You have to hand it to Jacinda Ardern; she knows how to deal with a crisis. A year ago it was the Christchurch shootings, a murderous attack on Muslims at Friday prayer; this year it is the coronavirus pandemic testing her skill. And the New Zealand prime minister has responded magnificently to both, in the view of most of her compatriots as well as millions around the world.
Thanks to her relatively early decisions to close the border, quarantine, isolate and lock down earlier than most countries – and, somewhat later, “test, test, test” – New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of infection, hospitalisation and fatalities (14) for COVID-19 in the world, and seems in a fair way to eliminating the disease.
Admittedly, there are only five million New Zealanders, who are used to trusting the government of the day and getting on with their lives at the bottom of the world. And Ardern is basically doing what public health experts and perhaps the minister of finance tell her is best – probably what some old white male leader would do here in the same circumstances. Nevertheless, she is admired internationally, though it’s not altogether clear why.
An Atlantic magazine headline this week hails her as probably “the most effective leader on the planet”; the BBC pays tribute to her empathy and respect for science, and on her Facebook Live chats Australians beg her to come and save their country.
The Guardian and Forbes magazine between them place her alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen, and several Scandinavian women heads of state/government as evidence of the effectiveness of female political leadership. Especially when compared with certain male leaders…
What these women have in common, according to ForbesWomen contributor Aviva Wittenberg-Cox, is empathy and care. “It’s like their arms are coming out of their videos to hold you close in a heart-felt and loving embrace. Who knew leaders could sound like this? Now we do.”
This brave bit of feminine stereotyping (as one writer has scornfully styled it) apparently includes Mrs Merkel, otherwise admired for her serious and scientific approach (she has a doctorate in quantum chemistry). And it is certainly true of Ardern, especially in her Facebook chats, where she is everyone’s warm and reassuring friend. Who can forget the images of her hugging Muslim survivors and relations of those killed in the Christchurch shootings?
Empathy is Ardern’s trademark and “Be kind” her favourite soundbite. Her messages, The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman notes, “are clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing.” Perhaps that is not surprising given her degree in communication and being in and around politics since she was a teenager, but there are equally seasoned politicians who cannot speak with half the clarity and conviction she displays at her daily media briefings.
So far, most of the country approves of the government’s approach (84 percent according to a poll taken in early April), which includes wage subsidies and increased welfare spending as well new healthcare costs, but many businesses are in danger of collapse, even with the limited return to work announced for next week.
Stopping things is always easier than starting them again, and Ardern’s charisma, which faces a general election in September, will be tested much more severely in the months ahead. Already some professional groups are unhappy.
Meanwhile, it seems too early to crown her as the most effective leader in the world. Yes, she has responded decisively to a crisis, where the options were anyway narrow. Yes, she has done it with evident empathy for the different kinds of suffering her decisions mean for many people. And yes, she has carried the country, a small country, with her for the most part. She has done a good job, so far. But for what else is she outstanding?
Ardern is young, attractive… progressive, and perhaps in that last characteristic lies some of her charm for the liberal pundits.
Just being a woman today gives her a head start, but a woman whose family commitments follow the back-to-front order of the day: partner, child, engagement (last year) and marriage (not quite) marks her as liberated in very contemporary way.
She is an unbeliever, which also recommends her to the media elite. Her moral energy is very much directed to the materially poor and minority groups, but also to such progressive causes as abortion rights and legalised euthanasia.
If Jacinda Adern were a conventionally married, churchgoing supporter of pro-life pregnancy centres, would being a successful crisis manager of a small island nation make her half so appealing as a world leader? I don’t think so.