Jacinda Ardern. Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern. Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

PoliticsApril 8, 2019

‘Humanity. That’s all.’ Jacinda Ardern on the response to the Christchurch attacks

Jacinda Ardern. Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images
Jacinda Ardern. Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Ten days after the terrorist shooting in two Christchurch mosques took 50 lives, Jacinda Ardern speaks to Toby Manhire in her Beehive office.

‘I’ll show you something,” says Jacinda Ardern. We are sitting on sofas in her office on the ninth floor of the Beehive. It is just 10 days since a terrorist attack in Christchurch took the lives of 50 people at prayer. Outside, the flags are at half-mast. Two police officers stand by the glass doors, cradling semi-automatic weapons. Up on the ninth floor, the early morning sun scythes in through panoramic windows, the harbour just visible in the distance. In the reception area, a staffer’s preschooler son buzzes back and forth on a bike.

I have been asking Ardern about her immediate response to the attack, which from the outset put a clear emphasis on inclusivity and solidarity. Succinctly, steelily, the prime minister framed what had happened in her own terms. It felt very deliberate: was it?

Not so much, Ardern says. “Very little of what I have done has been deliberate. It’s intuitive. I think it’s just the nature of an event like this. There is very little time to sit and think in those terms. You just do what feels right.”

She crosses the office to her desk and pulls an A4 sheet of paper from a drawer. It’s been folded in half, and in half again, and again. Printed on the back is the running order for an event she hosted in Auckland the night before the attack. On the front are a series of notes, scrawled in Ardern’s rounded handwriting, growing more hurried and less legible as they cross the page. A handful of words have been highlighted in bright orange.

One person custody may be other offndr.

Act of exraordnry violence. It has no place in NZ.

They are us.

“These are my notes for the first press conference,” she explains. “I was in a hotel room. We only had a short amount of time to prepare.”

When the call came, Ardern was travelling in a minivan, sitting alongside the mayor of New Plymouth, a small city on the west coast of the North Island. That morning, Friday 15 March, she had surprised a crowd of local school students who were taking part in the global climate strike. “We hear you. We know we need to act,” she had told them. Later, Ardern was due to officially open a music festival, but at that moment she was on her way to visit the site of a new school.

“The information was patchy and it was very difficult to decipher exactly what had happened,” she recalls. “We didn’t even know a confirmed toll. In an event like this – I can only assume, because I’ve never been through one before – there’s not a lot of time available to think about the language you want to use.

“I absolutely knew what I wanted to say. That, very quickly, was clear to me, when I heard that a mosque had been targeted. I knew what I wanted to say about that straight away. But, no, I didn’t think about particular words. I just thought about sentiments, and what I thought needed to be conveyed.”

Ardern has been at pains to say that what happened on 15 March is not her story, but one that belongs to the victims and their families, to the injured, to Muslim communities, to Christchurch. If there are words that proved defining, they were those spoken by 71-year-old Haji-Daoud Nabi, who moments before being shot dead addressed the gunman from the door of Al Noor mosque, saying: “Hello, brother.”

And yet Ardern’s response, her choice of language, has mattered enormously. In the hours after the attack, in which an Australian-born white-supremacist shot dead 50 unarmed people in two mosques, Ardern said that this was an act of terrorism. She pointedly refused to speak the name of the man who did it. (“He is a criminal. He is an extremist,” she told parliament four days later. “But he will, when I speak, be nameless.”) There was none of the bellicose, war-footing political rhetoric that so often stalks terrorist attacks. Gun law reforms, intended to ban all semi-automatic firearms, were expedited, with cross-party support. An inquiry was commissioned, tasked with asking, among other things, whether an emphasis on jihadi terrorism had meant New Zealand intelligence agencies were looking the wrong way.

Jacinda Ardern in her Beehive office. Photo: Toby Manhire

The images were just as powerful. On Saturday 16 March, after another press conference in Wellington, Ardern flew south to Christchurch, where she met members of the Muslim community. “I am here today to bring with me the grief of all New Zealand,” she said. “I am here to stand alongside you… We feel grief, we feel injustice, and we feel anger.” She said it wearing a headscarf, an expression of solidarity that sprinted around the world.

“The elements of that surprised me,” says Ardern today. “When I had the all-clear to go down on Saturday, I asked a friend if they had something for me to borrow. If I’d been [at home] in Auckland it would have been different, but I didn’t have scarves with me. So I asked if she had something I could borrow, because for me it was just a mark of respect. It was naturally what you would do. So, no, I didn’t really think about that, either.”

Later, it was suggested to her that it was an important symbol of solidarity with Muslim women in New Zealand, who felt unsafe. “I hadn’t thought about it in those terms. It felt incredibly sad but completely obvious as well, that there would be those who would be worried. You know, the Muslim community was so obviously targeted, and they wear their faith so openly.”

There was no need to deliberate on her decision not to use the name of the terrorist, either: “It just seemed obvious to me.” She had received no report, no advice reflecting the wealth of research that urges political leaders and the media to deny terrorists the notoriety they crave. She had, though, seen the shooter’s manifesto, the 74-page screed he posted online. “I haven’t read it in full, but I saw enough of it to know part of what his aspirations were.”

Among the hideous novelties of the Christchurch attack is the fact that it was livestreamed, in bloody, dystopian detail, on Facebook, before metastasising across the internet, on sites where white supremacy festers, as well as on giant online platforms. Ardern took that on, too, in her parliamentary speech on 19 March, four days after the attack. “There is no question that [the] ideas and language of division and hate have existed for decades, but their form of distribution, the tools of organisation, they are new,” she said. “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher. Not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”

What, then, does Facebook need to do?

“This isn’t a New Zealand issue, this is a global one,” says Ardern today, carefully choosing her words. “Really, upholding the community standards that they’ve set themselves, I think, is what people are asking for… We’re asking for them to invest in ways to prevent the kind of harm we saw in the aftermath. And, let’s be honest, in the lead up, too.”

Ardern sips from a mug of tea – though she confesses that, years after quitting, she’s also drinking coffee again. Her partner, Clarke Gayford, she smiles, is not impressed. (Later in the day I contact Gayford, asking for his official position on the prime minister having returned to coffee. “Well, considering no night last week finished before midnight and some mornings started before five for her, I can understand,” he replies. A staffer also tells me that Neve, now nine months old, has been teething.)

Ardern says she has been taken aback by the volume of press coverage over the past weeks, the scrutiny of her every word. “The conversations about it afterwards – I’ve read these pieces where people have analysed the likes of this [speech],” she says, waving the A4 sheet of notes in her hand, grimly laughing. “This was my first press conference. The second press conference I wrote on my phone on the way to Wellington.”

This interview was due to go to press the day the news of the Christchurch attacks emerged. By then, I had interviewed Ardern twice already: after a breakfast meeting at an Auckland hotel, and a few days earlier at Waitangi, on February 5. That article told the story of a leader who was pledging to work harder to address the inequities still faced by Māori. It focused on her pledge to make 2019 a “year of delivery”, and some signs that the halo of the Jacindamania that brought her to office had begun to dim. Pressure was mounting over a failure to meet targets on a flagship house-building scheme. A fight was brewing over the possible introduction of a capital gains tax. Ardern’s Labour-led coalition government was under constant scrutiny: could she achieve the “transformational” reform she’d promised, when every change in the law meant scratching the backs of her coalition partners?

These prosaic-seeming challenges will resurface. But for the time being they feel like the concerns of another time, another galaxy. Ardern agrees. “I was saying to someone the other day how long ago it feels since I was up north. It does feel as if the passage of time has extended.” When I ask her which day last week a particular foreign dignitary spoke to her, she says, “Time’s a bit of a blur for me,” with a sardonic laugh. It was “half a lifetime ago,” she guesses. “Approximately.”

Half a lifetime and seven weeks ago, I watched Ardern as she sat on the porch of Te Whare Rūnanga, the Maori meeting house at Waitangi. It was shortly after 11am and the speeches, from local elders, from politicians, echoed back and forth across the lawn.

Ardern was grinning. She had just seen her partner return to his spot in the third row of plastic seating with Neve propped up on his knee, having just had a nappy change in the back seat of a car around the corner. The sun was beating down and Neve, in a blue bonnet and spotted dress, clucked away happily.

“I could hear her off to the side. She was being a little bit vocal,” Ardern said when we met later that day, at the hotel down the road. A year earlier, she had become the first female prime minister to speak at the Waitangi pōwhiri, and the youngest, at 37. Even in utero, Neve had made her presence known. “She used to kick me a lot, but I would especially notice when I came on to marae, probably because of all the noise, the haka and performances. She would boot me a lot.”

Jacinda Ardern sits alongside Titewhai Harawira for the powhiri on the upper marae at Waitangi on February 5. Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images

Ardern began her speech that day by casting back a year, when she had “asked all of you to hold all of us, and myself, to account”. She highlighted recent reforms to help disadvantaged Māori, to lift children out of poverty, most notably in the form of a “families package” that boosted assistance to low- and middle-income families. “We have more to do,” she said, words she would repeat throughout the day, “but I am an optimist. I was born one and politics has not beaten it out of me yet.”

I later asked her if what happened in Christchurch had affected this optimism. “No,” she said. “My belief in the humanity of New Zealanders has strengthened. I just know we have a lot of work to do to make that universal.”

Optimism is baked into Ardern’s character. At school, her mother once revealed, she convened a “happy club”. When she was made leader of the Labour party, with weeks to go before the 2017 election, the campaign was built around a self-described “relentlessly positive” outlook. And while Labour’s manifesto remained essentially unchanged, people suddenly started to listen. “Let’s do this,” went the slogan. Her opponents sneered that it was all just “stardust”, but the party surged on a wave of Jacindamania.

Many predicted that wave would crash on a grumpy rock in the shape of Winston Peters. But Peters and New Zealand First decided against backing the three-term incumbent National party. It was time to torpedo the status quo, he said, and at 72, he opted to become deputy to a thirtysomething prime minister.

Just a few months later it was revealed that the prime minister was pregnant. The news was announced via Instagram: Ardern, who still runs her own social media accounts, posted a photograph of fish hooks – two regular sized, one tiny – prompting copious media analysis. What did it mean? “The reality was that I went down into the shed, pulled out my fishing box and took out some hooks,” Gayford told me earlier this year. “I thought, yeah, that looks all right, that’ll do.”

Ardern was already famous for her youth; the news that she was to become only the second world leader to give birth in office (after Benazir Bhutto 28 years earlier) went round the world. Here was a progressive upgrade on Canada’s Justin Trudeau: an outward-looking young woman in a global lineup still dominated by greying men. At the UN in New York last September, Ardern made the case for action on climate change, and for “kindness and empathy” in politics – a message amplified by the fact her partner and baby daughter were sitting next to her. Vogue dubbed her “the anti-Trump”.

As if becoming a mother and prime minister were not challenging enough, Ardern found herself hailed as a standard bearer for women everywhere. “She’s not just leading a country,” gushed Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg last year. “She’s changing the game. And women and girls around the world will be the better for it.”

From a closer proximity, and speaking before the Christchurch attacks, Gayford told me that what he found most impressive was his partner’s grip on the minutiae. “If you could see the amount of reading that is required in that role. It’s 10, 11 o’clock each night, going through cabinet papers. The level of detail that she has to absorb, and is able to retain, blows my mind. Last week I went half a day with my shirt inside out.”

For Ardern, Neve helps keep things in perspective. “I occasionally go to events which may have quite a bit of profile and pressure around them. And then, within 15 minutes, I can be back in the hotel room having Neve spit pumpkin on my shoe. The worlds are in very close proximity. There’s something very grounding about that. A lot of pumpkin. In the shoe.”

The prime minister was deep in conversation with her press secretary when she arrived for the formal part of our interview at Waitangi in February. “We’re deciding whether I can get away with jandal-wear for the latter part of the afternoon,” she confided. They resolved against the flip-flops, and settled on flats. It had just gone 2pm, and a wall of the meeting room was lit in horizontal lines, stencilled through Venetian blinds. The Guardian’s photographer asked Ardern to stand in the stripes, a film-noirish sort of pose. “Maybe with your sincerity, not your smile,” suggested the photographer.

“I struggle not to smile,” Ardern said through clenched teeth. “I look like I’m pouting. Terrible bone structure. It looks like a pout every time.”

Towards the end of her Waitangi speech, she had quoted Michael Savage, the venerated Labour statesman who led the party to government for the first time in 1935: “We don’t claim perfection, but what we do claim is a considerable advance on the past.” It’s a line that Ardern had rolled out in at least three big recent speeches, and felt, in part, like a plea to dial down the Jacindamania – a call to pragmatism.

“I am a pragmatic idealist,” she told me. “I will always strive for better. But I am pragmatic about how much time that sometimes takes.” The optimism tends to win out. “The alternative option is that we come out and say, for instance, on child poverty, that we’ve got these really minimalist targets. And have people say, ‘Where’s your ambition?’”

Jacinda Ardern grew up in the conservative, rural North Island town of Morrinsville. She was raised a Mormon, but quit the church in her early 20s, principally because of its stance on homosexuality. After completing a communications degree, she worked for a short stint in the Beehive of the last Labour prime minister, Helen Clark, who recalls noticing Ardern’s promise when she was on a team drafting answers for parliamentary questions.

When I spoke to Clark a few days after the Christchurch attack, she told me Ardern’s response had resonated because it was authentic. “She’s not putting on an act. It’s very genuine, and people warm to that. The critical thing has been the inclusive approach. To see people from across society, people who maybe have never even known anyone who goes to a mosque, come out with the flowers and the donations and say: this is not the New Zealand we know and love.”

In 2008, Ardern was elected president of the International Union of Socialist Youth, a role that took her around the world. Earlier that decade, she lived for two and a half years in London, where she worked in Tony Blair’s Cabinet Office. Blair was another Labour leader who came to office on a wave of progressive euphoria. I pointed this out when we met again in Auckland, and Ardern leaned back with a sigh, knowing where this was going. She worked only “very indirectly” for Blair, she said. “I never met him while I worked for him. Cabinet is a massive beast.” Of the Blair years more broadly, she said: “What you do with policy, it demonstrated to me, can be completely overshadowed by decisions in principle. You think of Tony Blair’s period, now, and what do people talk about? The Iraq war. So for me, that means always having a mind on, yes, the policy work, yes, the domestic work – but actually what legacy do you leave through some of those bigger, overarching decisions as well?

“There was a real sense of hope at the time Blair was elected,” she continued, “because people were ready for things to be done differently. And so I see that there was a weight of expectation there. But, otherwise, I don’t tend to draw parallels.” She paused. “I’ll just leave it there.”

Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern at the Labour campaign launch in August 2017. Photo by Dave Rowland/Getty Images

But she didn’t leave it there, picking up on a thread from our conversation in Waitangi earlier in the week. “I think we were musing about this – the risk of ambition. Sometimes, what you’re promoting isn’t tangible. Sometimes, what you’re promoting are things like wellbeing, these ambitious but intangible things.” She doesn’t want to lower the bar, to be someone who “only has regard to political measures of success and says, ‘Well, I’m only going to set these ambitions, and talk in this way, because I don’t want to be judged harshly for not having achieved them.’”

When Ardern was made leader of the Labour Party in 2017, she and Gayford were struggling to start a family. She put it frankly to me: “I didn’t know if I was going to be able to have kids.”

Then it all happened at once. “Now I’m finding out what every parent finds out: it’s not about what’s possible or what’s not, it’s about making it work. You just have to. There’s no point at which you can say: ‘I give up on being a parent’ or ‘I give up on doing this job.’”

There is no nanny. Gayford is the primary caregiver and shuttles back and forth with Neve between their home in Auckland and Wellington. The couple’s mothers are the main backup unit, especially when Gayford is away shooting Fish Of The Day, his fishing-travel-cooking hybrid show for Three and the National Geographic channel. “We’re trying to do it ourselves and with our family,” said Ardern. “That may not always be the case, but for now we’re making it work.”

As for being pronounced a “game changer” for women, Ardern welcomed the idea she might inspire others, but was eager to present a truthful picture. “I think people don’t want us to be perfect,” she said. “I’m making an assumption here, but everyone knows that raising kids is hard work and I don’t expect they’d want someone to gloss over that or pretend it’s easy. I can do what I do because I have help and I try to talk about that a lot.”

What about the “anti-Trump” label, I asked her. “It still makes me laugh that Vogue came up with that,” she said. But she is done with that kind of question. “I would like to just do my job and be judged on being the prime minister of New Zealand,” said Ardern. “I get asked: ‘Do you compare yourself to X or Y politician?’ and I’ll then get a string of male politicians from around the world – mostly, to be fair, because there aren’t too many females. And my response to that? I wonder if they get asked the same question. ‘Do you liken yourself to Jacinda Ardern?’ And my bet is that no one would. So I actually think that, in New Zealand, we do things our own way.”

Following the Christchurch attacks, Ardern was asked at a press conference if she agreed with Trump’s downplaying of the rise of white supremacy. “No,” she said, bluntly. Trump had by then called to offer his condolences, and asked what he could do to help. Ardern’s suggestion was that he could provide “sympathy and love for all Muslim communities”. Within hours, Trump was doing the opposite, throwing his weight behind a Fox News broadcaster who had questioned the patriotism of a Muslim congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, because she wore a hijab.

Didn’t that make her angry, I ask Ardern when we meet in Wellington. “I said what I needed to say,” she says, pausing and taking a slow, diplomatic breath of air, her hands clasped around her knees. “Whether or not I thought he would necessarily take on board what I said, is another question. But I said what I needed to say.”

I try again. Wouldn’t it be good if the president of the United States showed greater moral leadership? Ardern stares out the question for several seconds, grimacing. “I think, as leaders, sometimes we’re unaware of our reach and power,” she says. “Sometimes I think we tend to think about our own actions in confined ways, and we underestimate the impact that we have. Yes.”

In the past weeks, New Zealand has reckoned with its own history. One Christchurch-based broadcaster issued an apology for an earlier column about Islam, saying, “I look back at my comments ashamed.” And in a powerful speech a week after the attack, Gamal Fouda, the imam of Al Noor mosque, where 42 worshippers were killed, said the murders “did not come overnight”, but were “the result of the anti-Muslim rhetoric of some political leaders, media agencies and others”.

He may have had in mind Ardern’s deputy Peters, whose NZ First has delivered dog whistles about immigrants and “New Zealand values” for decades. Will she be speaking to him about his xenophobic rhetoric? She doesn’t need to, she suggests. “For me, it’s implicit now,” she says. Following the attacks, she points out, it was Peters who decided to travel to Turkey for a meeting of the international Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, where he met Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; the Turkish president had been screening images from the terrorist’s video at rallies, and declaring that visitors from Australia and New Zealand who expressed anti-Islamic sentiments would be “returned in coffins”. “[Peters] said ‘I think we need to be there,’” says Ardern. “That was his instinct and it was the right one. He took our minister for ethnic communities with him, and made a powerful statement. So I think it’s implicit for him now, too.”

A fortnight after the attack, a national remembrance service is held at Hagley Park in Christchurch, not far from Al Noor Mosque. Armed police are everywhere. Dozens of buses are parked sideways around the perimeter, forming makeshift ramparts. Bunches of flowers, handmade cards and soft toys line the footpath. Locals started leaving tributes here on 15 March; today they form a river, filling the pavement for 250 metres.

Among the speakers this morning is 13-year-old Salma, who stands at the microphone and says, simply, of her father, Ashraf, who was killed: “He was a really nice man.” Farid Ahmed’s wife, Husna, was killed at Al Noor Mosque, too. He has forgiven the man who did it. “I will forgive lavishly, because this heart doesn’t want any more life to be lost,” he tells the crowd.

Farid Ahmed at the national remembrance ceremony in Hagley Park. Photo: MARTY MELVILLE/AFP/Getty Images)

The 50 names of the dead are read aloud, the only other sound the whirring of a police helicopter in the distance. A crescent moon hangs in the blue sky above.

Ardern is wearing a traditional Māori cloak and, even before she begins speaking, is given a standing ovation. In the past her invocations of kindness might have been dismissed as slogans. Not today. “We each hold the power, in our words and in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness,” she says. “We are not immune to the viruses of hate, of fear, of other. We never have been. But we can be the nation that discovers the cure.”

After the service I meet Tofazzal Alam, a Bangladesh-born New Zealander who was in the Linwood mosque when it was attacked. When the shooting began, he threw himself to the ground. He called his wife. “I said, ‘Can you please call 111. Someone is killing us.’” Ardern’s words and actions have been “really important for our community, and for people who have lost loved ones,” he says. “It’s made a huge difference.”

At Waitangi in early February, I had asked Ardern about the international attention she had attracted – for being young, for being a new mother. It just wasn’t something she thought about, she said, hardly at all. Of course she needed to project New Zealand’s voice, but her focus was on domestic priorities. Today, in the most appalling circumstances imaginable, she has the world’s ear. What would she like to see other nations, other leaders, draw from New Zealand’s experiences?

“Humanity. That’s it. Simple,” she says, nodding her head. “People have remarked upon the way we’ve responded, but to me there was no question. You need to remove some of the politics sometimes and just think about humanity. That’s all.”

This article also appeared in the Guardian Weekend magazine.


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