Jacinda Ardern (right) arrives for a press conference in Wellington on Monday. Agence France-Presse
Christchurch: Scarcely 18 months in office, Jacinda Ardern faces an era-defining tragedy for her country — and is winning praise for meeting the moment with a deft mix of empathy and resolve.
Tragedies like the murder of 50 Muslim worshippers in Christchurch can shape nations.
They can also derail political careers and cement a leader’s place in the history books — for good or for ill.
Barack Obama’s tearful public appearance after 20 elementary school children were murdered at Sandy Hook in 2012 and his singing of “Amazing Grace” at the memorial for slain pastor Clementa Pinckney were seminal moments of his eight years in the White House.
Vladimir Putin’s first months in office were thoroughly overshadowed by images of him holidaying on the Black Sea as all 118 submariners aboard the sunken Kursk lay dead.
Within hours of the mosque massacres, Ardern was in Christchurch, wearing a headscarf in a poignant show of solidarity with victims’ families.
The next day, in the capital Wellington, she put on the headscarf again and was seen in emotional embraces with members of the shellshocked Muslim community.
The heartfelt expressions of solidarity and shared pain embodied the sense of vulnerability many Kiwis now feel, and offered a powerful rebuttal of the politics of hate.
“She never had to deal with something so horrific,” said Vicki Spencer, of the University of Otago’s politics department, “nor has any other New Zealand prime minister.”
But she quickly moved beyond the role of consoler-in-chief to confront the challenges posed by an Australian white supremacist who, unbeknownst to any security agency, was able to come to her country, legally purchase weapons of war, and devastate the nation.
Within hours of the tragedy, Ardern started tackling those challenges, declaring: “I can tell you right now, our gun laws will change.”
“I know that there is, understandably, grief in New Zealand right now, but there is anger too, there are questions that need to be answered,” she said later in one of many televised interviews, the tone both reassuring and firm.
“Empathy has always been one of her strengths and never has it shown more,” said David Farrar of the popular politically-focused Kiwiblog.