Jacinda Ardern: For New Zealand's re-elected leader, a victory forged in crisis

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party won the general election on Oct 17, 2020.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party won the general election on Oct 17, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

WELLINGTON • A fresh-faced Ms Jacinda Ardern entered office three years ago promising "relentless positivity" - and New Zealand's leader has needed it in abundance as a succession of catastrophes besieged the nation and tested her mettle.

In a hectic first term, Ms Ardern has faced New Zealand's worst terror attack, a deadly volcanic eruption, the country's deepest recession in more than 30 years and the shared global threat of a pandemic.

Along the way, she also had a baby and became the international standard bearer for progressive politics in an era of right-wing populist strongmen. She is only the second leader - after former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto - to give birth while in office.

Ms Ardern had been in office barely 18 months when a white supremacist gunman opened fire in two Christchurch mosques during Friday prayers, killing 51 Muslim worshippers and wounding 40 on March 15 last year. Her compassionate response to the rampage of hate defined the charismatic centre-left leader's image around the world.

When she donned a headscarf and comforted victims' families after the shooting, it resonated globally. She would later describe it as a spontaneous gesture of respect to the Muslim community.

She has also won plaudits for decisive policy action, including swiftly enacted gun law reforms and a push to force social media giants to address online hate speech.

The New Zealand public used yesterday's general election to emphatically back the 40-year-old's performance, giving her a second three-year term in office.

Ms Ardern's campaign pitch focused heavily on her government's success in containing the coronavirus, with New Zealand recording only 25 deaths in a population of five million people. She argued that only her centre-left Labour Party could be trusted to keep New Zealanders safe.

"This has been a really tough time for New Zealand - we've had a terrorist attack, a natural disaster and a global pandemic," she said. "But in these tough times we've seen the best of us. We've been able to clear high hurdles and face huge challenges because of who we are, and because we had a plan."

Ms Ardern grew up in the North Island hinterland, where her father was a police officer. She credits the poverty she saw there with shaping her beliefs. She was raised as a Mormon but left the faith in her 20s due to its stance against homosexuality.

After completing a communications degree, she began her political career in former prime minister Helen Clark's office before working in Britain as a policy adviser in Mr Tony Blair's government.

She was elected to Parliament in 2008, and, in March 2017 became Labour's deputy leader, saying at the time that she was not ambitious and saw herself as a backroom staff member.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2020, with the headline 'For re-elected leader, a victory forged in crisis'. Print Edition | Subscribe