Why Jacinda Ardern matters

  • New Zealand’s prime minister is emerging as the progressive antithesis to right-wing strongmen like Trump, Orban and Modi
- Sushil Aaron

Mar 22, 2019-

Auckland, New Zealand—Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, has been exemplary in her response to the massacre in Christchurch, where 50 Muslims were killed in two mosques by an Australian white supremacist and his accomplices.

Ms. Arden provided a frame for national grief by embracing the Muslim immigrant community and by firmly insisting, in a tweet after the attack, “Many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities—New Zealand is their home—they are us.” She set the tone for the country’s response, framed the incident as a terrorist attack and insisted that her country will reject violent extremism.

Ms. Ardern, 38, took over as prime minister in October 2017, after generating a measure of “Jacindamania” and leading her New Zealand Labour Party to victory. Her stature as a serious progressive politician has not been affected by her celebrity status; Ms. Ardern leads in polls even as some of her policies receive mixed reviews.

Christchurch marks a turning point for Ms. Ardern and for New Zealand. She has set high benchmarks for messaging and leadership during this crisis. She is expected to unveil specific proposals to reform the country’s gun laws before Monday. Ms Ardern, wearing a black scarf, comforted families of the victims—a remarkable gesture given the reactions Muslim women’s headgear provokes in many Western countries.

New Zealanders have followed their leader’s example. Citizens are declaring that the attacker does not speak for them, donations are pouring in for families, condolence books are being signed, flowers placed in front of mosques. On Sunday, church congregations sang New Zealand’s soaring national anthem that speaks about “men of every creed and race” gathering before God’s face in a “free land.”

Through the aftermath, Ms. Ardern has consciously sought to reinforce state ideology and elevate it above private prejudice. She recognizes politics as the domain that decides a nation’s values and is providing strong narrative direction for a society suddenly dealing with exposed fault lines. She is reminding Kiwis to come to terms with the altered composition of her nation and, in fact, told Donald Trump that the best way he could support New Zealand was by offering “sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.”

On Tuesday, while speaking in the Parliament, she told the grieving families, “We cannot know your grief, but we can walk with you at every stage.” And in a pathbreaking gesture, Ms. Ardern said she will never mention the name of the terrorist, thus withholding the notoriety he sought. She implored others to “speak the names of those who were lost, rather than name of the man who took them.”

Ms. Ardern is emerging as the definitive progressive antithesis to the crowded field of right-wing strongmen like President Trump, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Narendra Modi of India, whose careers thrive on illiberal, anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Like its exceptional prime minister, New Zealand has a national culture unlike any other in Europe or the Americas. Its isolation and distance makes its distinctiveness possible, and the difference is palpable. It is a spectacularly beautiful country with a population of five million occupying an area larger than Britain. Though an urbanized country with a stable developed economy, it has a pace and an outlook of life that seem at odds with the extractive demands of modernity.

Migrants from developing countries relate easily to friendly Kiwis and are often surprised to see children and adults walk the streets barefoot. There are superb public libraries and innumerable public spaces in the form of beaches, bays and parks. Community ties are crucial, work-life balance matters, long weekends are sacred.

Public-funded advice bureaus help migrants settle in. The streets are safe, schools are free and university costs are relatively modest. Kiwis complain about lack of public investment in specialized health care but it is already impressive for a foreigner: a full course of prescribed antibiotics costs $3.43. New Zealand grapples with neoliberal pressures but is attempting to hold on to its social democracy.

Of course, the country has its problems. Lack of housing is a serious concern, attributed to a property market spiked reportedly by Chinese investors over the years. Maori communities seek compensation for historical dispossession, which is being addressed by a tribunal and conscious promotion of indigenous culture. Mental health comes up as an underdiscussed issue and public infrastructure needs more investment.

Cities like Auckland grew rapidly in the last decade owing to thousands of foreign students and workers, which increased pressure on services in ways that Kiwis did not expect. Many New Zealanders are still getting used to diversity and often regret that “the country has changed.” This yields resentment among some that right-wing figures seek to stoke. Muslims have been subject to racial slurs and hate speech since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, but as Mohamed Hassan, a Kiwi journalist put it, not in ways that one’s “life would be on the line.”

But there is a vibrant political debate on immigration and about the need to import skilled labor without provoking domestic tensions—all conducted without rancor or vitriol. Migrants will not deny sensing subtle forms of exclusion in securing jobs or promotions at work, but the ingrained commitment to everyday civility among New Zealanders is something an immigrant appreciates the most.

Ms. Ardern has a tough road ahead to ensure that the country’s “profile” does not change. The challenges she faces resonate with those in other democracies. It remains to be seen if in her case normative habits and deliberative practice can prevail over nasty right-wing subcultures that are amplified by technology, social media and weapons.

Combating bigotry and prejudice entails both law enforcement and cultural change. The former is easier, the latter less so. Ms. Ardern will need to use her country’s civility to confront social divisions rather than allow it to foster silences that block a fuller expression of equality for marginal groups.

Her government will need to craft newer meanings of national belonging to translate the tolerated and unwanted into the desirable. Democratic discourses must ultimately aim to bridge ethnic silos and parallel cultural lives.

It is a challenge fraught with risk for a liberal politician, as a perceived overreach in social engineering can provoke a conservative backlash. It is not easy dealing with both a grieving community and a nation whose self-image has been dented. Right now her moral clarity is inspiring the world.

— © 2019 The New York Times

Published: 22-03-2019 10:45

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