When Jacinda Ardern took over the leadership of the New Zealand Labour Party (Labour), her chances of leading the party into government seemed small. She faced sexist questioning from the media about her life plans. The National Party’s (National) center-right government, led by Bill English, seemed to hold extensive popular support. Yet, in the run up to the September 2017 election, New Zealand experienced “Jacindamania,” and she delivered an 11 percent increase to the Labour vote. Despite her party finishing behind the National Party (who also did not get a majority) she became the world’s youngest female head of state after forming a functioning minority government led by Labour following nine years of National’s rule.
Since then, she has been noticed in world media mostly for the optics of being a woman leader: She was the world’s second prime minister to give birth while in office, her male partner is the primary caregiver and she brought her baby to the UN General Assembly this week. While these are milestones worthy of discussion, the coverage of her leadership never seems to mention the substance of her work, which has brought many extremely consequential changes to New Zealand. Starting with her first week in office, she delivered results on a laundry list of social democratic priorities from extending paid family leave to raising the minimum wage.
Under her leadership, Labour has promised to deliver a kinder and more equitable society, a goal that permeated the budget she got passed this year that included large increases to healthcare spending, investment in public housing and education, especially for children with special needs. Her government banned offshore drilling this year as part of a larger initiative to be a leader in environmental sustainability issues. Her call to decriminalize abortion for cases when there is no threat to the mother is culminating in policy change. She has been active in efforts to make New Zealand a more inclusive society for the island’s native Maori people and give their language a bigger presence in public life, even giving her daughter a Maori middle name. She refused to allow self-interested members of parliament give themselves a raise earlier this year.
While it is important and valuable to recognize Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s milestones as a young woman running a country while being a new mother, it is important to keep in mind that she is successfully running that country and making important changes. The personal style she brings to politics — even the simple fact that she has people refer to her by her first name — is a breath of fresh air in contrast to politics usually dominated by older men who insist on “respect,” that they take to mean formality and unreachability. Her example, in style and substance, should be what leaders aspire to emulate in democracies across the world.