Jacinda Ardern has a lot to be proud of as former prime minister of New Zealand, and one big confession to make
By Susan A. Hughes
November 16, 2023
As Jacinda Ardern, former prime minister of New Zealand and visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, was being introduced during Monday’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum, one word kept cropping up: inspiration.
Lucy McSweeney MPP 2024, a native of Christchurch, used it to describe Ardern’s five years as prime minister as “the youngest female head of government in the world” when she was elected in 2017. Hannah Riley Bowles, the Roy E. Larsen Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management and moderator of the Forum, used it to describe the warm welcome from the overflowing audience: “You inspire us truly as a global icon of strength and kindness.”
Bowles opened the conversation with gun control, noting that following the heartbreaking Christchurch Mosque shootings in March 2019, Ardern gained broad political support for legislation to ban semi-automatic weapons in just 10 days.
“Some things we just carry with us for life,” Ardern said, speaking of the shootings by a white supremacist, which left 51 dead. “It was something that fundamentally changed who we were as a nation and also how we see ourselves.”
Getting there was not easy. Ardern didn’t have a majority within her party. And, she noted, a majority of New Zealanders legally owned guns. “We are a country full of pests,” she said. “We are a farming nation, and we shoot possums as pest control. I learned to shoot possums as a girl because we had an orchard.” To pass meaningful gun laws, she knew she needed to bring in gun users, and do so quickly while the country was still reeling from the attack. She formed focus groups, found common ground and created new legislation that people could get behind.
“Many people are cynical about politics, and I can see why,” said Ardern, the 2023 Angelopoulos Global Public Leaders Fellow and a Hauser Leader in the School’s Center for Public Leadership. “I was in politics for 15 years and I came out with a strong belief that politics is a place for positive change.”
It was that belief that guided Ardern through the many challenges she faced in her five years as prime minister, such as COVID, which had a devastating toll on the Maori population specifically. She knew any decisions on how to handle the pandemic meant considering the higher comorbidities within that demographic group. “Our approach,”’ she explained, “was to minimize the intake of COVID as much as possible.”
Bowles also asked Ardern about climate, a global concern, and how New Zealanders are addressing it. “It’s a fraught issue,” she said. “Roughly half of our emissions profile is agricultural emissions. You can’t blame farmers because cows poop, and you can’t create an emissions reduction policy without recognizing that fact.” She recalled a campaign event hosted by a federated farmers group where she brought her mother and grandmother for support. When she answered a question about climate change, the room began to boo her. She was convinced that her grandmother was among those booing. “I didn’t expect my grandmother to say anything particularly supportive, but I also did not expect her to ask me to introduce her to my opposition candidate.”
In the end, finding common ground once again proved successful. “We had to make sure farmers knew there was no blame here,” she said. “And we agreed that New Zealand wanted to be a clean, green nation. To do that we had to know how to address agricultural emissions.”
“New Zealand is set to be the first country in the world to price agricultural emissions as part of their climate response,” she noted.
McSweeney, the student from New Zealand, said she was overjoyed to introduce Ardern. “Getting to introduce the prime minister was a privilege, but it was also a really lovely opportunity to really reflect on her achievements and reflect on what it's meant to our country, and what it means to have her here,” she said after the Forum. “I think she has shown that the difference we make at home can ripple out. She shows real leadership.”
Heto Solomona Puka MC/MPA 2024 who is from Tokelau, a dependent territory of New Zealand in the South Pacific, appreciated how Ardern represented his country. “I am Tokelauan, so having Dame Jacinda here makes Harvard seem much closer to home,” he said after the Forum. “The audience’s engagement and applause demonstrate how influential and inspiring she is to them.”
It was her last message of the evening that was perhaps most inspiring. “I have been very open about the fact that I suffer from imposter syndrome, otherwise called a confidence gap,” she explained. “People ask me ‘how did you overcome that?’ Well, I never did. And yet I was prime minister for five years in spite of that.”
“What I would say to you,” she continued, “is that you never know what you are capable of until you are doing it.”