Courageously compassionate: a conversation with Jacinda Ardern
Illustration credit: Tania Bischof

This year has presented a period of widespread fear and uncertainty. As such, the narrow agendas of political parties no longer frame the way in which we judge our leaders. Instead, we look to our heads of government for responsible, well-informed action that puts the welfare of the people and the planet first.

Jacinda Arden, Prime Minister of Aotearoa (New Zealand), seems to have struck a chord for leadership worldwide. Her compassionate and unifying response to the Christchurch Mosque Shooting resulted in international acclaim, and her national ratings have consistently ranked her far and away as Aotearoa’s preferred prime minister.

Ardern’s image is built on values of kindness and empathy, and of acknowledging the needs of everyone, regardless of cultural, gender or socio-economic identity. When I asked Ardern where this profile came from, and how it became so successful, she responded openly about the expectations of a politician.

Illustration credit: Tania Bischof

“When I first came into politics, one of the criticisms I received was that I was not aggressive enough, not assertive enough,” Ardern admits. She explains that a certain brutality and an ability to “claim ‘scalps’”, is expected of politicians. But Ardern did not buy into this. Instead, she recognised what few politicians seemed to notice, which is that “those aren’t necessarily the traits that the public are looking for”. She describes, then, making “a very deliberate decision” not to compromise her intuitive leadership style in order to be politically successful.

Throughout her governance, Ardern has sought to spark a shift in the way we view political leadership and what it means to be a leader. She explains, “We teach kindness and empathy and compassion to our children but then, somehow, when it comes to political leadership, it often seems there can be a complete absence of that. So, I am trying to chart a different path”. She wishes to show the world “that you can be yourself, that you can demonstrate both empathy and compassion, and still be strong”.

Unfortunately, leaders like Ardern are the exception rather than the rule. Many of our current heads-of-office were elected in desperation, by a predominantly disaffected electorate. They promised over-simple fixes for complex issues. Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign and Donald Trump’s infamous motto, “Make America Great Again”, both appealed to a collective nostalgia for simpler, and more glorious times. Leaders like these play on people’s fears and allude, in their rhetoric, to the comfort of a rose-tinted view of the past. Their images promise change: change from a period where the complexities of modern life predominate, from economic struggles, from the usual parliament of insincere, disconnected politicians. But, one by one, as they take office, it becomes clear that many of these new, ‘radical’ political leaders are just more of the same.

Indeed, international opinion suggests that our world leaders have been doing pretty badly. Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro have been met with global scepticism, bordering on ridicule, while Scott Morrison’s response to the Australian bushfires prompted outrage.

Therefore, as we approach elections it is important to ask ourselves, and for political parties to ask themselves, what is it we want in a leader?

Ardern’s government has not been perfect. It was crafted through a shaky and disparate coalition that made far more promises than it could keep. However, despite this apparent naivety (Ardern likes to think of it as “pragmatic idealism”), there is no doubt that this Prime Minister’s leadership of Aotearoa/New Zealand has represented the possibility for change in the way politics is carried out. Ardern champions the Aaron Sorkin version of politics: a government that is overtly centred on doing what is right, and one that focuses on honesty and empathy. 

So why is it that, amidst such poor, global leadership, Aotearoa/New Zealand has done so well?

One answer can be found in our MMP electoral system, which ensures proportional representation. This usually requires the collaboration and negotiation of multiple parties to form a government. Indeed, Ardern’s government required a coalition of the Labour, Green and New Zealand First parties to gain a majority. This kind of parliamentary system calls for different skills in its leaders. The ability to compromise, cooperate and consider the values of others are crucial in order for members of parliament to take office. This system, therefore, encourages a more collaborative approach to government, one that differentiates Ardern’s parliament from that of Trump or Bolsonaro. 

Ardern’s responses to my questions echo this difference. She speaks of emphasising sincere kindness and understanding, as opposed to appealing to the greedy and selfish, animal sides of the public. She says that she aims, in her governance, to instil “fairness and kindness as guiding values of good government, because frankly, individualism and the politics of fear have failed us. We don’t need to start again, but we do need to change the way we do things”.

While the politician in Ardern is anxious to avoid sparking unnecessary controversy, her message here is clear. Too often in politics, we allow candidates to get away with public manipulation and attack campaigns. However, this system only creates restrained leaders, trapped behind a media-driven instinct to maintain a flawless public mask. As a result, these people, who should be passionate and moral and understanding of the difficulties faced by their communities, become nothing more than puppets of a system which benefits only those with influence. But these insincere robots, who avoid significant change for fear of losing polling status, these are not the kind of leaders we want. And these are not the kind of leaders we need.

Illustration credit: Tania Bischof

It’s almost as though the Australian Prime Minister took Ardern’s words to heart. Morrison’s formation of a new national cabinet to combat the coronavirus pandemic has involved an unprecedented bipartisan collaboration of Australian government leaders. This cooperative leadership approach has put the need for unification and clear communication above all else. Following this, Australia’s success in managing the virus has been met with global praise, and Morrison’s approval ratings have recorded a remarkable turnaround, reaching record heights, according to the latest Newspoll data.

As Ardern puts it, “Sometimes you need to remove some of the politics and just think about humanity. It’s about us ultimately being responsive – seeing what change is bringing and acknowledging the needs there are and doing something about it.”

More than anything, through her speeches, through her conversations, through her actions and reactions to crises, Ardern is able to convey that she is human, that she has a vision for a better future, and that she cares for the people and for the country she leads. This is what we should ask for in a leader.

But we can’t just rely on the political elite to make these changes spontaneously; we need to make clear to them what we expect. It is therefore vital, if there’s to be any positive change, for more of us to get involved. Continuing to view politics as spectators of a particularly nasty football game will not bring about the shift that we need. We must talk to MPs and be clear about our expectations; we must join political parties and demand more from them. We must prioritise qualities of passion and empathy, compromise and cooperation in our leaders. We need to burst the bubble of the political elite and integrate political discussion into ordinary society. This is the only way that we can bridge the distance between us and our leaders. This is the only way that we can make leaders like Ardern not the exception, but the rule.

As Ardern emphasises, “We need to do more to show you don’t have to fit traditional stereotypes to be a great leader, to encourage a wider range of people to put up their hand and step into these roles.”