(Image: Stewart Sowman-Lund)
(Image: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

PoliticsApril 10, 2024

What’s going on with Jacinda Ardern and the Christchurch Call?

(Image: Stewart Sowman-Lund)
(Image: Stewart Sowman-Lund)

An update on New Zealand’s future engagement with the Christchurch Call – and likely Jacinda Ardern’s role with it – is expected to be made public in the coming weeks.

Let’s start at the beginning: what’s the Christchurch Call again?

Spearheaded by Ardern while in office, alongside French president Emmanuel Macron, the Christchurch Call is a voluntary initiative designed to tackle violent extremism and the role of social media companies in promulgating it.

Speaking at a Paris summit in 2019, just two months after a gunman killed 51 worshippers in Christchurch, Ardern described the way in which the terrorist’s violent action was spread online. “Initially the live stream was watched by only a few hundred people but it was then shared and spread online at such a pace that YouTube recorded one upload per second on their platform in the first 24 hours,” she said.

The Christchurch Call asked members of the global community to bring in more effective laws targeted at offensive material and to set guidelines around media reporting of terrorism. 

Early signatories included the UK, Canada and Australia along with tech giants Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter (now X).

But Jacinda Ardern has since left government – what’s changed?

Since leaving politics over 12 months ago, the former prime minister has held the unpaid position of special envoy to the Christchurch Call.

But while the role itself is unpaid, Stuff reported earlier in the year that it carried annual costs of around $500,000 to cover expenses, which included international travel and security. 

Ardern’s role as special envoy was set to be reviewed at the end of last year. 

Chris Hipkins, while prime minister, revealed what he saw as the purpose of Ardern’s ongoing role with the Christchurch Call. “Her experience and status as a former head of government ensures that she can lead outreach on my behalf and maintain the Call as a leader-level initiative,” he said. 

Jacinda Ardern and Emmanuel Macron at the May 15 2019 press conference on the Christchurch Call (Getty Images)

What has the new government said about Ardern’s role?

Prime minister Christopher Luxon met with his predecessor last year to discuss the position of special envoy, though the details of this conversation were largely kept under wraps. “Christopher Luxon met with special envoy Dame Jacinda Ardern just before Christmas to discuss her work,” was all a spokesperson for the prime minister would say in January. “Decisions have not yet been made as the prime minister is waiting for advice from officials.”

Earlier this year, Luxon revealed he had asked Ardern to carry on her duties with the Christchurch Call. “I wanted to understand the Christchurch Call on the work that it has undertaken … there’s been some good work done with respect to algorithms with tech companies,” the prime minister told reporters

“I asked her to carry on and she was very happy to do so.”

Are we about to hear more? 

It appears that advice to Luxon is almost ready to be made public. The Spinoff requested details under the Official Information Act of any further contact between Luxon and Ardern since the start of the year, along with any updates or briefings on the future of the Christchurch Call provided to Luxon.

While four documents were found to be within scope, the prime minister’s office refused to release any of them, citing confidentiality. This included a cabinet paper on the initiative from early February, along with a pair of briefings and an aide memoire. 

A spokesperson confirmed that cabinet had taken some “in-principle decisions” about the Christchurch Call, though the details could not be released as they would “prejudice the constitutional conventions which protect the confidentially of advice tendered by or to Ministers of the Crown”. 

However, the cabinet paper was expected to be released “in the coming weeks”, they added. 

And what might that update contain?

It will likely reveal whether the coalition government believes it’s worth ongoing funding to allow Ardern to continue as special envoy, or if that position will come to a close. The government is currently following through on an election pledge to find millions of dollars from the public sector, and it may determine that Ardern’s role – while unpaid – isn’t worth the costs that come alongside it. It’s feasible that Ardern, as the co-founder of the Christchurch Call, could find another role with the initiative that isn’t directly linked to New Zealand.

Do we know how the coalition parties feel about Christchurch Call?

While in opposition, both National and its now-coalition partner Act appeared lukewarm on the Call and its focus. 

David Seymour, in 2022, told Newshub that the then-prime minister should have been focusing on local issues. “You can just imagine a global tech giant who actually did get those videos on March 15 taken down as rapidly as humanly possible and along comes Jacinda Ardern with her Christchurch Call telling them how to suck eggs,” Seymour said.

“I suspect they probably have a bit of a chuckle at her and really it’s truly pathetic that we have a prime minister who spends all this time ineffectually grandstanding while people are getting robbed at home, and her government can’t even dish out support for businesses under that sort of pressure.”

While Luxon has been more diplomatic while in office, and especially while prime minister, his party has previously criticised the initiative. Simon Bridges, as National Party leader, said in 2019 that Ardern should have been sticking to the issues that mattered most to everyday New Zealanders. “Somehow by having a talkfest with Twitter and Facebook and coming up with some pretty nebulous feel-good proposal at the UN, that is going to change the face of terrorism and the abhorrent things that happened in Christchurch. I don’t believe that,” Bridges said at the time.

What has the Christchurch Call achieved?

It appears that the initial momentum following the 2019 summit has slowed, though signatories to the initiative have grown. There are now “over 130 governments, online service providers, and civil society organisations” signed up to the call to action. In 2023 it was reported that AI firms Anthropic and Open AI had joined the Call, alongside other tech platforms like Discord.

But conversely, Meta and Google didn’t show up to last year’s summit. Emmanuel Macron said it showed they “don’t want to play anymore”.

Jacinda Ardern speaking at a media conference in Auckland to discuss the Christchurch Call. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In terms of actions, there are just 17 items in the “news” section of the Christchurch Call website, though a lack of press releases isn’t necessarily evidence of inaction. One describes the significant global progress made as a result of the Call. “Governments, companies and civil society groups are working together in ways that they were not before,” reads a 2021 statement. “There is an increased focus on research into terrorism and violent extremist content online that provides a strong base to continue to develop our efforts.” 

Documents released by former prime minister Chris Hipkins similarly described how the Christchurch Call had made “a practical difference in reducing the visibility and spread of terrorist and violent extremist content online” and how it had “become a leading example of effective multi stakeholder governance of technology and established New Zealand’s strong reputation as a principled and effective actor in this field”.

Along with stopping the spread of violent content, the Call requires governments and tech firms to work on the “underlying drivers” that push people to become radicalised, noting that this commonly happens on the internet and as a result of algorithms. A joint initiative by some members of the Call has focused on the way algorithms can direct people to particular content, though it has been noted there are challenges to researching this as it requires access to substantial and sensitive datasets. 

Keep going!