explainer

The path that led Jacinda Ardern to becoming the most respected leader in the world.

In 1998, Morrinsville College – a high school on New Zealand’s north island – published their annual yearbook.

Printed on page nine was a poll.

It began with ‘Best Looking Year 13 boy’, followed by ‘Best Looking Year 13 girl’. The grade had elected the smartest, the funniest and the biggest health nut.

But halfway down the list was the person voted ‘Most Likely To Become Prime Minister.’

The name next to it read Jacinda Ardern.

Two decades later, that same Jacinda Ardern would become the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand, and the youngest female head of government in history.

Ardern would later laugh that she was the only one at her high school who cared about politics, having joined the Labour Party at 17. She loved public speaking competitions, and founded an Amnesty International group while at school which ran a campaign to allow women to wear pants instead of skirts. They succeeded.

The daughter of a police officer and a school catering assistant, there were things Ardern saw during her childhood and adolescence that would shape her politics.

Listen: Mamamia’s news podcast The Quicky on the story of Jacinda Ardern. Post continues after audio.

She noticed the poverty in her rural community – a working class yet conservative pocket of New Zealand. According to a profile in Vogue, there was drug and alcohol dependency, as well as mental health issues which saw neighbours die by suicide. There were friends who came to school with no lunch.

Along with her sister, Ardern was also brought up Mormon. In 2005, she sought emancipation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, because it was at odds with her support of same-sex marriage.

“Before the Civil Union Bill came up,” she later told the New Zealand Herald, I lived in a flat with three gay friends and I was still going to church every so often and I just remember thinking ‘this is really inconsistent – I’m either doing a disservice to the church or my friends’.

“How could I subscribe to a religion that just didn’t account for them?””

It was her aunty, a longtime Labour Party member, who first encouraged Ardern to get into politics. She campaigned in the 1999 election, and at 19, had a sense this might be what she wanted to do for a living.

Ardern graduated from university, before working as a researcher for Prime Minister Helen Clark – a woman she would later call her mentor. She was then a policy advisor for Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister of Britain.

It was 2012, when 33-year-old Ardern met 36-year-old Clarke Gayford, a radio and television broadcaster who was best known for hosting documentaries. Their relationship didn’t go far beyond an introduction, until the following year, when Gayford contacted Ardern about a controversial bill being debated within the government.

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When they first started dating, Ardern had no ambitions to be the Prime Minister of New Zealand. In fact, as the story goes, she never did.

Described as a “reluctant leader,” Ardern had seen first hand the toll leading a country took on people. She also wanted to have a family.

In 2017, she was fully supportive of the then Labour leader, Andrew Little, who confided in her that he did not think he could deliver a favourable result for the party.

It was then, in a desperate, last ditch attempt, the party turned to her. It took six days for Ardern to agree that when Little stood down, she would take his place. Her election slogan was simply, “Let’s do this,” three words that seem to have always underpinned her political career – perhaps never more so than this week.

Watch: Jacinda Ardern has redefined leadership. Post continues. 

Against all odds, the Labour Party came from behind to win the election, and Ardern became the third female Prime Minister of New Zealand in October, 2017.

She was only three weeks into the job when she learned she was pregnant.

Speaking to Amelia Lester for Vogue, Ardern remarked that although it had become a ‘big year’, she would not be, “the first woman in the world to multitask.”

Such was her approach to motherhood. Unprecious. Pragmatic. Get on with it.

On June 21, 2018, Ardern became the second elected head of government to give birth whilst also running a country. A girl, Ardern and Gayford named their daughter Neve Te Aroha; ‘Aroha’ being Maori for ‘love’.

It was decided she would take six weeks maternity leave, and afterwards, Gayford would become the stay at home parent.

Her prime ministership thus far has been defined by her commitment to addressing climate change, which she refers to as the “nuclear free moment of my generation“. A goal has been set for New Zealand to have zero carbon emissions by 2050. Free university education is on the agenda, as well as a referendum on whether marijuana should be legalised. There are talks of tax cuts being eliminated and immigration numbers being reduced.

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Widely considered a remarkable political communicator, her skills have perhaps never been more visible than in the last seven days.

On Friday, March 15, news broke of a terror attack in Christchurch. A gunman had murdered 50 people in two mosques, as they gathered for afternoon prayer.

Immediately, Ardern committed to changing New Zealand’s gun laws – a promise that was fulfilled within the week. She announced a period of national mourning, and offered compensation to all victims, including the full cost of their funerals.

Wearing a black headscarf, Ardern spent the weekend embracing mourners – the optics of which sent a clear message of solidarity.

“On behalf of all New Zealanders, we grieve together. We are one. They are us,” Ardern wrote in their national condolence book. An attack meant to divide, thanks to Ardern, did the exact opposite.

Ardern has since refused to use the name of the terrorist. Addressing parliament, she said: “You will never hear me mention his name.

“He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist.

“But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”

The 38-year-old has reimagined what it means to be a leader, at a time when the world needs one more than ever.

Her prime ministership, of course, has not, and will not, be perfect.

But the compassion and decisiveness Ardern showed this week was not new. Though unfamiliar to the rest of the world, it’s been a hallmark of her politics from the very beginning.

Perhaps Ardern – the woman who never really wanted to be Prime Minister in the first place – is setting the tone for a shift in global leadership.

Here’s hoping.

For more on this topic:

“In my homeland’s darkest days, I’ve never been prouder to be a New Zealander.”

‘We will give him nothing, not even his name.’ Jacinda Ardern’s powerful speech to parliament.

These are the names and faces of all the known victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack.

Why the world can’t look away from Jacinda Ardern in the wake of the Christchurch attack.

“These won’t be my best words…” Waleed Aly’s moving monologue on Christchurch.

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