‘Jacinda is a beacon of hope’: How New Zealand’s prime minister has helped heal a heartbroken nation

Analysis: Ardern’s strength and humility continue to unite a country in shock, but it’s not just her kindness that’s carving her out as a leader to follow

Amy Nelmes Bissett
Auckland
Saturday 23 March 2019 18:37
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New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looks on as she attends Islamic prayers in Hagley Park near Al Noor mosque
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern looks on as she attends Islamic prayers in Hagley Park near Al Noor mosque

A silence descended upon New Zealand on Friday as the nation united to mark a week since a terrorist attack in Christchurch took the lives of 50 people at prayer. A mark of respect, said Jacinda Ardern, should be shown by all.

“New Zealand mourns with you, we are one,” the prime minister told the thousands gathered in Christchurch alone. It’s a sentiment the leader has espoused since the country was shaken to its very core by the worst terror attack in its history.

Immediately after the attack, which took place during lunchtime prayers at Linwood and Al Noor mosques last Friday, Ardern set the tone. “Many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities – New Zealand is their home – they are us,” she tweeted.

Since then, #theyareus has been shared on Instagram just under 15,000 times.

“Jacinda has been a beacon of hope in New Zealand’s darkest time,” Alina Ganhucumb tells The Independent after completing a two-minute silence in Wellington.

“She’s behaved with such compassion, strength and integrity. I’ve never felt prouder to be a New Zealander. I think all Kiwis feel the same.”

Ardern has been praised internationally for her response to the Christchurch massacre but it is on home soil that her unwavering stance of unity and respect has resonated the most.

During the two-minute silences across the country on Friday, most women wore a headscarf to show their respect for the Muslin community, a move inspired by Ardern.

She herself took the unusual step to dress in a black headscarf as she consoled members of the Muslim community as she arrived in Christchurch last Saturday.

Dr Zhiyan Basharati, lead in victim support for the Christchurch Organising Committee, has been working on the ground since the first victims were taken to hospital and admits that Ardern’s approach has been incredibly beneficial.

“While we’re a small community, we are looking at victims from all over the world and with that comes many boundaries that can be hard to navigate, especially when dealing with grief,” says Dr Basharati.

“We couldn’t have helped those victims like we have if it wasn’t for the government’s united approach. Arriving in a head scarf alone is an amazing gesture by Jacinda. It’s something the Muslim community appreciates.”

Many note that Ardern has done more in seven days than most leaders carry out in decades. For one, she was was quick to label the mass shooting as an act of “terrorism”, despite many western leaders flip-flopping over the term when it comes to a white assailant.

She also inspired New Zealanders to reach into their own pockets, crowdfunding almost £5m for the families effected, by revealing the government would be paying for the funeral costs for all those who had lost their lives.

She’s behaved with such compassion, strength and integrity. I’ve never felt prouder to be a New Zealander

Alina Ganhucumb

And as Ardern addressed parliament for the first time after the attack earlier this week, she also took another power move, stating she’d never utter the name of Australian-born Brenton Tarrant, who was arrested and charged over the massacre.

“He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist. But he will, when I speak, be nameless,” she said.

But perhaps the most notable move in the last week is the Ardern’s astonishing speed to rewrite gun laws. On Thursday, six days after the attack, her government announced that military-style semi-automatics (MSSA) and assault rifles will be banned in New Zealand.

Jacinda Ardern announces that New Zealand will ban all semi-automatic weapons

The country’s leading political commentator Dr Bryce Edwards says even Ardern’s harshest critics are impressed by her effectiveness since the tragedy.

“Many people, myself included, have struggled to see how her advocacy of the politics of kindness is anything more than sloganeering that lacks any real substance,” says Dr Edwards. “But so far, it seems that Ardern has not put a foot wrong in dealing with the crisis. She’s been absolutely superb.”

Many have drawn comparison to US president Donald Trump’s approach to gun crime in recent years, with Dr Edwards stating that Ardern asking the president to “send love to Muslims” is setting up the Kiwi leader as the leading anti-Trump world leader.

Ardern has not put a foot wrong in dealing with the crisis. She’s been absolutely superb

Dr Bryce Edwards

He adds: “Much about her style and her politics is the antithesis of what Trump represents. Therefore, Ardern will continue to escalate as a pole of attraction for those throughout the world who want to see some sort of symbol standing against the US president.

As Christchurch native Victoria Belanie says, “She’s showing the world you can show humility and be effective. You can be upset and still demand change. All of us in New Zealand really feel we are being led by the best and we want to be the best we can be as a result.”

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