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A new kind of leadership



Author Madeleine Chapman may be wondering ‘what if?’. What if she could still be adding chapters to her biography Jacinda Ardern: A new kind of leader until the aftermath of Ardern's tackling COVID-19 in New Zealand?

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019  (Getty images/Hagen Hopkins )

Chances are it would have given an additional example of the kind of empathetic, courageous leadership with Ardern has become synonymous with across the world. As it is, this Ardern biography is crisp and sharp, explaining the optimism that launched a millennial (and only the second world leader to ever give birth in office) into the highest public office of her land.

‘If it is possible to begin building your social conscience when you are a small child,’ Chapman quotes Ardern, ‘then that is what happened to me.’ As a five-year-old, the author relates, the police officer’s kid and future queen of hearts saw injustice and deep poverty in Murupara and Morrinsville, where she grew up. Kids without shoes, people in sickness without healthcare, people dying from suicide.

Ardern has since taken on social justice issues on global stages. In particular, for Australians who hate their various governments’ deplorable stances on asylum seekers and refugees, Ardern’s assertions of human rights and repeated offers to assist them have not fallen on unreceptive ears.

Back to Ardern’s childhood which, Chapman writes, governs the PM today: ‘I never viewed the world through the lens of politics then,’ Arden says, ‘and in many ways [I] still don’t… I try to view it through the lens of children, people, and the most basic concepts of fairness.’

Life lessons were learnt, skills in negotiation and diplomacy were forged, and schoolyard advocate, studious nerd and council president Jacinda Ardern emerged from her childhood ready to take on the world.


'First and foremost, Ardern gained power, the author attests, by "being a mirror" and "embodying empathy" in a new, progressive model of leadership.'


After a stint working in a fish and chip parlour, ‘the Golden Kiwi’ (I kid you not), Ardern undertook a Bachelor of Communications at the University of Waikato before working her way up through the ranks of Labour.

A painful break with the religion of her family and youth, the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) over the issue of homophobia preceded overseas travel and networking, and Ardern’s tilts at pre-selection and elections.

Chapman views the political hard yards of Ardern in establishing herself while appearing to be effortless. Laughing, listening and knowing the first names of the journos at your media conference, and using them, are as much an expression of the heart as they are skill sets of electoral craft, communication, memory and recall.

Charm goes a long, long way in public life, and the author points out the obvious several times — Ardern has it in spades, laughing, talking comfortably with people form all walks of life and relating to people whatever their circumstances; as a chap whom young Jacinda was once very familiar with — St Paul — advised his team, ‘laugh with those who laugh and mourn with those who mourn’.

Gritting her teeth and getting past the obligatory sexism (she was winner and runner-up variously of condom manufacturer Durex’s ‘hottest celebrities and politicians’ list), Ardern became a candidate for political leadership as others fell around her.

That’s not to suggest Chapman presents Ardern as a political Steven Bradbury, winning as others fell over their own skates. But ‘Jacindamania’ did not grow in a vacuum — the gaffes and miscalculations of friends and foes alike did pave the way for Ardern’s ascension.

But first and foremost, Ardern gained power, the author attests, by ‘being a mirror’ and ‘embodying empathy’ in a new, progressive model of leadership.

Without the usual voyeuristic intent, Chapman covers Ardern’s love of her partner, Kiwi TV host Clarke Gayford and the birth of their daughter, all the while negotiating the occasional political attacks from Australian politicians, the complexities of racial politics in En Zed and the rigours of sailing a coalition government.

It is in her response to the wanton murder of 41 Muslim Kiwis and the wounding of dozens of other worshippers — her comforting of survivors, the steely resolve to not give the murderer the fame he sought and the successful introduction of gun control measures — that Arden stood head and shoulders as a protector of all New Zealanders.

This is a comparatively slim volume (296 pages), stylishly, vocative and sometimes amusingly written. For some readers, if not many, Chapman’s biography of the NZ PM will raise more questions than it answers. But as a primer on a young woman who seemingly came from nowhere to give people hope, it is both informative and inspiring. 



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 (Getty images/Hagen Hopkins )

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jacinda Ardern, Madeleine Chapman, review



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Existing comments

A young woman thriving in perhaps the most difficult of occupations: political leadership. Australia has a close relationship with New Zealand, so close that there is strong rivalry in sport, in national identity and self-determination. From my one visit to New Zealand I discerned a healthy disrespect, combined with a quirky sense of humour, for being overwhelmed by big brother across the ditch. Full marks to Jacinda for being her own person while negotiating thorny issues in a partnership government and being unafraid to show her emotions.

Pam | 06 May 2020  

Disappointing that Ardern's social justice conscience does not extend to the rights of the unborn in her governments legislation

Maree Ganley | 06 May 2020  

I admire Jacinda Ardern immensely and wish all Australian political leaders would try to emulate her on many major issues, including concern for asylum seekers, concern for the natural environment which is already being ravaged by the effects of climate change, and her sense of a fair go for all.

Grant Allen | 06 May 2020  

An interesting article on a wonderful leader that reveals some interesting facts about her that make one want to know more. .

Terry | 06 May 2020  

A wonderful article Barry. It certainly explains her strong sense of social justice in action. I wish our lot would emulate her. I personally admire her grit.Should be more of her type in public life.

Gavin O'Brien | 07 May 2020  

Regrettably, there is nothing new or commendable about Ms Ahern's kind of leadership when it comes to the rights of the unborn; no "fair for for all" on this issue at all. And until hers and other governments ensure protection for the most vulnerable in society vulnerable, "social justice" is radically atrophied and rings hollow.

John RD | 07 May 2020  

The beauty of the Westminster style of government (even more beautiful in Australia and New Zealand than in its source and home) is that we can simultaneously and separately have a head of government and a head of state, especially a head of state because he or she rotates more frequently. We can have a brisk prime minister to wear the burden of shaving freedom by taking an icon of it away from the people for their own good while also having an avuncular governor-general to hold the nation emotionally together in the wake of Port Arthur, or a woman who can hug an ‘other’ woman to symbolise another national unity in the wake of tragedy, in a way that a stereotypical big six foot man cannot, while also having a man, not necessarily big or white, who can, in another circumstance, be the better reflector of the nation to itself. God honours, through his permissive will, the human free will that brings about adversity, but he also offers the mitigating availability of humans of different features and personality to come forward to inspire and console, an availability maximised by election and nomination under the Westminster system.

roy chen yee | 08 May 2020  

I commend the kind of leadership, both servant and inclusive in character, offered by Ms Helen Forde, Fr Trung Nguyen and the Jesuit Mission team in North Sydney. It is a leadership grounded in relationship with God, the inspiration of sacred scripture, and human need and responsiveness to it: a thorough integration of the spiritual and practical distinctive of Ignatian spirituality, recognising the source, reality and potential of human dignity for all. The team's "Field Hospital" reflection and prayer this week can be accessed online; it is entitled "Restoring Intimacy" - which has a direct relevance to our current Covid-19 contact restrictions and especially, perhaps, for those unable to contact physically elderly parents as Australia celebrates Mothers Day.

John RD | 09 May 2020  

We need to remember what you are doing here is reviewing a book, not creating a secular saint. Doing that to any politician, however decent and honourable, is unwise. I see an enormous amount to admire in Jacinda Ardern. She is a thoroughly decent person. In some ways she reminds me of Angela Merkel. Both build bridges and unite people of different origins, rather than sow division and hatred. There have always been Australian politicians of high moral calibre, such as John Anderson and the late Tim Fischer. We have to remember that politics is not the pulpit, it's concerned with fixing things in the everyday world. Jesus made the distinction quite clear when he spoke of rendering what was rightly theirs to both God and Caesar. That did not prevent Christians like Wilberforce working to abolish the slave trade. Cardinal Manning supported the London dock workers strike for a Just Wage. Elizabeth Fry was involved in prison reform. Christianity informed their politics, it wasn't their politics.

Edward Fido | 13 May 2020  

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