long White Cloud" onto the international stage. As proof of her reputation, after the defeat of Labour, she was appointed in April 2009 as Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, a position to which she was reappointed in 2013.

She broke a first record in 2007, when she was elected Member of Parliament for a Waikato constituency while only 28 years old, thus becoming the youngest Member of Parliament. On August 1st, 2017, one decade later and seven weeks before the parliamentary elections [...], she was propelled to become the head of that party.

Tony Blair, a contemporary of Helen Clark can be seen as a kind of "spiritual uncle" of Jacinda Ardern. Blair served as British Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007. He is the inventor of a "New Labourism" and the architect, alongside American President Bill Clinton, of the so called "third way" and the "triangulation" in political life. In 2006, Jacinda Ardern became a Senior Policy Advisor in Tony Blair's cabinet, a short-lived but rich learning experience.

Jacinda Ardern’s test of strength

Tweet from an LGBT fan. "Blokes – just give up." 

Tweet from an LGBT fan. "Blokes – just give up." 


As mentioned, Jacinda Ardern, who became the leader of the Labor Party at a time when its poll ratings had fallen to their lowest level in some 20 years, managed to bring the party back to power in less than two months, in September 2017. A new coalition was created with New Zealand First, a somewhat rightist populist party, based on compromises on the immigration issue (a reduction of 25,000 immigrants a year) and a protectionist side by, for example, banning foreigners from buying land in New Zealand. At the same time, the coalition promised to build 100,000 affordable housing units and to strengthen the healthcare system. Given the Kiwis’ sensitivity on environmental issues, and considering the success of the Green Party (the other partner in the new coalition, an action plan to clean up polluted lakes and rivers was launched, and a goal of a carbon-neutral economy was announced. However, the Labour Party did not forget its trade union base: an immediate increase in the minimum hourly wage was also agreed upon.

The images of compassion conveyed by Jacinda Ardern, wearing a hijab and holding a Muslim woman in her arms to console her, have traveled around the world.

Nevertheless, once she became Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern came under severe criticism, to say the least, sometimes in condescending, even downright sexist ways. Some of her opponents were amused when she chose to take six weeks of maternity leave, in June 2018, to give birth to her daughter, Neve. After their baby was born, Ardern’s partner, Clarke Gayford, resigned from his job as a television presenter to become a stay-at-home father. Yet both decisions are widely acclaimed by the general public, for they showed the world the face of a modern, egalitarian New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern's first test took the form of her reply to a terrorist attack on March 15th, 2019, perpetrated by an Australian extreme right-wing sympathizer, targeting mosques and Muslim people in the city of Christchurch. The attack left 50 people dead and as many injured. The images of compassion conveyed by Jacinda Ardern, wearing a hijab and holding a Muslim woman in her arms to console her, have traveled around the world. She declared to the Muslim community "They have chosen to make New Zealand they home, and it is their home. They are us". Her declaration spoke to the heart of a proudly multicultural society. Through her gesture, she displayed a quality seldom found in politicians: the expression of true humanity and an ability to empathize with the common people. A significant tightening of firearms legislation immediately followed, soon challenged by the opposition with the support of the American NRA. At this point, Jacinda Ardern also showed that she had tenacity pushing through the legislation in a record time. From then on, the similarities with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her policy of welcoming Syrian refugees to Germany became obvious.


After the Christchurch shootings

After the Christchurch shootings (Copyright AP)


Jacinda Ardern's speech at the United Nations’ 74th General Assembly was overshadowed in the media by the presence of her baby, whom she decided to breastfeed, in the room. Yet, it was an opportunity for her to affirm New Zealand's place as a regional power in relation to the microstates of the South Pacific. In September 2019, together with Frank Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji, she initiated an Agreement on Climate Change, Trade and Sustainability. Her counterparts, the female Prime Ministers of Iceland and Norway, were also part of this initiative. At the South Pacific Forum summit, she led criticism of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a notorious climate sceptic who refused to consider the existential threat posed by rising oceans to small island states. During the terrible forest fires in Australia in late 2019 and in view of Morrison's stubborn refusal to acknowledge they were linked with climate change, Jacinda Ardern's reputation grew stronger across the Tasman Sea. A recent poll by the Lowy Institute in Sydney places her as Australia’s most trusted politician, a far better score than its own Prime Minister.

On December 8th, 2019, a volcanic eruption hit the tourist island of White Island, killing about twenty tourists and rescuers. Jacinda Ardern's immediate address to the victims, praising the courage of the dead rescuers, strengthened her image of a young mother, an older sister… and an outstanding empathetic politician. These qualities were put to the test in February 2020, with the outbreak of Covid-19 in New Zealand. Her first decisions were radical: she declared a complete border closure to take advantage of the country's island status, and imposed one of the strictest lockdowns on the planet. Every night, she reassured the population through the livestream addresses she arranged from her living room once her baby, Neve, was in bed, and under the slogan "Unite against Covid-19". The educational and reassuring dimension of these "friendly conversations" can be compared with the daily press briefings of Scottish Chief Minister Nicola Sturgeon, in the same circumstances. But in a country where a team sport, namely rugby, is almost a national religion, her injunctions to the "National Team" had particular resonance. New Zealand was initially the only country that seemed to have contained the virus and has not experienced a second wave, though since this paper was initially written, several new cases of Covid 19 have appeared and some less stringent lockdown measures have been put in place.

The country was able to successfully begin a gradual deconfinement. In this context a video that went viral of Jacinda Ardern and her companion being denied entry to a restaurant in Wellington, in order to respect social distancing, has further strengthened the image of this "woman of the people", leader in the eyes of her fellow citizens. With the economic measures she announced, especially those regarding employees, her management of the Covid-19 crisis is almost unanimously accepted in the archipelago, and is a cause of envy for her Australian neighbors led by a mini-Trump, Scott Morrison.

Jacinda Ardern's firm and decisive action in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic further strengthened her international reputation as champion of the island states. When the idea to create a "travel bubble" with Australia was raised, New Zealand insisted that the micro-States of the South Pacific could also benefit from it. Furthermore, and more than elsewhere, New Zealand’s economic program to overcome the Covid-19 crisis gives a priority to ecological measures. If New Zealand was a "paradise for workers" at the beginning of the last century, one could say that it is now a paradise for environmentalists. For pragmatic New Zealanders, the world’s leading exporter of dairy products, the image of a green New Zealand - strengthened by the number of blockbusters shot in the country, such as The Lord of the Rings - is also an excellent marketing tool.


Legislative elections have been announced for September 19, 2020, have been postponed to October 17, due to a resurgence in the epidemic. A latest poll published on July 26, 2020 by the Newshub-Reid Institute, gave Ardern a popularity rating of 62%, while the new leader of the National Party, Judith Collins, only scored 14.6%. The Labour Party seems capable of governing with an absolute majority on its own following the next legislative elections. However, as Jacinda Ardern has shown, seven weeks can be a lifetime in politics.

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

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