Jacinda Ardern Recalls Facing ‘No Easy Decisions’

The former New Zealand prime minister describes responses to the Christchurch terrorist attack and COVID-19 pandemic, and how she aims to be ‘a human first, and a leader second

Speaking to a captivated audience at Tufts, former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern showcased the combination of quiet assertiveness and winning self-deprecation that has made her an effective and admired world leader.

“I walked into the room and saw the New Zealand flag and thought it’s sort of lovely—where did they find that,” Ardern told the capacity crowd in Ballou Hall April 22, expressing a sense of amazement that it wasn’t mistakenly the flag of a certain neighbor to the north. Sometimes, New Zealand is even chopped off the bottom of maps of the world, she noted, drawing a laugh from her listeners.

“You’ll find that we are a pretty humble people, and we don’t have the expectation that globally our voice will be larger than anyone else’s,” Ardern said, before turning serious. “But we do have an expectation that no one’s voice will be less than anyone else’s.”

Ardern’s comment came in response to an observation by Kelly Sims Gallagher, acting dean of The Fletcher School, that the island nation has always “punched above its weight” when it comes to global affairs. Despite Ardern’s humility, the conversation provided many examples of the ways in which that is true.

Elected prime minister in 2017 at just 37, Ardern shepherded New Zealand through the COVID-19 pandemic with one of the lowest mortality rates of any country; oversaw passage of historic gun control legislation after the brutal Christchurch terrorist attack in 2019; and has led on the issue of climate change as a representative of Pacific nations challenged by sea level rise.

Tufts University President Sunil Kumar, seated in a chair, and Jacinda Ardern, former prime minister of New Zealand, seated on a couch with Kelly Sims Gallagher, interim dean of The Fletcher School

Jacinda Ardern, former prime minister of New Zealand, center, meets with Tufts University President Sunil Kumar and Kelly Sims Gallagher, interim dean of The Fletcher School, before her talk on campus. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Ardern has also been “a champion of women’s empowerment,” said Monica Duffy Toft, Fletcher academic dean and professor of international politics, in her introduction. Under Ardern’s watch, New Zealand decriminalized abortion and improved pay equity and parental leave laws. Ardern was only the second world leader in history to give birth to a child while holding office.

In 2023, she shocked many observers by deciding not to run for reelection to parliament at the height of her popularity, being honest about the toll public office was taking on her. She’s continued to pursue efforts to combat terrorism and extremism online, currently serving in dual fellowships at the Harvard Kennedy School and a fellowship at Harvard Law School.

Science and Transparency

“There’s probably never a day that I don’t think about COVID,” Ardern said. “We were dealing with no easy decisions.”

New Zealand’s relative isolation gave the country a bit of lag time from the rest of the world. Even so, Ardern remembers being shocked when her health policy advisor came to her with a graph showing a strategy to “flatten the curve” of infections, with a dotted line representing the country’s hospital capacity far below the top. “I wasn’t knowingly going to [choose] an option where I knew that we wouldn’t be able to cope, and therefore people would die,” Ardern said.

While controversial at times, the country’s strategy of “elimination” through several national lockdowns was later shown to have led to an 80% lower rate of infection than that of the U.S., saving an estimated 20,000 lives in the country of 5 million. Ardern attributed that success to a two-pronged strategy of learning everything possible about the science and at the same time being transparent and humble in communications.

“We were learning in real time,” she said. “So people knew we didn’t have the answers. Our response was to share everything we knew and be honest about what we didn’t know.”

Combating Extremism

Ardern had already been through a trial by fire the previous year during “one of the darkest moments for New Zealand” when a terrorist killed more than 50 people in shootings at two mosques in Christchurch. While the country experienced a huge outpouring of grief, she said, “I’ve always noted that in moments of crisis, particularly in New Zealand, there is always an expectation that alongside grief there must be action.”

Seizing the moment, she helped push a nationwide ban on assault weapons, with nearly unanimous approval in parliament in just 10 days. All but one member of parliament found “a way to support that legislation,” she said. “I have no doubt it was the expectations of the public that motivated our politicians as well.”

Ardern’s motivation around the issue didn’t stop with the ban. One of the most horrific aspects of the shooting, she said, was that the gunman had livestreamed it on Facebook, retraumatizing the families of survivors as the video resurfaced over and over.

“For a period, it was being uploaded on YouTube once per second,” she said. After pushing to get the video taken down in the immediate aftermath, Ardern launched the Christchurch Call along with former President Emmanuel Macron of France to put pressure on online platforms to change their policies on livestreaming and sharing extremist content. The efforts included establishing a 24/7 crisis response model to coordinate removal of offensive content as quickly as possible.

“It’s now been deployed more than 300-plus times,” noted Ardern, who continues to serve as an unpaid special envoy on the issue for New Zealand.

Indigenous Wisdom

Ardern benefitted from the fact that two women had previous served as prime minister in New Zealand, she said.

“How lucky was I to grow up never believing that my gender would get in the way of me being in politics or me being a leader?” said Ardern, who helped achieve gender parity in New Zealand’s parliament, with 50% representation by women. “We really believed and continue to believe that our parliament should look like the communities it serves.”

During a question-and-answer period, several Fletcher graduate students asked questions about New Zealand’s relationship with China—the 600-pound gorilla in the Pacific region—and Ardern gave a nuanced answer, arguing that having a diverse group of trading partners could be balanced with human rights and labor concerns.

“When I’ve met with the president [of China], I will talk to him about trade, but I will also talk to him about the concerns over the Uighur people,” she said. “The idea that if you trade with someone that somehow you become meek in raising conditions, I disagree with.”

Much of her philosophy on leadership has been influenced by Indigenous traditions, she said in response to another question on that topic. “It’s really telling to me,” she said, that a traditional Maori introduction starts by acknowledging the mountain and the river closest to where you come from. “Imagine if we started every policy decision thinking about our place in the world, specifically the connection to our land.”

Beyond the environmental implications, she said, such perspective can help overcome the extreme partisanship and division that has beset politics in recent years, and which Ardern tried to combat while in office through her firm but empathetic style of leadership.

“That’s my small mission,” she concluded. “I’m not sure what I am going to do for my post-office career—but one thing I am very clear on, is I am going to talk about what it means to be a human first, and a leader second, because I think we need more of that in the world.”

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