Select Page

By Dev Nadkarni

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is Islands Businesses’ 2019 Pacific Person of the Year. Just over two years since she took office, events in New Zealand and in her own personal life have catapulted her on to the global stage. One among a new wave of young leaders who were swept to power (Canada’s Trudeau, France’s Macron and Ireland’s Varadkar), Ardern’s positive image has been the most enduring. Islands Business profiles Ardern the Prime Minister and the person – and her work in New Zealand and the Pacific, and brings you a separate, exclusive interview.

In the two years that she has been the fortieth Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Kate Laurell Ardern seems to have garnered more positive headlines across the world than any other political leader.

Fortune magazine named her the world’s second greatest leader –behind only the team of Bill and Melinda Gates; and the only elected leader in its list of top ten. The New York Times headlined an editorial ‘America deserves a leader as good as Jacinda Ardern.’

Both those headlines came in the aftermath of the Christchurch shootings of March 15 2019, where her handling of the country’s worst tragedy and the grace, dignity and equanimity with which she comforted the shell-shocked community – and the nation at large – has come in for due praise from all corners of the globe.

Her pensive, scarf-clad visage embracing a woman a day after the tragedy, later projected on to a landmark Dubai skyscraper in a tribute to her, is an image permanently etched into the memories of millions worldwide. Indeed, it is the image that has come to define Ardern: Compassionate, sensitive, empathetic, inclusive.

It is not as though she didn’t make positive headlines before the Christchurch events. In October 2017, she was feted globally as the youngest woman head of government at age 37. And in a positive piece in April 2018, American broadcaster, the NBC said, ‘New Zealand’s prime minister is unmarried, pregnant and going on maternity leave.’

On June 21 that year, Ardern and partner Clarke Gayford welcomed baby Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford. Soon, Baby Neve was accompanying her mother everywhere, including to New Zealand’s parliament, the Beehive, and the United Nations in New York.

Seven weeks to prime ministership

Pitchforked into the leadership of New Zealand’s Labour Party – which had found itself out of favour with Kiwi voters for three consecutive terms – just seven weeks before the 2017 elections, she led the party with aplomb. Her youthful energy, no-nonsense candour and her quintessential Kiwi friendliness and bonhomie propelled her popularity, putting New Zealand in the grip of what the media termed ‘Jacindamania’ and the ‘Jacinda effect’.

But it wasn’t enough to get her party over the line. Despite no direct experience in political negotiations, she managed to forge a coalition with the formidable Winston Peters’ New Zealand First Party on the one side and the Greens on the other. This was a feat in itself, though many political pundits averred at the time that such an arrangement was inherently unstable given the obvious contradictions in their respective manifestos and political inclinations.

But then politics is the art of the impossible and Ardern is a fast learner. With her considerable suite of skills – sharp intellect, sensitive emotional quotient, a practical reasonableness in negotiating, formidable debating nous and fierce integrity among many others – not only stitched up the deal successfully but has kept the waka largely on an even keel. She has dealt with potentially showstopping developments, caused mostly by senior New Zealand First ministers, with a deft combination of tact and firmness, never once appearing to be on the backfoot. And her opposition has largely been all at sea trying to make any noticeable dent in her popularity.

One year out from the next election in 2020, Ardern’s minders have capitalised on the warm fuzzies her reputation carries. On the eve of her second year as prime minister, she put out a ‘two minute challenge’ video, breathlessly rattling off her government’s achievements in all of two minutes. Well-known American Late Show host Stephen Colbert then flew down to New Zealand for a week, with Ardern picking him up at the airport and showing him around for his show featuring New Zealand – watched by millions of people worldwide.

Policies with a heart

But behind the warm fuzzies is a firm resolve to deliver results. Just weeks after the Christchurch massacre, Ardern had all assault-type rifles banned and bought back in an amnesty scheme for which the government has set aside $200 million. The move has been lauded by anti-gun lobby groups in the United States and the world over. The second part of gun law reform is now in progress.

Ardern’s government has worked hard for mum-and-dad Kiwis, especially from the lower economic rungs that includes large numbers of Pacific people living in New Zealand. The country’s social sector has benefited greatly over the past two years. Families, children, healthcare, housing have all received bigger allocations making most people better off not just monetarily, but also in terms of delivery of services. Her government has made the largest ever investment in preventing family and sexual violence.

Labour governments have traditionally been contended to be less than friendly to business and investment. However, the Ardern government’s tenure so far has seen unemployment plummet to the lowest level at 4.4 per cent currently, more than 90,000 new jobs created despite a rise in minimum wage. It restarted contributions to the superannuation fund, discontinued previously by the National government, and exports have gone up by NZ$9billion (US$5.9 billion) in the past year alone.

The Ardern government seems to have dispelled another commonly held view that Labour governments tend to be big social sector spenders while being lukewarm to business and industry. In October this year, her Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced a surplus of $7.5 billion, twice more than the budget forecast. At the same time it has kept the lid on debt at lower than what was forecasted.

With interest rates at record lows and the economy in good nick, the Ardern government has in November announced big spending on projects both in infrastructure and in the social sector. It has just announced NZ$400 million (US$262 million) to be spent on school infrastructure, a per capita spending of nearly NZ$700 per student. Other announcements are to follow soon, Ardern announced at the party’s annual convention recently.

Ardern’s strong Pacific focus

Inclusiveness, the firm belief that everybody deserves a fair deal and egalitarianism are qualities Ardern strongly displayed long before her political career. At school she fought for gender equality and later rejected the belief system she was brought up in because it discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation even though it professed kindness and generosity.

Few, if any, would ever disagree that Ardern’s empathy for people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and beliefs is undoubtedly genuine and that her pronouncements on matters relating to these sincere. Her government has increased the annual quota of refugees that are welcomed into New Zealand and especially after Christchurch, she has made it a point to emphasise inclusivity in word and deed at every opportunity.

New Zealand is home to more people from some Polynesian Island countries than the resident population of those countries. Pacific people are among the fastest growing groups of New Zealand’s population. Though New Zealand has long acknowledged its strong, deep and historic Pacific links with constant engagement, Ardern has moved it up a few notches, according to New Zealand’s Pacific leaders.

Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau

“Ardern has lead by example with diversity and inclusion to ensure Pacific people are represented in her political party. Six MPs including three cabinet ministers and two ministers outside cabinet – this is a sure sign she is genuinely concerned about the needs and concerns of Pacific peoples,” says Rachel Afeaki-Taumoepeau, leading Tongan-Kiwi businesswoman and founding Chair of the New Zealand-Tonga Business Council.

In 2018, the Ardern government announced an enhanced New Zealand aid package, much of an additional NZ$714 million to be spent over four years in the Pacific Islands region. New Zealand has also allocated $300 million to fight climate change, in the three years from 2019-2022, again with some $150 million going into the islands region toward the Climate Change Programme focusing on improving water security, ecosystems, and helping the island economies transition to low carbon, climate-resilient futures.

The Pacific Re-set, about which Ardern talks at some length in the accompanying interview in this issue of Islands Business, started out slowly but has gathered steam over 2019.

Don Mann, Chief Executive of Pacific Cooperation Foundation, an NGO that develops and implements public/private sector economic development and socio-cultural initiatives in the Pacific Islands region, this year participated in a major New Zealand Government mission to the Melanesian sub-region that comprised multi-party MPs, businesspeople and officials.

Don Mann, CEO, PCF

“This united demonstration of leadership was an affirmation of our identity as a Pacific nation, a commitment to diversity and emerging leaders, shared histories and deep connections throughout the Pacific region. I saw evidence of New Zealand’s partnership approach to regional development through investment in aviation, infrastructure, health, tourism, education, community development, security and the creative sector,” he said.

As well as the ‘Pacific Re-set’, Ardern seems to have strengthened her engagement with the leaders of Pacific Island nations. “She has shown authentic intentional leadership allowing for Pacific leaders to not only be engaged but lead the way with dialogues that really matter to our Pacific nations,” says Afeaki-Taumoepeau.

“She has allowed for conversations to be had not just at the top end of leadership but bottom up – a real sense of collective dialogue, intent listening, recognising the need to strengthen the smaller island nations under her leadership. I may not agree with all her party policies, but I do agree her leadership has been a breath of fresh air for our nation and our region. She is so relatable and this is what matters.”

Leaders of Pacific Island origin in New Zealand all seem to be in agreement. As Don Mann says, “Our Pasifika MPs as a collective group of individuals who despite their party allegiances, all desire the same thing, prosperity for Pasifika people and the Pacific region. The support role played by Aupito William Sio, Minister for Pacific Peoples is acknowledgement that for Pacific people the duality of identity as New Zealanders and people of the region is inseparable.”

Admiration of Ardern is not confined to Pacific peoples in New Zealand. When Australian shock jock and former Wallabies coach Alan Jones accused her of being a hypocrite and said Prime Minister Scott Morrison should “stuff a sock” down the throat of Ardern, Pacific Island leaders were quick to defend her, and condemn the radio announcer.

Jones objected to the role Ardern had played at the Pacific Islands Forum leaders meeting in Tuvalu, in which she sought to bridge the gap between Australia’s position on climate change, and the desire from Pacific Island nations for stronger, more definitive action to slow emissions.

In response to the comments, Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama tweeted: “Easy to tell someone to shove a sock down a throat when you’re sitting in the comfort of a studio. The people of the Pacific, forced to abandon their homes due to climate change, don’t have that luxury. Try saying it to a Tuvaluan child pleading for help.”

Forum host, (now former) Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga was also complimentary about Ardern’s leadership, stating at the end of the Forum:

“New Zealand was very constructive in its contribution and I think the prime minister was very contributing to a lot of things progressive, perhaps more than other people.”

Afeaki-Taumoepeau, who is in close contact with Pacific groups both in New Zealand and the region says, “In the short time she has been Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern has made significant impact and Pacific peoples warm to her authenticity as a leader showing compassion, concern and empathy.”

A most worthy winner of this year’s Islands Business Pacific Person of the Year!

Dev Nadkarni is a former Senior Editor of Islands Business group of publications. He also headed the Journalism Programme at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. Based in Auckland, he is the founding editor and now Editor-at-Large of the Indian Weekender, Editor of the Kia Ora India quarterly, a consultant and a Director on boards of companies in New Zealand and the Pacific.

(First appeared in Islands Business Magazine, December 2019 Issue. Read the magazine here.)