She has been described as a political prodigy. As the hero that progressive politics so desperately needs. As the very “opposite of Trump”. At thirty eight years of age New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is the world’s youngest female head-of-state, and only the second world leader in history to give birth while in office. Her policies are progressive, focusing on equality, sustainability and multilateral cooperation. In the post-Obama era, where nationalism and conservatism are on the rise across the globe, she is viewed as a shining success story for egalitarianism and gender equality. So, how did the leader of one of the world’s smallest and most isolated nations become a global icon for progressive politics?
Ardern’s rise to fame was a captivating one. In 2017 the then thirty seven year old was swept into office on a wave of ‘Jacindamania’ to become New Zealand’s third female Prime Minister. During her campaign which gathered a large amount of media coverage by New Zealand standards, Ardern emphasised issues such as child poverty, environmental management and housing affordability.
During her campaign Ardern received praise both nationally and worldwide for her her handling of what was widely condemned as a sexist question, when a journalist asked her about her plans for motherhood.
“It is totally unacceptable in 2017 to say that women should have to answer that question in the workplace”. “It is a women’s decision about when they choose to have children, and it should not predetermine whether or not they are given a job or have job opportunities”. In New Zealand it is illegal for employers to ask job candidates whether they’re pregnant or considering children.
Less than a year into her first term Ardern and her partner Clark Gayford welcomed their first child to the world. Ardern is only the second leader in history to do so, and the first in thirty years. In September 2018 Ardern made history as the first world leader to attend the United Nations General Assembly with a child. Ardern’s speech advocated for global cooperation and kindness, with many observers noting the contrasting style to Donald Trump, who also recently made an address to the General Assembly.
Ardern also made headlines during her first meeting with Donald Trump at the east Asia summit in Vietnam, only one month into her first term. Ardern reported that Trump pointed to her, stating “this lady caused a lot of upset in her country”, referring to her surprise victory in the 2017 New Zealand election, to which Ardern now famously quipped “no one marched when I was elected”.
The tiny island nation has a proud history when it comes to issues of gender equality and progressive politics. In 1893 the country became the first on earth to grant women the right to vote in parliamentary elections. This suffrage movement, led by Kate Shepard, remains immortalised in print on New Zealand currency, and a key element of the national identity and narrative.
Arden can be situated in a long line of progressive icons in New Zealand. Almost a decade before German Chancellor Angela Merkel was celebrating three successive terms in Berlin, previous Kiwi Prime Minister Helen Clark celebrated three terms of leading her country, from 1999 to 2008. Fondly referred to as ‘Aunty Helen’ by her supporters, Clark had a reputation for pragmatism, and drove several flagship policies such as staying out of the Iraq war and accepting disregarded asylum seekers who had initially sought refuge in Australia.
Clark went on to run the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the third highest position in the multi-lateral organisation. In 2016 Clark made a run for the coveted position of UN Secretary General, to replace the outgoing Ban Ki-moon.
Clark ultimately lost out to Antonio Guterres, noting that she finally hit a glass ceiling at the UN. “Coming from New Zealand, I’m not used to having any ceiling and where there was one I broke through, all my life,” she noted. “New Zealanders are used to having women leaders, not just prime ministers”.
The centre-left Labour Party which Arden leads has a formal coalition with the New Zealand Green Party. The coalition partners are in agreement regarding many policy positions as well as the overall role that government should play in society.
The move towards the left was welcomed by many young New Zelanders, who did not benefit from the neoliberal policies of the previous administration. Between 2008 and 2016, under the stewardship of Sir John Key and the economically liberal National Party, housing prices skyrocketed nationally, particularly in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. As house prices soared but wages stagnated, the crises became so extreme that the IMF listed New Zealand at the top of their list for housing unaffordability. Since the Labour-Green coalition came into power in Wellington, the crisis has since began to subside.
With Labour’s primary political opposition the New Zealand National Party now in an ongoing position of political disarray, Ardern looks set for a prolonged period as Prime Minister. If her career continues on its current trajectory in the coming decades, higher, more international positions will surely be within her reach. With only 11 out of almost 200 countries currently led by women, that can only be a good thing.