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Ardern leads the way amidst tragedy

No leader wants to deal with a disaster - but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has so far provided New Zealanders with the reassurances and action they need, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Comment: Clad from head to toe in black, a hijab covering her hair and draped around her neck, Jacinda Ardern spoke steadily about the horror that had befallen Christchurch.

“New Zealand is united in its grief, and we are united in our grief,” Ardern told the crowd of refugees and Muslims gathered at Canterbury’s refugee resettlement centre on Saturday afternoon.

Ardern's flying visit to Christchurch, with a phalanx of senior politicians, came with a level of security rarely seen on trips by a New Zealand leader.

Media were not given an itinerary for her time in the city, and were asked not to publicise the location of her events until after her motorcade had departed.

The hurried nature of the visit was shown by the lack of VIP seating in the front of the RNZAF aircraft: during takeoff, an unsecured piece of equipment started rattling towards the ministerial delegation before it was intercepted by the air crew.

The Phillipstown site where the Prime Minister met community representatives has been home to scenes of sadness before - the school on the site was closed following the Canterbury earthquakes, despite community objections - but not on this scale.

“Christchurch is not the Christchurch we have seen - this is a different Christchurch.”

Ardern listened intently as mosque leaders and worshippers spoke about the scenes they had witnessed and the people they had lost, the only small sign of any personal distress being the way she tightly clenched her hands together, almost twisting them at points.

Ahmed Tani, the resettlement centre’s founder, told her of the peace, friendliness and help he had seen from the city’s residents during more than 20 years living there.

“Christchurch is not the Christchurch we have seen - this is a different Christchurch.”

Habib Ullah, a committee member at the Masjid Al Noor Mosque where more than 40 people died, spoke of the neighbours who had left flowers in his doorway, and the many people who had called him to check on his wellbeing.

“Thanks Christchurch, thanks New Zealand, thanks everybody...the small gestures, that is very big for us, it's meant a lot - it will go a long way.”

Gratitude, but many questions

But amidst the feelings of gratitude, there were many questions.

“What security will New Zealand have so that we can celebrate our culture, we can do our worships?...We would like to have some, how you say, assurance,” one man told Ardern.

Another man spoke of the need to support the families who had lost their sole earner, and could struggle to ask for help.

“There’s a language barrier, there’s a culture barrier, they don’t know.”

It was a task Ardern took seriously, as she spoke of the need to ensure the Muslim community’s freedom to worship safely and express themselves in a country that many had actively chosen to make their home.

"New Zealand is a place that we cherish equally for its inclusiveness, for its diversity, and I will consider it my personal mission as prime minister to defend that so long as I have the privilege of holding this office.”

“You were quick to mention that this is not the New Zealand that you know, and I want to reaffirm that today - this is not New Zealand.”

The community needed space to grieve, she said, but also an assurance that they would be looked after by the Government over the difficult times ahead.

“We are here now, we will be here whenever you need - in the coming days, the coming weeks, the coming months.

“Our show of solidarity is just not here in the here and now - New Zealand is a place that we cherish equally for its inclusiveness, for its diversity, and I will consider it my personal mission as prime minister to defend that so long as I have the privilege of holding this office.”

A history of leadership in tragedy

For better and for worse, Christchurch is not new to strong leadership in the wake of a tragedy.

Sir Bob Parker had more than a few flaws, but there is no doubting the comfort the former Christchurch Mayor provided to many following the devastating 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.

What served Parker well then, and Ardern now, is their ability to speak reassuringly, almost intimately to Kiwis despite the distance separating them.

Ardern’s clarity and decisiveness has also come to the fore.

On the topic of firearms control, there was no hedging or calls for cooler heads to prevail, simply this: “I can tell you one thing right now, our gun laws will change.”

On whether she agreed with Donald Trump’s assertion that white nationalism was confined to “a small group of people”, simply: “No.”

Difficult questions to answer

Of course, there are difficult questions which she and her government are yet to fully answer.

How could the alleged murderer slip past our intelligence and security agencies without attracting attention, despite all the red flags he seemingly should have raised?

Were our spies too focused on the threat posed by Islamic extremists, rather than white supremacists?

And how is it that the guns used in the attack could be legally purchased?

Those are questions for the longer term, and the public will rightly expect full and unbridled accountability.

But for now, what we need is reassurance and, where possible, action - and that is what Ardern and her government are providing.

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