Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader by Madeleine Chapman – Review
By Richard Mansfield
Since publication of this readable, useful and informative biography, Jacinda Ardern has led her Labour Party to re-election in government and, in doing so, with a landslide victory at this year’s October general election in New Zealand. This significant success has been such that it is the first time, since 1996, that any one party has been able to lead a government in the country, one that is supported solely by a party with its own overall majority, rather than a coalition of minorities. So, rather stating the obvious, clearly she is a successful and popular politician at home and seemingly one now very much admired internationally.
This book carries a subtitle which, lacking a question mark, would seem to be making a statement or drawing a conclusion. Certainly Jacinda Ardern appears to be a leader for her country’s times and indeed those of ours, one made of far more different stuff than many populist premiers or presidents that gather limelight around the globe just now. From views that I personally have garnered among friends and acquaintances, she is both popular and respected here. But, as we know only too well, the responsibilities, constraints and realities of government are soon challenged by the need for compromises. In the longer term it may be far too early to judge what her legacy may be, but there seems to be little doubt that she has made a very promising start.
Drawing mainly on journalistic sources and without benefit of an authoritative interview with the subject, Madeleine Chapman presents an account of Ms Ardern’s life, perhaps rather sketchily on occasion, from childhood to her present high office. This traces her early years within a family where faith was important (though she now discloses herself to be agnostic), where her father was a local policeman and their circumstances were reasonably comfortable.
There was poverty around them and Jacinda was attuned to its unfairness. Apparently seen by her contemporaries as a bit nerdy and ‘not cool, but not uncool’ (a phrase and quote that the author uses several times throughout the book), the young Jacinda soon revealed her desire to represent others and their views, starting first as the student representative in the school council. There she showed a willingness to argue issues on behalf of others, issues which she sometimes might not be too bothered about at her own personal level, but which she felt should be, in fairness, be addressed. Her skills were such that fellow pupils, when it came time to leave and move on, labelled her as the ‘most likely among their number to become prime minister’!
“Remarkable, almost meteoric, ascent”
In the author’s hands the narrative then becomes a bit jumpy chronologically; choosing to progress the story by means of themed chapters and which sometimes necessitate a discordant reference back to something that has been mentioned earlier.
A politician’s career often comprises a journey across the scale from left to right or vice versa and Jacinda Ardern appears to be no stranger to this. Prior to becoming an MP, and in fact doing so at the same age as Tony Blair when he entered Parliament in the UK, she had been a former president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. In her present incarnation, at the beginning of her second term as prime minister, she is seen to be very ‘centrist’ or, maybe, as she would prefer, a ‘pragmatic idealist’. Gone from her intent now is the imposition of a ‘capital gains tax’. Radical idealism has indeed been eclipsed by pragmatism, an accompaniment to, if not the inevitable driving force, for her government to remain in power.
Having become an MP, Jacinda quickly became well regarded by her peers and the author comments, “Apparently everyone in politics knew that Ardern would be prime minister long before she did”. A reminder perhaps of the prescience of her fellow students when they left school?
We learn just how rapid was her rise to being elected prime minister in 2017, despite her professed reluctance to be promoted for or to assume such high office. One is reminded of Harold Macmillan’s famous quote, “Events, dear boy, events” when he was asked his views on what shapes the winds of fortune for those in government. Or indeed in Parliamentary politics in general perhaps? In Ardern’s case, it appears that sudden, unanticipated resignations in both the National Party (right oriented) and her own Labour Party presaged her remarkable, almost meteoric, ascent to the premiership. So, one might regard her as an ‘accidental prime minister’, though proving to be a determined one, and having attained the office, she has not disappointed her country.
Reference is made in this book to New Zealand politics having been long dominated by middle-aged white men. She has certainly done one thing that they are not equipped to do. Jacinda Ardern is only the second premier in the World to give birth while in office, taking the statuary maternity leave provided in New Zealand and subsequently attending to her parliamentary and governmental duties as a nursing mother with her daughter, Neve, close by. In fact the infant Neve is the first baby to have attended the annual United Nations General Assembly, in September 2018, with her very own security lanyard! Her mother’s speech to the Assembly at that time is printed at this book’s conclusion along with her Statement on the Christchurch mosque terror attack, made to the nation in March 2019.
“We are much in need of her better example”
The recent occupant of the Washington White House, soon to leave, has long established the practice of using social media to share his views. Ardern too has made this a means of communication with her citizens (in this case Facebook Live), one that to some extent circumvents the press, but she has mastered the practice with far greater aplomb and in a far less erratic, juvenile way.
It is said that Jacinda Ardern had wished to bring kindness into politics and this book outlines and emphasises the empathy that she has brought through, from her own personality and beliefs, to her office and which so many of us have come to admire and value.
Her responses to the Christchurch earthquake and later to the massacre at the mosques in that city have demonstrated the level of seemingly unselfconscious, compassionate and demonstrative humanity this woman can show when comforting victims during national disasters. She is also seen to have been decisive, with early success, in her country’s response to the current coronavirus pandemic.
New Zealanders, isolated at the bottom of the World in the southern Pacific, will, because of that geography and its relatively small population in the global league table (just less than five million) very rarely feature at the centre of world events. But Jacinda Ardern has brought the country into the spotlight and has done so particularly because of her humanity. Despite its flaws this book illuminates, in a very readable style, an account of quite what it is about Jacinda Ardern that sets her apart from so many other premiers and presidents on today’s world stage. Educationally, but entertainingly, this book provides a feel of what New Zealand political society is like and usefully explains, in brief, its somewhat unusual and relatively young constitution (1993) employing as it does a ‘Mixed Member Proportional’ (MMP) electoral system that has probably accounted for its frequent coalition governments in recent times.
Already tipped, because of her approach and networking skills, for eventual office within the United Nations, it may yet prove that Jacinda Ardern will become a figure of even greater significance far beyond her own shores. Perhaps it will take time to feel confident that her rise and conduct in office is indeed a beacon yet to establish itself as ‘a new kind of leader’, one that will not just flare and fade, but what is written here is to give hope that it will. We are much in need of her better example. This book may well help you to decide for yourselves.
‘Jacinda Ardern: A New Kind of Leader’ by Madeleine Chapman is published by The History Press, £20 hardback