On March 16, 2020 — days and weeks before many parts of the world put plans in place to deal with the coronavirus pandemic — New Zealand began to shut down. Nearly everyone who entered the country (including residents who'd been traveling) was mandated to self-isolate on arrival. Just a week later, the entire country shut down, closing its borders to almost all non-citizens or residents. The leader behind those decisions, which many now say allowed New Zealand to effectively "squash" the COVID-19 curve, was prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
This wasn't the first time Ardern had been praised for swift, strict action. In 2019, New Zealand passed a gun reform law that banned most semi-automatic firearms; parts that convert firearms into semi-automatics; magazines over a certain capacity and some shotguns. The decision came just a month after a mass shooting in Christchurch that killed 51 people. And two years before that, the Guardian announced that "Jacindamania" had gripped the country as New Zealanders donned T-shirts and tote bags declaring their love for the newly elected leader.
"Ardern is our third woman prime minister, but I think what sets her apart is her commitment to 'leading with kindness' and her refusal to fit into male-dominated ideals of what a leader should be like," journalist Michelle Duff, author of the upcoming book, "Jacinda Ardern: The Story Behind an Extraordinary Leader," writes via email. "The qualities she represents — inclusivity, togetherness, empathy — are sorely needed in the world right now, and that's also what has made her stand out internationally. These aren't inherently feminine traits, but we haven't traditionally seen them harnessed by male leaders."
But who is Ardern and how did she achieve success as New Zealand's 40th prime minister?
A Biographical Sketch of Jacinda
Jacinda Kate Laurell Ardern was born in Hamilton, New Zealand and spent her early years in Murupara, a place where she said she commonly saw "children without shoes on their feet or anything to eat for lunch."
"Ardern grew up in a poverty-stricken small town where her dad was the local cop," Duff says. "She's long had a strong sense of social justice, born from viewing inequality firsthand."
After attending Morrinsville College and graduating from the University of Waikato, in the northern part of the Waikato region on the North Island, with a Bachelor of Communication Studies in Politics and Public Relations, Ardern worked in a variety of roles: first as an adviser in the office of then-Prime Minister Helen Clark, then in London for the Government Cabinet Office. She later worked as an assistant director in the department for business and enterprise and on a review of policing in England and Wales.
At just 18 years old, Ardern joined New Zealand's center-left Labour Party and in 2008, after years abroad working in countries like Algeria, China, India and Lebanon, she was chosen as Labour's candidate for MP (Member of Parliament) of the Waikato district. Historically, the seat hadn't been attainable for the Labour Party, but although Ardern lost the position by about 13,000 votes, she entered parliament as a list candidate (one who is elected from a party list rather than from a geographical constituency, elected because of the number of votes that their party won, not to votes received by the MP personally). By the time she was 28, she was the youngest member of the House of Representatives and was appointed to the Regulations Review and the Justice and Electoral select committees shortly thereafter.
New Zealand's Youngest Prime Minister in 150 Years
After 11 years as a Labour Party representative, Ardern became the MP for the Auckland electorate Mt. Albert in early 2017. In August of that year, when Labour's deputy leader, Annette King, announced her resignation, Ardern was unanimously elected as her replacement, and when Labour leader Andrew Little resigned less than two months before the election, Ardern was subsequently elected as the youngest-ever leader of New Zealand's Labour Party, the country's youngest prime minister in 150 years, and its youngest female PM, ever. However, her victory didn't make her an instantly beloved leader, and many are still waiting to see how she navigates some of the country's toughest issues.
"It would be wrong to say Ardern is roundly supported by all New Zealanders," Duff says. "While she led her party to election victory in 2017, she didn't win the popular vote. Many of the problems she pledged to solve are still there — we still have a housing crisis, rising homelessness and child poverty. It remains to be seen if she can tackle those in any meaningful way."
Many have, however, praised Arden's leadership since her 2017 victory, and her roles as a feminist and mother have played important parts in her legacy. During an interview regarding whether employers had the right to know whether prospective female employees planned on taking time off from work to have children, Ardern said, "I decided to talk about it, it was my choice ... but for other women it is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace. It is the woman's decision about when they choose to have children. It should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities."
When she and her partner, Clarke Gayford, brought their baby to New York City for a United Nations meeting, Ardern said, "I don't want to ever give the impression that I'm some kind of wonder woman or that women should be expected to do everything because I am. I'm not doing everything."
"Her accomplishments are impressive regardless of your politics," Duff says. "She precipitated a change of government, is the second world leader to have a baby while in office, and we've now seen the effectiveness of her empathetic leadership style through the March 15 terrorist attack in Christchurch, the Whakaari/White Island eruption which claimed 21 lives, and now a global pandemic."
Many credit Ardern's quick, decisive response to the coronavirus pandemic for New Zealand's relatively low number of deaths.
"Her government's decision to swiftly place the country into lockdown in March and close the borders was supported by around 80 percent of the population, which shows the trusted position she holds," Duff says. "It's going to be harder for her to maintain this trust now that Auckland is in a second lockdown, after a second wave of the virus. And with an election approaching in October, opposition parties are poking holes in the government's border control and testing efforts, which have been poor in places."
As Ardern continues to build a lasting reputation, Duff says it's important to remember that while the prime minister's successes have been impressive, her kind and thoughtful leadership shouldn't set an impossible political standard.
"I often hear people say they wish they had Ardern as a prime minister," Duff says. "Yes, she is good at her job. But I wish people would stop acting like she's some kind of anomaly. Every country has their own Ardern, they just have to elect her."