The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Distinguished pol of the week: Jacinda Ardern was the icon democracy needed

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the 77th session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 23. (Julia Nikhinson/AP)

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s glass-breaking prime minister, announced last week that she would resign, explaining she simply didn’t have enough “gas in the tank” for another term. She will be greatly missed for multiple reasons.

Ardern was elected in 2017 and shortly after announced that she was pregnant. In the years that followed, she set an example of leadership for not only young women but also working mothers. She showed that a woman can give birth, take maternity leave from a high-powered job and keep going while her husband held down the family home.

But her achievements were much greater than that. As the BBC recounted, “Jacindamania quickly spread across the globe, where she was feted as the anti-Trump — a liberal beacon in a world which seemed dominated by right-wingers like the U.S. president.”

It was her reaction to the horrific mass murders at two mosques in Christchurch that defined her image as a compassionate and strong progressive leader. In speaking at a memorial service for the 51 people slaughtered in the racist killing spree, she told her country that the stories of the slain people’s lives would “form part of our collective memories.” And with that “memory comes a responsibility.” She explained what this means:

A responsibility to be the place that we wish to be. A place that is diverse, that is welcoming, that is kind and compassionate. Those values represent the very best of us.
But even the ugliest of viruses can exist in places they are not welcome. Racism exists, but it is not welcome here. An assault on the freedom of any one of us who practices their faith or religion, is not welcome here. Violence, and extremism in all its forms, is not welcome here.

She concluded, “We cannot confront these issues alone, none of us can. But the answer to them lies in a simple concept that is not bound by domestic borders, that isn’t based on ethnicity, power base or even forms of governance. The answer lies in our humanity.”

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That resolute moral voice resonated around the globe. But she offered more than just words. As the New York Times reported, Ardern immediately moved enact a ban on “all military-style semiautomatic weapons, all high-capacity ammunition magazines and all parts that allow weapons to be modified into the kinds of guns” used to kill people in mass shootings. In the United States, where “thoughts and prayers” rather than decisive action follow such acts of violence, her action was a source of amazement if not awe.

Henry Olsen

counterpointJacinda Ardern is right to leave office — before voters force her out

In short, Ardern matched compassion and empathy with decisive action, defying the right’s caricature of progressives as weak or vacillating.

If there were any doubt about her strength and willingness to make tough calls, she put those to rest during the coronavirus pandemic. The BBC recalled that she “acted quickly, bringing the country together under her oft repeated slogan ‘be strong, be kind.’” Ardern wasted little time in directing all new arrivals in the country to self-isolate. “By the end of the month,” the BBC noted, “the borders were closed to almost all non-citizens or residents, and a nationwide lockdown had been put in place. The policy of ‘hard and early’ appears to have worked. The economy suffered a massive blow, but is now Covid-free — apart from some cases in quarantine.”

In addition, her 2019 “Wellbeing Budget” was widely praised. The International Monetary Fund, for example, wrote on its blog: “Wellbeing Budget 2019 set out to prioritize five key areas: mental health, child well-being, supporting the aspirations of the Māori and Pasifika populations, building a productive nation, and transforming the economy. It unveiled billions for mental health services and child poverty as well as record investment in measures to tackle family violence.”

No leader in a democracy can escape criticism or avoid losses. Ardern’s covid policy triggered an angry reaction from many residents, and she didn’t achieve all her lofty domestic goals. But democratic leaders should not be held to superhuman levels of perfection. If citizens find a leader who is compassionate and able to articulate their nation’s values while seeking to address the big issues of her time, they should count themselves fortunate.

Though she is leaving office, Ardern will remain an icon for liberal democracies. Perhaps she’ll find another public position internationally, such as U.N. secretary general or head of the IMF. Or perhaps she will continue to work on issues she holds dear in her home country. Whether in public or private service, her youth affords her the opportunity to contribute for decades to come.

For her service to New Zealand and her contributions to liberal democratic values, we can say, well done, Prime Minister Ardern.

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