Essay

The Kindness Quotient

Jacinda Ardern is the world’s anti-Trump.

Jacinda Ardern on Aug. 23, 2017. (David White/Fairfax Media)
Jacinda Ardern on Aug. 23, 2017. (David White/Fairfax Media)

Jacinda Ardern’s sudden, spectacular rise to the position of New Zealand’s prime minister in 2017 propelled her into headlines around the world. Deservedly so.

In an era defined by the emergence of populist leaders who are often authoritarian, reactionary, and male, Ardern stands out as progressive, collaborative, and female.

Her speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018 fueled her growing reputation as the “anti-Trump.” She called for, among other things, kindness and collectivism as an alternative to isolationism, protectionism, and racism.

In New Zealand, Ardern’s commitment to fighting child poverty and homelessness has come as a relief after years of relentless increases in both. Whereas the world’s right-wing populists stigmatize and stereotype marginalized people, Ardern has established kindness as a key principle for government policy and has worked to promote inclusion and social cohesion. Whereas the world’s right-wing populists stigmatize and stereotype marginalized people, Ardern has established kindness as a key principle for government policy. A family tax package that took effect last July is forecast to reduce the number of children living in poverty by 41 percent by 2021, and a new Child Poverty Reduction Bill, which further targets and measures child poverty reduction, is currently before the New Zealand Parliament. She has extended her values-based approach to foreign policy as well—most dramatically by offering New Zealand as a home for 150 of the refugees currently stranded in camps run by Australia in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

[The Little Ice Age could offer a glimpse of our tumultuous future, Amitav Gosh writes.]

Ardern has also identified climate change as the defining issue for her generation. On April 12, a little more than five months into her term, her government declared an end to new permits for oil and gas exploration in New Zealand’s waters, making it clear that the country was prepared to lead the way in this critical struggle.

Ardern is the third female prime minister of New Zealand. It was the first country where women won the right to vote in national elections—in 1893, nearly 27 years before the United States would offer the same. Women have long held top roles across New Zealand society. But Ardern has broken new ground: She is young, and she has chosen to become a mother while in office. That choice sent powerful signals to young women in New Zealand and beyond that combining career and family is a legitimate aspiration and that they do not have to choose between those paths.

I expect Ardern will continue to innovate on policy and to clearly communicate what she stands for and what her government is doing and why. She will continue to stand out globally both because she is young, progressive, and female and because she won’t back down from tough issues. New Zealanders can take pride in her global profile and in her ability to draw positive attention to their country. Her boundless energy and optimism will serve her well as she leads New Zealand in today’s volatile world.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Foreign Policymagazine.

Helen Clark served as prime minister of New Zealand from 1999 to 2008. @HelenClarkNZ

See the full list