Jacinda Ardern-Ready for Global Diplomacy? Ken Ross Assesses the New Prime Minister's Capacity to Perform on the World Stage

New Zealand International Review, March-April 2018 | Go to article overview

Jacinda Ardern-Ready for Global Diplomacy? Ken Ross Assesses the New Prime Minister's Capacity to Perform on the World Stage


'an international breath of fresh air in progressive politics' (Peter FitzSimons, 2017) (1)

'whip-smart, well-spoken and with that trademark dazzling smile, she's the kind of person you'd want to get stuck next to at a dinner party.' (Emma Clifton, 2015) (2)

On taking office Jacinda Ardern was just the fourth New Zealand prime minister since 1945 intent on making global diplomacy her forte. The other three--Norman Kirk, Helen Clark and Walter Nash--had been through the same diplomatic finishing school as Ardern, the Socialist International, where they developed networks grounded in progressive internationalism.

Ardern garnered this grounding in her three years as a UK civil servant in London (2006 to 2008) and her two-year presidency (2008-10) of the youth wing of the Socialist International: (3) 'I've been the president of an international youth organisation that had members from Lebanon, Palestine and Israel--I think I can do this [being prime minister]'. (4)

Our prime ministers are, by far, the most pervasive player in New Zealand's global diplomacy. Norman Kirk's staring down the 1973 Springboks rugby tour is an emphatic instance. Helen Clark's similarly emphatic 'No' to joining the coalition of the willing to invade Iraq without a United Nations mandate in March 2003 is another. Scorpion-like, David Lange stung French President Franpois Mitterrand twice--showing Mitterrand's culpability for the Rainbow Warrior's bombing and securing New Caledonia's reinscription on the United Nations' List of Non-Self-Governing Territories. (5)

Ardern, like her 'local hero' Norman Kirk, (6) is principally a problem solver; she has his deep humanitarianism summed up in his much quoted 'all Kiwis want is someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work, and something to hope for.' Gerald Hensley's insights of Kirk are most perceptive: 'he was a feelings man, but about practical issues rather than ideologically'. (7) That is our best clue for understanding where Ardern wants to take New Zealand on the global stage.

Ardern's second key attribute for global diplomacy is talented advocacy. Early glimpses suggest she could out-shine even our best past success story--David Lange exporting the not-for-export nuclear-free moment. (8)

Ardern is not primarily a graduate of the Helen Clark-school of prime ministership, whose foremost talent was to manage capably a modestly innovative government.

There is not yet a go-to profile of Ardern, such that Beverly Doole provides of Helen Clark. (9) Ardern's back-story sketched here relies on women's magazines (Her, Next, New Zealand Woman's Weekly and New Idea), the New Zealand Listener, New Zealand Herald, Otago Daily Times (Colin James's Tuesday column), Fairfax media and the New Zealand blogosphere (Robert Ayson, Richard Harman, David Capie and Wayne Mapp being the more astute on her prospective global diplomacy).

Her aplomb at the mid-November APEC/East Asia summits had international media swarming to discover who she is but, as of late January, they had yet to deliver a substantial portrait. Her first speech in Parliament provides more insight and detail with its forthrightness and substance on climate change and child poverty.

When an undergraduate at Waikato University she spent her final semester at Arizona State University, during which 9/11 occurred, which imprinted on her the American 'reality'. In those student years she became prominent in the Labour Party's youth wing. In 1999, her Aunt Marie prompted her to campaign for Harry Duynhoven, the Labour MP for New Plymouth. During this time Helen Clark began encouraging Ardern, seeing her as a future asset for Labour.

After completing a bachelor's degree (in political studies and public relations) in 2001, she soon joined foreign minister Phil Goff's ministerial staff. By early 2005 she was in Helen Clark's Beehive office.

Overseas experience

Ardern left New Zealand soon after the 2005 general election for her OE (overseas experience). …

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