Jacinda Ardern Sold a Drastic Lockdown With Straight Talk and Mom Jokes


Halfway into a Facebook Live video last week, updating the world on New Zealand’s plan to reopen restaurants, schools and even movie theaters, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern noticed a concern cropping up among the commenters: They thought she looked tired.

She had plenty of reason to be exhausted, managing a pandemic as well as a daughter in diapers. But instead, she blamed the unflattering beige curtains behind her, then spun her phone around to show off the vintage cane furniture with green frond upholstery in her favorite room at the prime minister’s residence.

“So,” she continued after a deep breath, “when it comes to health services, you’ll see those starting to wind back up.”

Pandemics are often described as crises of communication, when leaders must persuade entire populations to suspend their lives because of an invisible threat. Watching Ms. Ardern on Facebook, her favored conduit, is a lesson in rhetorical blending: epidemiology brightened with empathy, law leavened with mom jokes. And it has been strikingly effective.

Ms. Ardern helped coax New Zealanders — “our team of five million,” she says — to buy into a lockdown so severe that even retrieving a lost cricket ball from a neighbor’s yard was banned. Now the country, despite some early struggles with contact tracing, has very nearly stamped out the virus, exiting isolation with just 21 deaths and a few dozen active cases.

Halos can make heretics out of legitimate critics, including epidemiologists who argue that New Zealand’s lockdown went too far, that other countries suppressed the virus with less harm to small businesses.

And Ms. Ardern’s canonization diminishes two powerful forces behind her success: Her own hard work at making connections with constituents, and the political culture of New Zealand, which in the 1990s overhauled how it votes, forging a system that forces political parties to work together.

“You need the whole context, the way the political system has evolved,” said Helen Clark, a former prime minister who hired Ms. Ardern as an adviser more than a decade ago. “It’s not easily transferable.”

Ms. Ardern, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is the product of a particular time and place: She grew up in a rural nation of lonely struggle, where demands were growing for a more responsive brand of politics.

In 1965, New Zealand was the world’s sixth-wealthiest country per capita, but by 1980, when Ms. Ardern was born, it had slipped to 19th. And that was before free-market reforms led to major job losses in manufacturing, public service and farming.

Ms. Ardern, the daughter of a police officer and a cafeteria worker who were Mormon, has often recalled seeing forestry jobs disappear in the small town where she grew up, leaving behind suicides, poverty and illness — including a case of hepatitis for her babysitter.

Alongside the country’s economic frustration, the electoral system seemed to have broken down. Several elections produced results widely seen as unfair, with the popular vote going to one party and the majority of legislative seats to the other.

New Zealand adopted a German-style system that lets people cast two ballots: one for a local member of Parliament and one for a party. Ms. Ardern was in high school when the first election under the new system produced what would become a trend: gains for smaller parties, and a coalition government.

“There is more responsiveness required,” said Richard Shaw, a politics professor at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. “You have to be seen listening, and in substance actually listening, because you don’t have the institutional wherewithal to simply ignore what others think.”

The urge to draw people into an “us” rather than an “us versus them” has served New Zealand well during the coronavirus pandemic, when truly everyone is being threatened.

“Get some rest and enjoy her before you get back to work,” one woman wrote.

Her response was not to hide from critics who questioned whether she could do the work of both a mother and a world leader. She made them watch. When Ms. Ardern returned after about six weeks, her Facebook presence became more active — a flood of scenes from home and work as she communicated her way through the challenge.

“She felt she had to hit the ground running,” said Ms. Clark, the former prime minister, who has stayed close to Ms. Ardern. “There was a lot of meanspirited criticism — the ‘part-time prime minister’ hashtag — which would never have been said about a man.”

They became a model for how she has communicated online during the pandemic.

Credit…Jacinda Ardern, via Reuters

“Stay at home, break the chain and you’ll save lives,” she said.

It was the start of a relationship that was less saint and disciples, more friends or teammates. “You’ll be seeing me lots and lots,” she told the people tuning in. And they have.

“The harder you push your lockdown, the more you get unintended consequences,” said Dr. Simon Thornley of Auckland University. “If you want to separate people more effectively, then you have to keep more of the food and services open, more of society open, so people don’t congregate.”

Dr. Thornley said he worried that a second wave of infections would lead to another overly harsh response. But he noted that Ms. Ardern had been quick to listen and pivot, allowing gatherings of up to 100 people sooner than Australia and many other countries that have eased lockdowns.

Facebook will be where to find her. In her video detailing the eased restrictions, Ms. Ardern, who did look tired, even in her favorite chair, promised viewers she would stay in touch.

“Thanks for joining me,” she said, smiling. “And look after yourselves.”



Source link