Jacinda Ardern – a new type of leader?

By Angus M

According to the UN’s Global Parliamentary Report, the average age of parliamentarians around the world is 53. Under 9,000 of the 46,500 MPs around the world are women, which is just under 20%. One can therefore argue that in the spirit of Hanna Pitkin’s concept of ‘descriptive representation’, where a group elects someone who mirrors some of their own characteristics and experiences, leadership and representation in democratic governments around the world need to be improved. Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister of New Zealand, defied this high average age and lack of women representatives, and changed the way that the world looked at young leaders.

Born in July 1980, Ardern was only 37 when she took the oath of office as New Zealand’s 40th Prime Minister, bucking the trend of the average age of world leaders standing currently at 62 years old. She represents a new type of politician, one who started in politics and government early, and who equally appears to be less interested in remaining for the sake of doing so: upon her resignation after 5 and a half years as Prime Minister, she said, “I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind, but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader – one who knows when it’s time to go.”

A new type of leader, Ardern contrasted heavily with her contemporaries, such as Donald Trump in the USA, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. She led by a firm set of principles, where she was clear in her reasoning, open about decision-making, and empathetic towards others. She ranked highly during the COVID-19 pandemic for her strong and decisive but also stable and measured leadership, leading opinion polling ahead of the 2020 election as preferred PM by 62% to just 14% for the National Party’s Judith Collins. As a result, she was rewarded in the 2020 election with a vastly increased share of the vote, giving her a large victory, a particularly significant win for Ardern given that no other party had come close to securing a majority since the new proportional voting system had been introduced in 1993, and although she eventually fell slightly short of a majority it was an encouraging sign of her growing popularity with the electorate.

Moreover, she fostered a renewed commitment to debate and discourse, a refreshing change amongst increasingly polarised politics. The 2017 election was very tightly contested, resulting in the NZ First party left as a kingmaker with its 9 seats to be added to either the Greens’ 14 and Ardern’s Labour’s 46 or to the National party’s 56, with 61 needed for a majority. She stated after the establishment of a strong coalition that she hoped that the election and subsequent negotiations showed that, “as a nation, we can listen, and we can debate… [as] we are too small to lose sight of other people’s perspective”. This characteristic of her premiership not only helped her internally, but brought her a large swelling of support from around the world. She featured twice in TIME magazine’s list of ‘most influential people around the world’, and she ensured that New Zealand’s small geographical size did not bring loss or disadvantage on the world stage in any way. She had some key policy successes which built her successful global reputation: she swiftly tightened gun laws in a well received manner even in a relatively well-armed population, after a lone gunman fired on two mosques in Christchurch killing 51 in 2019; and her COVID policy in the first wave especially ensured that there were fewer than 2,500 deaths out of a population of 5 million, an incredible feat – though one must remember the severity and length of restrictions that enabled this. Through all this, she maintained a good family life, something which certainly gives politicians perspective but is rare, and in 2018 she became the second leader to give birth while in office around the globe. She steps away to spend more time with her family, while also considering her next steps, and remains as an MP until the elections in October this year.

However, she has not been immune from problems while in office. Cost of living rises, coupled with a general lack of affordable housing and growing inequality, have led to her and her party losing ground quickly post-COVID to the National Party and other centre-right groups. Anti-vaccine and conspiracy groups made increased threats of violence towards her, and pressure built over broken election promises, some because of changes brought about by the pandemic. Her target of planting a billion trees has not been met, nor have plans to build 100,000 houses in 10 years. New infrastructure, including whole-scale redevelopments of passenger rail, has not been built, and right-wing parties are attempting to capitalise on these shortcomings in attack ads and campaigns. Her time in office has not been perfect, and some say that her success would have been shorter-lived without the pandemic and the requirement of her resolute leadership in that challenging time.

Yet, it is difficult to say when all things are considered that she has been a bad leader. It is clear that her Labour Party coalition failed to bring in a sweeping contrast from the National Party that was promised in 2017, but she herself has shown a new style of centrist leadership that must be given due credit. In a time where Europe and America have been swept off their feet by a wave of populist politicians changing the electoral landscape, Ardern managed to make a name for herself as an accountable, clear, stable, and respectable leader, and has driven her own path in the world of politics. She set an example that other leaders around the world could do well to follow, and it appears that Sanna Marin of Finland, who has been beset by harsh scrutiny in the press but appears to lead on the same values of accountability and measured, reasonable centrism, is following in her footsteps. If nothing else, Ardern was strong enough to step away when the time appeared right and undisruptive, and for that alone she deserves respect.

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