On Friday 15 March, a terrorist attack in Christchurch took the lives of 50 people at prayer. Eighteen months into her first term as prime minister, Jacinda Ardern faced a formidable task: communicate what happened, embrace a ruptured community, and force through real reform. Madeleine Chapman reports.
This was first published 22 March, 2019.
The kids couldn’t believe she was there. A few hundred New Plymouth students had skipped Friday lessons and gathered at Puke Ariki to protest climate change. They hadn’t formed the biggest crowd in the country, but they were there and the student leaders spoke passionately. Then she was there. The prime minister was there.
Jacinda Ardern had stopped by the student climate strike between her two main scheduled appearances in New Plymouth, the launch of a Taranaki hydrogen roadmap in the morning and the opening of WOMAD in the evening. But instead of addressing the crowds gathered for the annual music festival, Ardern was at the Beehive in Wellington, telling the nation that, as of 7pm on March 15, 40 people had been confirmed dead. The shooting at two Christchurch mosques, she said, “can now only be described as a terrorist attack”.
Four long days later, Ardern stood in the debating chamber of parliament. Following the Islamic prayer that opened the session, she spoke directly to the families of the slain: “We cannot know your grief, but we can walk with you at every stage.”
“We feel a huge duty of care to them. And we have so much we feel the need to say and to do. One of the roles I never anticipated having, and hoped never to have, is to voice the grief of a nation.”
New Zealand leaders of recent history have faced that task before. David Lange was prime minister when the Rainbow Warrior was bombed and Fernando Pereira lost his life. Jim Bolger had been the prime minister for 10 days in 1990 when David Gray shot and killed 13 residents of Aramoana. John Key addressed the nation on February 22, 2011, after the Christchurch earthquake that took 185 lives. Prime ministers had led nationwide mourning before. But this was different.
In the hours following the 1:40pm attack, Ardern laid out the terms of the story, both for the nation and the world. Ahead of her departure for Wellington and before she had been officially briefed, she addressed New Zealand from New Plymouth. “Clearly, what has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence,” she said. “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand. They may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home.”
Ardern then boarded a military plane for Wellington where she convened a meeting of ODESC (Official Committee for Domestic and External Security Coordination). At 6:30pm, she arrived at the Beehive and at 7pm she made a formal address from the Beehive theatrette. Within 60 seconds of reaching the podium, Ardern had defined the attack as an act of terrorism. Within a few seconds more, those words had travelled to social media, to local headlines and international media. No longer was it an act of violence, it was terrorism. Hate. Neither then, nor in the days to come, would Ardern invoke the language of fortress or retaliation, however. The emphasis remained firmly on unity, solidarity and inclusion.
“We are a proud nation of more than 200 ethnicities, 160 languages, and amongst that diversity we share common values. And the one that we place currency on right now is our compassion and the support for the community of those directly affected by this tragedy and secondly, the strongest possible condemnation of the ideology of the people that did this.
“You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you.”
At 9am on Saturday March 16, following an overnight update from the police commissioner, Mike Bush, that total deaths now numbered 49, Ardern was back in the Beehive theatrette.
“I can tell you one thing right now, our gun laws will change.”
Early Saturday morning, US president Donald Trump had stated he did not think white supremacy was a rising problem. Around the same time that the man allegedly responsible for the worst mass shooting in New Zealand history was appearing in court for the first time in Christchurch, Ardern was asked if she agreed with Trump’s assessment. Without hesitating, she answered impassively.
Following a second agency briefing, Ardern set out for the airport, conducting an interview with a Christchurch radio show on the road. Ardern travelled to Christchurch on the Defence Force 757, arriving about noon.
As flowers began filling up sidewalks and walls around Hagley Park, a short distance from Al Noor mosque, Ardern met with leaders of the Christchurch Muslim community, as well as the friends and families who had so recently lost loved ones. She stood wearing hijab, flanked by Winston Peters, Simon Bridges, James Shaw, and a number of government officials, and spoke candidly with the families.
She concluded her short address with a message on behalf of all New Zealanders. “You have our love and our support. You have it now, you have it for the coming days, you have it for the coming weeks, you have it because this is your home. Al salam Alaikum.” Her voice had wavered while announcing the death toll the night before but this time it broke.
Days later, Imam Gamal Fouda would thank the prime minister in front of thousands gathered at a Hagley Park memorial service. “Thank you for holding our families close,” he would say. “And honouring us with a simple scarf.”
Media from around the world continued to arrive in Christchurch throughout Saturday and by 3pm there was a healthy gathering at the justice precinct for Ardern’s fourth update. All attendees’ bags were hand-searched and bodies scanned by metal detectors before being allowed in. Reporters mingled, exchanging hushed small talk as they waited for the prime minister to arrive. Almost nobody in the room had slept. When Ardern entered, it was clear that neither had she.
The update centred around the processes by which victims’ bodies would be identified and returned to their families, whether in New Zealand or overseas. A reporter asked Ardern how she felt being in the same building as the man charged with mass murder of New Zealanders. She responded almost before the reporter had finished speaking. “I’m also in the same building as the people who are bringing him to justice.” Next question.
Meanwhile, Attorney General David Parker, attending a vigil at Aotea Square in Auckland, made a firm statement that New Zealand would ban all semi-automatic weapons. When presented to the prime minister, Ardern would not promise any ban. Parker walked back his comments soon after.
Ardern then travelled to Christchurch hospital to visit recovering victims of the attack and later flew back to Wellington and the prime minister’s official residence at Premier House.
On Sunday, Ardern, partner Clarke Gayford, and finance minister Grant Robertson visited a mosque in the eastern Wellington suburb Kilbirnie, where they laid flowers and consoled mourners. There was no formal speech. A wreath was laid at the entrance to the mosque. Video clips of Ardern in intense embrace with a Muslim woman and her son as a te reo version of ‘Hallelujah’ was sung in the background spread rapidly around the world.
The national security threat level raised to high for the first time and armed guards stood sentry around the parliamentary precinct, a profoundly unfamiliar sight in New Zealand. Ardern addressed the nation for the fifth time. Journalists then put questions ranging from details around proposed gun reform to the performance of intelligence services to the processes by which officials were identifying victims’ bodies. She fielded 46 questions. All were answered at length. With one exception. What were her thoughts on Australian senator Fraser Anning’s remarks suggesting Muslims themselves bore responsibility for the terrorist act?
“They were a disgrace.”
Ardern began Monday with four back-to-back interviews for breakfast radio and television. As New Zealanders returned to work and school, 50 pairs of white shoes were placed on the lawn in front of an Anglican church in Christchurch. One for each life lost three days earlier. Ardern signed the official condolence book alongside Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy at parliament.
Following an extended meeting of Cabinet, joined by senior MPs from the Green Party, Ardern once again returned to the Beehive theatrette, with deputy prime minister Winston Peters alongside her. “The Cabinet today made in principle decisions around the reform of our gun laws,” she announced.
By Tuesday morning, Ardern appeared to have found a fresh resolve. At parliament, she fielded questions on a variety of topics, concluding by saying that she intended to deny the terrorist the notoriety he sought. “One thing I can assure you, you won’t hear me speak his name,” she said. “All right everyone, I’ll just pop to caucus.”
At 2pm parliament rose for the first time since the mosque attacks. Religious leaders walked into the chambers alongside Speaker Trevor Mallard, who held the hand of Imam Nizam ul haq Thanvi. Following a prayer, Ardern stood.
“Al salam Alaikum. Peace be upon you. And peace be upon all of us.”
Ardern’s speech was immense in scope, covering the events of Friday, the aftermath, the responsibility of social media platforms, gun reform, and a nation’s grief. And: “the responsibility we too must show as a nation, to confront racism, violence and extremism.” Almost none of its content was new. The sentiments had been expressed across the last four days, but here they were collected with a resolve and empathy that resonated around the world.
On Tuesday evening, the first bodies were released back to their families for burial. It was five days and four hours since the first shot was fired.
On Wednesday morning, Ardern landed in Christchurch for the second time as police began officially releasing the names of those who’d been killed on Friday. The first of many burials took place at Memorial Park Cemetery in Linwood at 11am. Heads turned to forever face Mecca, just as they had at Friday prayers on March 15.
The kids could easily believe she was there. They were from Cashmere High School, a school that had lost two students, Sayyad Milne and Hamza Mustafa, in the attack. Ardern spoke briefly, urging the students to ask for help if they felt they needed it. “It’s okay to grieve,” she said. When she opened up the floor for questions, one student asked what many New Zealanders had been thinking.
“How are you?”
“How am I?” Ardern sounded genuinely surprised to be asked, though it wasn’t the first time a question had been addressed so personally to her. The first time was a growled, “Do you ever cry at night when you go home?” from a press gallery reporter. She had dismissed it by replying that she’d “prefer to keep those kinds of details to myself”.
This was something else. This was a genuine question, asked by a worried teenager.
“Thank you for asking,” she said. “I’m very sad.”
Before flying back to Wellington, Ardern paused to thank the police officers and medical staff who responded so swiftly to the attack on Friday. She greeted the first responders one by one, whispering jokes as the cameras clicked nearby, and finally muttered to one of them, “I would’ve liked a quiet room, between us.”
By the time she spoke at the lectern, it was clear she wasn’t expecting to be speaking publicly. Whatever she had planned to say to them in private became an official statement of thanks, reported to the nation. It was short, and once finished, Ardern ushered the officers into a side room, where they could talk away from the cameras.
On Thursday, the prime minister was back in Wellington. She had an announcement to make.
“Cabinet agreed to overhaul the law when it met on Monday, 72 hours after the horrific terrorism act in Christchurch. Now, six days after this attack, we are announcing a ban on all military style semi-automatics and assault rifles in New Zealand,” she said, with a steel in her voice.
There it was. The promise made what felt like months earlier but was in fact six days. For all the speeches, the images, the candid videos, this was something with undeniable substance. Gun law reform. That announcement, too, and its swiftness, travelled around the world.
Next came more questions from the press. She had answered hundreds of questions at press conference since Friday. Her sign language interpreter Alan Wendt, by now more familiar to the general public than most MPs, stood once again by her side. Or rather, two steps to the side and one step back. She talked, and he signed, introducing the planned legislation and detailing plans for a national memorial to who’d lost their lives.
Time after time through the week, New Zealanders crowded around in offices to watch Ardern speak. From 7pm on Friday March 15 to 10am on March 19, she answered 223 questions across six press conferences.
It was only the beginning, really. Everyone knew it. On gun control, on the inquiry into the intelligence services’ performance, on the role of social media, on the racism that remains woven through so much of New Zealand society: there would be many more questions to be asked and even more to be answered. But on Friday March 22, one week from the worst act of terrorism New Zealand had ever experienced, Ardern returned to Christchurch and Hagley Park, just across the road from Al Noor mosque. She stood, as did the Muslim community, and New Zealanders around the country, and there was silence.