BY ETHAN GRIFFITHS
It’s very hard to go past what has been one of New Zealand’s biggest tragedies without feeling an immense sense of grief, pain, and a still existent shock. The attack on Christchurch on March 15th, where 50 innocent worshipping Muslims lost their lives, with a further 39 injured, was the worst attack on New Zealand’s soil in modern history. When you compare population size, NZ’s loss from this attack was equivalent to almost double the loss of the United States on 9/11. As we look back five weeks on, it is difficult to comprehend the national and international political impact of this attack. New Zealand stood extraordinarily strong in the midst of unfathomable tragedy, raw emotion, and nauseating fear. During this time, one woman stood out in the darkness. That woman was Jacinda Ardern.
March 15th started out as any other day normally would for the Prime Minister. Being a Friday, Parliament wasn’t sitting, and Ardern traveled as she usually does to one of the regions, in this case, Taranaki. The Prime Minister had just left a school climate strike protest in the city centre of New Plymouth. I was there as she spoke to a crowd of 200 school students, teachers and adults; her voice was, as always, infused with pride, passion, and motivation. What she didn’t know, was that in less than an hour, she would be faced with one of New Zealand’s darkest moments, where she had to lead a highly secure and invaluable response to NZ’s deadliest act of terror, which would shape her Prime Ministership in the eyes of the NZ public, and the world.
Jacinda Ardern got the call traveling to the site of a new school in Oakura, a coastal village about fifteen minutes outside of New Plymouth. Immediately, even though the scale of the attack was unknown, Ardern decided to turn around and head straight to the New Plymouth Police station. It was here that the scale of the event became so extraordinarily clear, and Ardern undoubtedly realised this was going to be the most important and influential moment of her leadership.
Her first press conference at the Devon Hotel in New Plymouth took place at around 4 pm, a little over two hours after the beginning of the attack. She wasted no time, immediately labeling the attack as an “unprecedented act of violence” and calling March 15th, “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”.
This first conference was powerful. As a young leader, never before versed in acts of terror, warfare or violence, Ardern composed herself in a way only Ardern could; not focusing on the attack or the perpetrator, but instead focusing on the victims. Her comment “they are us” quickly became a term used to represent New Zealand’s collective emotion after the attack; a verbal representation of our love, compassion, and sorrow for what had occurred.
Ardern later revealed she had only minutes to draft what she was going to say at that conference, and scribbled on a piece of paper “One person custody – may be other offndr – Act of exraordnry violence – It has no place in NZ. They are us.”
She held another press conference at 8 pm, updating the country, and the world, on what had unfolded. 1News, Newshub and even the likes of CNN, BBC and Fox interrupted their scheduled programming and moved to rolling coverage of the attacks, with Jacinda Ardern the strong, commanding face, genuinely demonstrating a balance of sadness, anger, and compassion. At times, Ardern struggled to hold back tears. Never before had New Zealand received so much coverage and attention.
By that evening, the death toll sat at 40.
By 9 am the next morning, the Prime Minister had taken calls from world leaders, including that of US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and was being briefed every hour by officials including police, civil defence, and intelligence agencies. That Saturday, the Prime Minister flew to Christchurch. By the time she’d landed, she’d donned a headscarf, borrowed from a friend in Wellington, to wear as an act of solidarity with the Muslim community.
It was an hour later when the Prime Minister visited a mosque where a photo was taken which shaped her response to the attacks more than any speech or press conference ever could.
In politics, the power of imagery and perception should never be underestimated. In Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential photographs of all time, seven are of politicians. Most New Zealand Prime Ministers are lucky if they get one photo which shapes their style of leadership and approach to the world. Helen Clark and John Key never really got one. For Norman Kirk, it was a photo of him holding the hand of a small Maori boy at Waitangi in 1973. For David Lange, it was him standing in front of the Beehive holding his arms out. For Robert Muldoon, it was him with a smirk on his face pointing sarcastically at another MP. In just eighteen months, Jacinda Ardern has had three. Walking down the hallway of Buckingham Palace donning a sacred Maori cloak, the photo of her and Clarke after the birth of their baby Neve, and this photo, shot through a glass window by a Christchurch City Council photographer, of Ardern contemplating the emotion of the last 20 hours, the reflections of floral tributes representing the immense outpouring of grief.
From a purely political standpoint, the response of Jacinda Ardern and her government will prove to be invaluable when it comes to shaping public opinion. Not one aspect of Ardern’s response to the attack can reasonably be attacked or criticised; even the opposition leader Simon Bridges has sounded praise for the PM. The response also shone a bright light on our Prime Minister on the world stage, where she received arguably more coverage (almost all of it positive) than any other NZ Prime Minister in recent times.
Less than a month after the attacks, new firearms legislation making semi-automatic weapons illegal had passed almost unanimously with 119 votes to sole opposer David Seymour’s one. Very seldom is New Zealand’s parliament so unanimous on simple issues, let alone the most sweeping change to our firearms legislation in our history. This change in legislation was led entirely by Ardern and her cabinet. It was only six hours after the attack that Ardern floated the idea of legislation changes, and within a week, legislation was drafted and National had pledged their support, meaning it was guaranteed to pass. It was a huge win for the government, and for the opposition, it showed that in times of hurt, grief and emotion, they were willing to stand up in favour of something that they knew would achieve the greater good. Politically, it was a smart move of solidarity.
As you would typically expect after a tragedy of this scale, public opinion shifted in favour of Jacinda Ardern and her Labour Party. This after-disaster trend is pretty evident previously in history; in the first public poll taken after the Christchurch earthquakes in 2011, Prime Minister John Key’s National party climbed to 52.5% in the party vote numbers, some of its highest in history. In the first poll taken after the Christchurch attacks, Labour was sitting at 49%, its highest number since November 2004. The most recent public poll, released last Monday by 1News, had Labour on 48%, likely remaining under the 50% mark due to concerns about a Capital Gains Tax, which was later ruled out on Wednesday by Ardern after eighteen months of uncertainty. The strength of her response to this attack, her public profile both here and overseas, as well as the lack of a strong opposition leader with no support parties, almost guarantees Ardern a second term. It is hard to imagine any other scenario playing out, but as the blue team likes to point out, that’s the exact argument they themselves made before Andrew Little stepped down and Jacindamania took over. There’s been talk of Ardern being shipped off to the UN, or the possibility of National miraculously finding a friend to work with. Politics, as always, remains unpredictable.
Throughout the attack and the following response, Ardern has solidified herself in her position as a strong, responsive, charismatic but also a caring and down to earth leader; an invaluable asset which has been so important during such a time of tragedy. It is practically impossible to imagine any alternative situation other than an Ardern-led government come 2020. While National’s vote remains strong, it’s slowly dropping off, and their leader is hanging on by a thread, shaking in his boots while feeling the cold breath of Judith Collin’s blowing against his neck. What cannot be disputed is that Ardern is in a strong position with the public behind her. After Christchurch, it’s difficult to imagine that changing, and with the Capital Gains Tax off the table, National’s wind is gone. She’s as solid as a rock.
Tearaway is all about giving young people a platform to express themselves, from all points of view; we encourage diversity of opinions, provided they are expressed with respect for those who differ. The opinions expressed may or may not be those of the Tearaway editorial team and Management.
ETHAN GRIFFITHS is TEARAWAY’s Political Editor. Young, passionate and a wannabe babysitter for Neve Ardern, Ethan won’t stop talking about politics. Likes a bit of cricket, wearing trendy ties and is in love with Jeff the purple wiggle.
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