20 Jan 2023

Communities look back on Jacinda Ardern's handling of crises: 'History will judge her well'

5:32 pm on 20 January 2023
Flowers and messages at the cordon for the Whakaari/White Island eruption. 11.12.19

Flowers and messages on a cordon fence following the Whakaari/White Island eruption of December 2019, which claimed 22 lives. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's time in office has been punctuated with unparalleled tragedies - from terrorism to a global pandemic.

Following the announcement that she will step down as prime minister, community leaders and academics have reflected on Ardern's leadership through some of our darkest days.

The first, which shook the nation and for which Ardern received international praise for her response, was the deadly Christchurch mosque attack in 2019.

A spokesperson for the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, Abdur Razzaq, said Ardern's response to the massacre set an international benchmark.

"Her leadership at that time was inspirational.

"It was so caring and in a way it united the nation and started the healing process.

"So we all remember that and we are most grateful for that."

'I think history will judge her well'

Later the same year, the devastating Whakaari/White Island eruption claimed 22 lives.

Judy Turner was in her first few weeks as Whakatāne's mayor at the time.

Turner said she could not believe the prime minister was by her side just hours after the eruption.

Together, they visited the injured, victims' families and first responders as the community - and the country - came to grips with the tragedy.

"To have a leader that actually cares enough to get out and be beside and to recognise the suffering of other people, to provide support for services that are responding to the situation, I think all that really means a lot to people," Turner said.

"I think history will judge her well."

'She made really hard calls very quickly'

Next, the one that's still not over: the Covid-19 pandemic.

Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker said Ardern's decision to stamp out the virus and lock down the country was brave and controversial - but life-saving.

"I think the evidence is stacking up to show her leadership was exceptional and she made really hard calls very quickly and I think probably just in the nick of time to ensure that the elimination strategy actually worked in New Zealand."

But that approach provoked a surge of fury towards the government, and Ardern herself - a lot of which was underscored by disinformation about the pandemic.

It culminated in the three-week occupation of Parliament that ended in a fiery stand-off.

Standing up against disinformation

Sanjana Hattotuwa from Te Pūnaha Matatini's Disinformation Project said Ardern had copped daily vitriol - but had been visionary in her evidence-based approach to standing up against disinformation on a global stage.

"She got hell for it.

"But the way that's she's talked about it, how she's framed it, the language that she used, the way that she presented it, has helped others understand the degree to which this is a problem."

University of Auckland political scientist Lara Greaves said the prime minister had been dealt a tough hand - possibly the worst since World War II - and the fact that Labour could govern alone after the 2020 election spoke volumes.

"There's an argument that she's rewritten the rulebook, in a way, on how to respond to a crisis.

"To respond with empathy rather than toughness after a terrorist attack and that good balance of empathy and toughness I think is something that really marks her term as leader."

Dr Greaves said political scientists agreed it was hard to assess a leader - but most indicators showed Ardern had done well, despite various crises putting her on the back foot in addressing regular policy issues.

She said the incredible global response to Ardern's resignation announcement spoke to the weight of her international star power.

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