Canberra: “I’ll show you something,” says New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
We are sitting on sofas in her office on the ninth floor of the Beehive, the circular building that houses the New Zealand government in Wellington. It is less than a month since a terrorist attack in Christchurch took the lives of 50 people at prayer.
I have been asking Ardern about her immediate response to the attack, which from the outset put a clear emphasis on inclusivity and solidarity. Succinctly, the prime minister framed what had happened in her own terms. It felt very deliberate: was it?
Not so much, Ardern says. “Very little of what I have done has been deliberate. It’s intuitive. I think it’s just the nature of an event like this. There is very little time to sit and think in those terms. You just do what feels right.”
She crosses the office to her desk and pulls an A4 sheet of paper from a drawer. It’s been folded in half, and in half again, and again. Printed on the back is the running order for an event she hosted in Auckland the night before the attack. On the front are a series of notes, scrawled in Ardern’s rounded handwriting, growing more hurried and less legible as they cross the page. “These are my notes for the first press conference,” she explains. “I was in a hotel room. We only had a short amount of time to prepare.”
When the call came, Ardern was travelling in a minivan, sitting alongside the mayor of New Plymouth, a small city on the West Coast of the North Island.
“The information was patchy and it was very difficult to decipher exactly what had happened,” she recalls. “We didn’t even know a confirmed toll. In an event like this — I can only assume, because I’ve never been through one before — there’s not a lot of time available to think about the language you want to use.
50the number of people killed in the mosque shootings last month
“I absolutely knew what I wanted to say. That, very quickly, was clear to me, when I heard that a mosque had been targeted. I knew what I wanted to say about that straight away. But, no, I didn’t think about particular words. I just thought about sentiments, and what I thought needed to be conveyed.”
And yet Ardern’s response, her choice of language, has mattered enormously. In the hours after the attack, in which an Australian-born white-supremacist shot dead 50 unarmed people in two mosques, Ardern said that this was an act of terrorism. She pointedly refused to speak the name of the man who did it.
There was none of the bellicose, war-footing political rhetoric that so often stalks terrorist attacks. Gun law reforms, intended to ban all semi-automatic firearms, were expedited, with cross-party support. An inquiry was commissioned, tasked with asking, among other things, whether an emphasis on jihadi terrorism had meant New Zealand intelligence agencies were looking the wrong way.
The images were just as powerful. On Saturday 16 March, after another press conference in Wellington, Ardern flew south to Christchurch, where she met members of the Muslim community. “I am here today to bring with me the grief of all New Zealand,” she said. “I am here to stand alongside you ... We feel grief, we feel injustice, and we feel anger.” She said it wearing a headscarf, an expression of solidarity that sprinted around the world.
“The elements of that surprised me,” says Ardern today. “When I had the all-clear to go down on Saturday, I asked a friend if they had something for me to borrow. If I’d been [at home] in Auckland it would have been different, but I didn’t have scarves with me. So I asked if she had something I could borrow, because for me it was just a mark of respect. It was naturally what you would do. So, no, I didn’t really think about that, either.”
Among the hideous novelties of the Christchurch attack is the fact that it was live-streamed, in bloody, dystopian detail, on Facebook, before metastasising across the internet, on sites where white supremacy festers, as well as on giant online platforms. Ardern took that on, too, in her parliamentary speech on 19 March, four days after the attack. “There is no question that [the] ideas and language of division and hate have existed for decades, but their form of distribution, the tools of organisation, they are new,” she said. “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published. They are the publisher. Not just the postman. There cannot be a case of all profit, no responsibility.”
What, then, does Facebook need to do?
“This isn’t a New Zealand issue, this is a global one,” says Ardern today, carefully choosing her words. “Really, upholding the community standards that they’ve set themselves, I think, is what people are asking for ... We’re asking for them to invest in ways to prevent the kind of harm we saw in the aftermath. And, let’s be honest, in the lead up, too.”
I asked her if the Christchurch attack had affected her optimism. “No,” she said. “My belief in the humanity of New Zealanders has strengthened. I just know we have a lot of work to do to make that universal.”
According to Ardern, the challenge is not a New Zealand issue but a global one — one in which social media giants have to uphold the community standards they have set for themselves.
Optimism is baked into Ardern’s character. At school, her mother once revealed, she convened a “happy club”. When she was made leader of the Labour party, with weeks to go before the 2017 election, the campaign was built around a self-described “relentlessly positive” outlook. And while Labour’s manifesto remained essentially unchanged, people suddenly started to listen. “Let’s do this,” went the slogan. Her opponents sneered that it was all just “stardust”, but the party surged on a wave of Jacindamania.
As if becoming a mother and prime minister were not challenging enough, Ardern found herself hailed as a standard bearer for women everywhere. “She’s not just leading a country,” gushed Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg last year. “She’s changing the game. And women and girls around the world will be the better for it.”
The prime minister was deep in conversation with her press secretary when she arrived for the formal part of an earlier interview at Waitangi in February. “We’re deciding whether I can get away with jandal-wear for the latter part of the afternoon,” she confided. They resolved against the flip-flops, and settled on flats. It had just gone 2pm, and a wall of the meeting room was lit in horizontal lines, stencilled through Venetian blinds. The Guardian’s photographer asked Ardern to stand in the stripes, a film-noirish sort of pose. “Maybe with your sincerity, not your smile,” suggested the photographer. “I struggle not to smile,” Ardern said through clenched teeth. “I look like I’m pouting. Terrible bone structure. It looks like a pout every time.”
In the past weeks, New Zealand has reckoned with its own history. One Christchurch-based broadcaster issued an apology for an earlier column about Islam, saying, “I look back at my comments ashamed.” And in a powerful speech a week after the attack, Jamal Fouda, the imam of Al Noor mosque, where 42 worshippers were killed, said the murders “did not come overnight”, but were “the result of the anti-Muslim rhetoric of some political leaders, media agencies and others”.
He may have had in mind Ardern’s deputy Peters, whose NZ First has delivered dog whistles about immigrants and “New Zealand values” for decades. Will she be speaking to him about his xenophobic rhetoric? She doesn’t need to, she suggests. “For me, it’s implicit now,” she says. Following the attacks, she points out, it was Peters who decided to travel to Turkey for a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
What would she like to see other nations, other leaders, draw from New Zealand’s experiences?
“Humanity. That’s it. Simple,” she says, nodding her head. “People have remarked upon the way we’ve responded, but to me there was no question. You need to remove some of the politics sometimes and just think about humanity. That’s all.”
■ The first shooting took place at the Al Noor mosque, in central Christchurch, on Friday, March 15.
■ A gunman using the name Brenton Tarrant live-streamed footage of his rampage to Facebook, filmed with a head-mounted camera.
■ Footage showed the man, armed with semi-automatic weapons, firing indiscriminately at men, women and children from close range inside the mosque.
■ The second attack then took place a little later, five kilometres away at Linwood Mosque, east of the city centre.
■ There were fewer details about the attack in the Christchurch suburb of Linwood, where about 100 people were attending prayers at the Linwood Islamic Centre.
■ At about 1.55pm, the gunman stepped out of his car and shot a man and his wife, according to local media reports.
■ Two police officers, one of them armed with only a handgun, chased and arrested the suspect — 21 minutes after the first emergency 111 call reporting the attack on Al Noor mosque.
■ Two IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were found in a car and neutralised by the military, police said.