In the hours after a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in central Christchurch, prime minister Jacinda Ardern called a press conference that set the tone for a grief-stricken country. It has become a seminal moment of her leadership story.
The 38-year-old prime minister has been tested like few New Zealand leaders before, leading the country as it deals with the worst terrorism attack in the nation’s modern history.
Fifty people killed while at Friday prayers. Dozens injured. A once peaceful nation in profound shock. Ardern’s voice wavered slightly as she spoke, but her message of unity and compassion was unflinching.
“You may have chosen us,” said Ardern, referring to the killer, anger in her voice. “But we utterly reject and condemn you.”
New Zealand shooting: Ardern says she will never speak suspect’s name
By Saturday morning she was on the ground in Christchurch with the majority of her cabinet ministers and opposition leaders. Dressed in a black headscarf trimmed with gold, the prime minister met with members of the Muslim community affected by the tragedy. She held them in her arms as they sobbed, whispering words of condolence, and pressing her cheek against theirs. Video footage of those embraces travelled around the world.
Walking hand in hand with those affected, Ardern’s focus was on grieving and commiserating with the affected community. The alleged killer Brenton Tarrant was not representative of New Zealanders’ values and beliefs, she said. Quite simply he was: “not us”.
“The everyday discourse in New Zealand since the attacks hasn’t been one of hate and anger, it’s been we can do this, we can heal, we can come through this,” says Professor Jennifer Curtin, director of the public policy institute at Auckland University.
“She has shown a quiet, strong leadership, and been very focused on looking after the people who are most affected straight away. The killer has barely been mentioned.”
Paul Buchanan, a security expert for 36th Parallel, says Ardern’s strength was her empathy, and she has “excelled” in this arena during a time of crisis. She is also an expert delegator, Buchanan says, and has delegated security reviews and inquiries about how the killer was missed to senior, trusted colleagues, allowing her to focus on healing a traumatised country.
“She is like the mother of the nation. When it comes to events like this I think her touch is near perfect,” says Buchanan.
“The way Trump and others talk, tough talk, after terror attacks, all that is posturing. And sometimes it is designed to mask weakness, sometimes it is a thirst for revenge. Ardern is doing none of that.”
“It is a leadership style that particularly suits New Zealand. New Zealand does have a serious dark side, it does have racism. But what she is doing is giving us a moment to confront these demons, this darkness and change our ways.”
‘Clarity and decisiveness’
Her warmth is balanced by a steeliness. When asked about comments by an Australian senator who sought to blame Muslims for the attack, Ardern called him simply “a disgrace”. She has spoken repeatedly about the need to curb the spread of hate speech and violence on social media in the wake of the attacks. Sites that allowed video of the massacre to be shared were “the publisher, not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”
Speaking in parliament house on Tuesday, Ardern opened her tribute remarks in Arabic “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” she said. “Peace be unto you”.
“One of the roles I never anticipated having and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation,” she continued.
Refusing to speak the suspect’s name, she moved to strip him of power, instead urging people to speak the names of victims.
“You will never hear me mention his name.”
Domestically, even Ardern’s most strident critics have fallen silent. Sam Sachdeva at Newsroom said the event had allowed the prime minister’s “clarity and decisiveness” to come to the fore, while the New Zealand Herald described her leadership as displaying “solace and steel”.
Those watching around the world, who might previously have only known Ardern as the second female leader to have a baby while in office, have in this last week seen her lead her country with humanity and resolve.
An image of Ardern in a headscarf, framed through a stained glass window, was immediately picked up internationally and has come to symbolise her leadership in the aftermath.
The Crisis magazine, the publication of the NAACP, tweeted of Ardern: “Grace. Dignity. Courage… Real leaders do exist.”
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Australian journalist Peter Fitzsimons said Australians wished they could have a leader like Ardern.
“Your Prime Minister stands out internationally as a leader to inspire people around the world,” Fitzsimons said. “Her poise, her steely resolve and most importantly her language of inclusiveness and diversity was admirable.”
Australian television host Osher Gunsberg wrote: “Australia has an election in a few months. Please, please give us someone like Jacinda Ardern to vote for. Please.”
Ardern’s commitment to reform New Zealand’s gun laws in the wake of the shooting also drew praise, with David Hogg, the Parkland school shooting survivor and teenage gun control advocate, sharing a news story about Ardern’s promise to announce gun law changes within 10 days, captioning the tweet: “Imagine.”
The prime minister will again travel to Christchurch on Wednesday to reassure the community that what happened there will never be forgotten. She has already announced that laws to tighten access to semi-automatic weapons are in the works, as well as financial and logistical supportto help with burial costs, and that visas for relatives trying to get to New Zealand for funerals will be fast-tracked.
But largely she will be in Christchurch because her people need her.
At the makeshift memorial at Hagley Park on Tuesday, where paper chains adorn the trees, Christchurch residents unanimously praised Ardern’s “calm, compassionate” response to the massacre. Muslim leaders say her leadership has brought the community together, and made them feel that New Zealand is, and will always be, their home.
“For me, being a Christchurch resident, this is worse than the earthquakes,” one man says. “And I think she feels that, you can tell she feels it deeply.”
This content was originally published here.