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Compassion, grit takes 'Jacindamania' to new heights after mosque attack

Office of the New Zealand Prime Minister, AFP | Jacinda Ardern at visit to a Christchurch refugee centre on March 16, 2019.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has earned new respect for her response to New Zealand's worst-ever terror attack, with praise for her compassionate-but-tough leadership style taking “Jacindamania” to new heights.

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She was the darling of the progressive left in New Zealand, her charm and magnetism easing her rise up the political ranks to make her the world’s youngest female head of government in 2017. But Ardern’s detractors always had one central mantra: She was all style and no substance.

That criticism has proven difficult to uphold in the aftermath of the March 15 Christchurch mosque attacks that killed 50 worshippers during Friday prayers. The mix of compassion and political determination the 38-year-old prime minister has displayed over the past few days has silenced her critics,for the moment at least.

On Thursday Ardern made good on her promise, made the morning after the attack, that, “our guns laws will change”. At a press conference in Parliament House, Ardern announced that her government was moving urgently to ban all military-style semi-automatic weapons as well as all assault rifles. Flanked by flagpoles and dressed in a black blazer with her hair tightly secured, Ardern looked and sounded like she meant business.

“These changes will require legislation. That legislation is now being drafted and will be introduced under urgency. My expectation is that the law will be in place by the end of the next two weeks’ sitting sessions, which is by the end of April,” she said.

Compassion and cultural sensitivity

“Jacindamania” – a term coined shortly after she became head of the New Zealand Labour party in 2017 – has reached new heights, with New Zealand’s prime minister winning worldwide praise for her handling of the national tragedy.

A day after the attack, when Ardern visited a Christchurch refugee centre to meet community leaders, she earned the respect of the Muslim world when she arrived in a hijab, carrying off the headscarf with natural poise, placed her hand on her heart, a traditional Muslim gesture, and said a simple, “Asalaam alaykum,” (peace be with you) as the grieving crowd murmured, “Wa alaykum asalaam,” (And peace be to you too).

At a subsequent visit to a local mosque, her composure and empathy while meeting survivors was lauded, as was her insistence that New Zealand would remain a refuge for people of all faiths from across the world.

The ‘anti-Trump’

Ardern had already labeled the mass shooting by a white supremacist an act of terrorism, and her pledge, days later, to never mention the attacker’s name earned her the nation’s respect.

By taking on the country’s gun lobby, Ardern has now turned into an unwitting source of envy for Americans who have tried, with no success, to tighten gun laws following every mass shooting incident in the US.

Her response to President Donald Trump’s help offer following the mosque attack also made headline news in the US media. In a phone conversation with Trump, Ardern recalled, "He asked what offer of support the United States could provide. My message was: 'Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.'"

Vogue magazine had already dubbed her “the anti-Trump” in its March issue cover story for being “young, forward-looking, and unabashedly liberal”.

UN meeting with an infant in tow

It wasn’t the first time Ardern’s leadership style made headlines. Last year, the prime minister made history and brought smiles across the assembly hall when she appeared at a UN General Assembly meeting in New York with her three-month-old daughter.

This was shortly after she made history back home for becoming the second female elected leader to give birth while in office after the late Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

But Ardern's star power has also been met by criticism at home, with New Zealand undergoing a housing crisis and economic woes. At the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos earlier this year, for instance, a Western fund manager with dealings in the Asia-Pacific region scoffed that Ardern "was just a less annoying Justin Trudeau with an easier country to run", the Washington Post reported in a jab both at her and the Canadian prime minister.

But Ardern's dignity and steel has now proven her detractors wrong, and shown that running her country is a challenge she’s more than qualified to handle.

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