June 2019

By Sally A. Painter and Willa Lerner

Three months ago, we celebrated International Women’s Day by recognizing the significant achievements of New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Since her rise to the premiership in 2017, Prime Minister Ardern has embodied a new form of leadership—one that balances kindness with strength, rejects racism and isolationism, and normalizes the inclusion of women and other underrepresented groups.

Just days after International Women’s Day, a mass shooting at the Al Noor mosque in Christchurch rocked New Zealand and stunned the world. In the wake of the horrific event, Ardern’s messaging never wavered. She championed compassion, presenting it as more than just a gesture of goodwill, but rather as a responsibility that we all must take upon ourselves. She called for New Zealanders to make the country “the place we wish to be. A place that is diverse, that is welcoming, that is kind and compassionate. Those values represent the very best of us.”

More importantly, she asked that New Zealanders “not leave the job of combatting hate to the government alone,” while moving quickly to demand and enact change in the days and months since the tragedy. With support from Parliament, she implemented a ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles. In May, she organized a summit with French President Emmanuel Macron, inviting world leaders and tech executives to meet and discuss the role of social media and technology in acts of violent extremism. She has actively challenged the “Postman vs. Publisher” debate (codified in Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act) that exempts technology companies from responsibility for rhetoric posted on their platforms. During the summit, she focused her priorities on starting the conversation, bringing leaders and executives to the table to sign a pledge—the Christchurch Call—to end the use of social media for acts of terrorism.

Prime Minister Ardern’s efforts to promote decency and empathy have extended far beyond her response to the Christchurch tragedy. On May 30, Ardern’s government officially released its “wellbeing budget.” The budget is the first of its kind, seeking to broadly change the way national economic priorities are determined and more concretely enact the reforms Ardern campaigned on in 2017. The budget recognizes the importance of “wellbeing factors” such as life expectancy, education levels, air quality, and “a sense of belonging.” This new policy requires that spending broadly support one of five government priorities: improving mental health, reducing child poverty, strengthening welfare for indigenous peoples, living in the digital world, and increasing sustainability efforts.

Ardern’s government released the new budget in the face of disappointing economic data that predicts a notable slowdown in the national economy. According to the IMF, New Zealand’s economy is expected to grow at a rate of about 2.5 percent in 2019 and 2.9 percent in 2020. As a result, the government has been forced to adopt a more flexible debt target and accept a lower budget surplus. Despite concerns about how the new style of budget will support the slowing economy, Prime Minister Ardern has refused to compromise her values—stating firmly in her speech to Parliament that the new budget represents “what we came into politics to do.”

Critics have often challenged Prime Minister Ardern’s approach, arguing that she spends more time focusing on the branding and “kindness” of a policy than on the details of the policy itself. Yet, at a time in which much of the global population feels uneasy and at odds with one another, Ardern pushes us to consider both our individual and collective humanity and to treat one another with the basic decency and respect we deserve.