“You need to remove some of the politics sometimes and just think about humanity,” our prime minister Jacinda Ardern said in a headline article in the current edition of the Guardian Weekly.
She was talking to Guardian writer and editor of New Zealand’s website news The Spinoff, Toby Manhire, and it is a mesmerising read for those of us who watched her, succinct and sombre, as she navigated the first appalling news of the Christchurch shooting and then the shoals of world attention.
Easter and its roots in the Northern hemisphere spring rites of pre-history and classical mythology. It is a time of redemption and rebirth and Jacinda was creating – from the heart level – an enviable template for leadership in the world; a progressive young woman where the global lineup is still dominated by greying men – often populist, rabble-rousing leaders peddling toxic versions of nationalism.
Her scribbled notes for the first press conference of the unfolding Christchurch tragedy were three short sentences on the back of a folded briefing for an earlier event and included the iconic “They are us” that flashed around the world. They were made in a hotel room.
Very little of what she did, then or later, was deliberate – there wasn’t the time, she says. “It’s intuitive. I think it’s just the nature of an event like this. There is very little time to sit and think in those terms.
“You just do what feels right.”
Internationally, she swiftly labelled the attacks “terrorism” and bluntly called an Australian lawmaker’s suggestion of a link between Muslim immigration and violence “a disgrace”.
Jacinda also committed her government to tightening gun laws, promising to do so in less time than the fortnight it took the Australian Government to implement similar reform after the Port Arthur massacre in 1996.
“Acts like this shock to the core our open and diverse countries,” said London mayor Sadiq Khan, recalling a discussion when he and the New Zealand prime minister talked passionately about the importance of inclusivity and equality in society.
Cihangir Islam, a Turkish lawmaker from an opposition Islamist party, also praised Ardern.
“She says to Muslims in pain, ‘You, you’re us!’ She symbolically covers her head when she goes to a home for condolences; she boldly underlines her respect and solidarity.
“How thirsty we have become for justice and mercy in state administration,” he wrote.
“Can you imagine having a leader of a country showing this kind of empathy?” London literary agent Jonny Geller wrote in a post that has garnered 58,000 likes. “Thank you, Jacinda Ardern, for reminding the world what a leader is and could be.”
In the past, says Manhire, Jacinda Ardern’s invocations of kindness might have been dismissed as slogans, but not now.
He quotes her on a discussion about Tony Blair, for whom she “very indirectly worked” and who also took office in a blaze of progressive euphoria and expectation.
“What you do with policy, it demonstrated to me, can be completely overshadowed by decisions in principle,” she said of that time when people were ready for things to be done differently.
“Sometimes, what you’re promoting isn’t tangible. Things like wellbeing, these are ambitions but intangible things.” Jacinda doesn’t want to lower the bar, to be someone who only has regard to political measures of success with the talk there only as a kind of moral insurance.
“I am a pragmatic idealist. I will always strive for better but I am pragmatic about how much time that takes.
“I would like to just do my job and be judged on being the prime minister of New Zealand.”
At the moment, that includes having the ear of the world and its leaders. Her message, she told Manhire, is simple: “Humanity. People have remarked upon the way we’ve responded, but to me there was no question. You need to remove some of the politics sometimes and just think about humanity. That’s all.”
At the Hagley Park remembrance service, the prime minister was given a standing ovation before she even spoke. “We each hold the power, in our words and in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness,” she said. “We are not immune from the viruses of hate, of fear, of other. We never have been. But we can be the nation that discovers the cure.” • Liz Waters