Opinion: When Jacinda Ardern announced her pregnancy alarm bells rang - doubters were wrong

8:23 am on 19 March 2019

By Annabel Crabb*

Opinion - Just over a year ago, when Jacinda Ardern revealed that she was to become only the second world leader in history to give birth while in office, alarm bells rang.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern at a community meeting in Christchurch Photo: Supplied

Ms Ardern - already the youngest female head of government in the world - had collected criticism from some quarters that she was a lightweight. She was already weathering the tired range of scuttlebutt that seems to attach itself to women who lead (that her relationship was a front, and so on).

For other regional examples, see: a) Clark, Helen; b) Gillard, Julia.

The announcement that the New Zealand prime minister was about to add baby brain to the mix occasioned concern: Would she be able to concentrate? Would she find it all too much?

No-one's saying that now.

Having been confronted with the worst news a leader can receive - an unthinkable and politically motivated mass-fatality terrorist attack in a place of worship - Ms Ardern has yet to put a foot wrong.

Jacinda Ardern speaks after the 2018 Budget is released.

Jacinda Ardern speaking after the 2018 Budget is released. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Holding a wounded nation together

Her approach - adopted so swiftly as to guarantee its authenticity - has been to eschew partisan point-scoring and apply herself entirely to the task of holding a wounded nation together.

"We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism," she told New Zealanders in the confused hours following the attacks.

"We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things. Because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it. And those values, I can assure you, will not, and cannot, be shaken by this attack."

Having said those words, Ms Ardern then made herself physically and respectfully present within the Muslim community as the grief exploded around her country.

She did not mention the name of the attacker; did not engage with his poisonous manifesto, or venture any reflection on the causes of the atrocity.

This is not something we managed across the ditch, where within hours of the attacks we had descended into a sulphurous national bout of gouging and hair-pulling triggered by a repellent press release from a Muslim-hating senator.

A contrast to Trump

On Friday, the 38-year-old New Zealand prime minister took a phone call from the United States President, Donald Trump, who is 34 years her senior.

Asked by Mr Trump what the US could offer to help, Ms Ardern responded: "Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities."

After hanging up, Mr Trump tweeted "We love you New Zealand!" (the President's use of exclamation points is not always well-advised) and then fell into a 48-hour Twitter orgy, banging out 34 tweets and countless retweets on subjects ranging from the "national emergency" of immigration to his own treatment by comedians on Saturday Night Live.

Most pointedly, he called for the reinstatement of Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host stood down last week for questioning whether a Muslim congresswoman's choice to wear a headscarf signified a lack of loyalty to the American constitution.

While the US President was busy backing a commentator who equates the hijab with treason, the New Zealand Prime Minister was quietly donning a headscarf to visit stricken Muslim communities.

It's probably the only contrast you really need when comparing the leadership on display, and a reminder that age does not necessarily connote wisdom.

This is the same NZ leader who told the UN last September: "In the face of isolationism, protectionism, racism - the simple concept of looking outwardly and beyond ourselves, of kindness and collectivism, might just be as good a starting point as any … we must demonstrate that collective international action not only works, but that it is in all of our best interests".

And this is the same US President who told the same forum: "We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism."

It won't get easier from here

Hard times are ahead for Ms Ardern. She must keep her nation together through what we know from experience will be a bruising round of gun law reform (another area in which Mr Trump is unlikely to be of assistance).

And she holds power in coalition with a party known for its opposition to mass immigration, which makes the potential for bitter division high.

But after a week in which young Australians called loudly for a new type of leadership, they may not have far to look.


* Annabel Crabb is the ABC's Chief Political Writer and presenter of Back in Time for Dinner, The House and the Kitchen Cabinet series on ABC TV.

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