Comment

Ardern balances domestic priorities with outside pressures

As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and New Zealanders try to recover following the devastating Christchurch terror attack, the outside world keeps intervening - in ways both welcome and unwelcome, Sam Sachdeva writes.

Contrasting Jacinda Ardern with Donald Trump has been a pastime of political commentators since the pair took office: the young, liberal woman advocating kindness set against the bitter, populist businessman waging wars against his foes on Twitter.

It is little surprise, then, that many have sought to contrast Ardern’s response to the Christchurch terror attacks with the US President’s agitation for a “Muslim ban” and dismissal of white supremacists as “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems”.

Paying tribute to the victims of the shooting, Late Show host Stephen Colbert – who interviewed Ardern last year during her United Nations visit – laid out the damning case against Trump based on his comments over the years.

“I’m just saying, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then why does it keep goose-stepping?” Colbert said.

Ardern was quick to sidestep the comparison during her second visit to Christchurch on Wednesday, when asked by a foreign journalist if Trump as “leader of the free world” had done enough to stand up to white supremacists.

“You’ll forgive me if my focus first and foremost is on New Zealand, on the communities I represent, the communities that I serve – that’s where my duty of care lies,” she responded.

Jacinda Ardern says her focus is on the communities she serves, such as Cashmere High School students who lost two of their friends. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

That duty of care was why she visited Cashmere High School on Thursday morning, fielding anxious questions from students who had lost two Muslim friends in the shooting and delivering a warm hug to a girl who ran up to her before she left.

But while Ardern may want to keep the focus on the wellbeing of her fellow Kiwis, the outside world has not been so accommodating.

The release of a 44-minute audio recording from an Islamic State spokesman, calling for “the supporters of the caliphate to avenge their religion” in the wake of the attack, has understandably set many on edge.

The threat was a sentiment Ardern gave short shrift, saying it did not stand up to scrutiny when compared with the words of Kiwi Muslims who had suffered so much yet harboured no bitterness.

“Overwhelmingly, they’re reflecting back to me that sense of support they have felt from the New Zealand community, compassion, empathy. I have not heard that language from the Muslim community in New Zealand – I have heard the complete opposite.”

Erdogan’s warning that any who went to Turkey with anti-Muslim sentiments would “return in coffins” like their ancestors was angrily dismissed by Australian prime minister Scott Morrison as “highly offensive...and highly reckless in this very sensitive environment”.

Equally concerning has been the co-opting of the Christchurch attack as a campaigning tool by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has shown an edited version of the video recorded by the attacker during political rallies.

Erdogan’s rhetoric against Australians and New Zealanders, warning that any who went to Turkey with anti-Muslim sentiments would “return in coffins” like their ancestors during World War I, was angrily dismissed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison as “highly offensive … and highly reckless in this very sensitive environment”.

While Morrison’s government is reviewing its travel advice for Turkey as a result of the stoush, Ardern rejected the idea that the Gallipoli spirit could be irrevocably damaged.

“They have cared for our fallen, and hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders have made pilgrimages to that place as an acknowledgment of what ties and binds our countries. so I reject the idea we are losing that relationship or will lose that relationship.”

The diplomatic incident is not over, however, with Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters heading to Istanbul to “set the record straight” as Ardern put it.

Uniting the international community

Of course, the international community has also contributed positively to New Zealand’s recovery.

Ardern announced plans for a two-minute silence on Friday to mark the one-week anniversary of the attacks, as well as a broadcast of the call to prayer on both RNZ and TVNZ.

However, a full memorial service will have to wait, at least in part due to the need to give “enough fair warning” to the foreign dignitaries and citizens who want to come to New Zealand to pay their respects.

Ardern has also spoken about enlisting an international coalition to address some of the problems laid bare by the Christchurch attack, including the proliferation of extremist content on social networks without sufficient moderation.

“This is not just an issue for New Zealand, the fact that social media platforms have been used to spread violence, material that incites violence, all of us I think need to present a united front,” she said.

“There are a range of things that need to be fixed, and I guess if I would see New Zealand as a blueprint for anything, in some ways it’s a blueprint of what not to do.”

That does not mean pretending to achieve perfection, as Ardern noted when asked whether New Zealand could serve as a “blueprint” for other nations when it came to gun law reforms.

“Actually, relative to other countries…we have a large number of loopholes in our laws…

“There are a range of things that need to be fixed, and I guess if I would see New Zealand as a blueprint for anything, in some ways it’s a blueprint of what not to do.”

The world appeared shocked by the Christchurch attack in large part because of the idea of New Zealand as a utopia, a bubble which the rest of the world’s ills could not penetrate.

As New Zealanders now know, there is good reason to question that - and the eyes of the world will be on Ardern and her government as they try to find the answers.

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