ChCHStrap

A year on from the day that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern faced the incomprehensible, she says she feels a huge burden of responsibility to New Zealand and the Muslim community that came under attack on March 15.

It was an event she said had changed New Zealand.

"From my perspective, I think it has changed us in many ways, but our goal has to be to make sure that in the long term it changes us for the better."

She is willing to take that goal on herself.

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"I feel a huge sense of responsibility, because no one wants to ever, ever see that happen in New Zealand again. No one wants to see our community attacked liked that again ever, so I feel a huge burden of responsibility to that community."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media in Christchurch a week after the attacks. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media in Christchurch a week after the attacks. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It did not seem that way then but looking back now at videos of Ardern after the mosque attacks last year, she looks so little.

In those first press conferences Ardern was surrounded by space – sitting at a table with a black table cloth in a room in New Plymouth, or standing on a vast stage in front of a black curtain and New Zealand flag.

The sign-language interpreter towered over her and she looked young, her hair pulled back, and that pale, haunted face.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's first press conference after the Christchurch Mosque shooting. Video / TVNZ

Her words were big, as was the event she was confronting.

She stood knowing she was speaking to a public who wanted reassurance and facts.
They wanted the who, the what, the when and, impossibly, the why: some kind of explanation.

The last is something she probably still cannot answer.

Now a year on, Ardern's words are being played again as New Zealand remembers that day.

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"New Zealand's darkest day", "they are us", and, of that alleged terrorist "You may have chosen us, we utterly reject and condemn you." Then came her plea to starve that gunman of notoriety by refusing to use his name: "he will, when I speak, be nameless".

Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, gives speech in parliament on Christchurch shooting.

Ardern refused a request for an interview with the Herald for this piece.

Her office said she wanted to limit the media she did because the day was about the victims and wider community, not her.

In the weeks after the mosque attacks, many New Zealanders responded with words, flowers, visits, prayers, and money.

But Ardern's was the face that came to represent theirs, both at home and overseas.

At the time, Ardern was focused not only on talking to New Zealanders but on what the rest of world saw.

That involved reassuring people New Zealand remained a safe place to visit and, more importantly, trying to prevent any copycat or revenge attacks overseas.

In many Muslim countries, Ardern is now very highly regarded.

The hug that went around the world. The iconic photo of PM Jacinda Ardern on a visit to the Kilbirnie mosque in Wellington. Photo / Getty Images
The hug that went around the world. The iconic photo of PM Jacinda Ardern on a visit to the Kilbirnie mosque in Wellington. Photo / Getty Images

There were her words rejecting the gunman, her actions comforting mourners and wearing the hijab to show respect, and her deeds in securing a quick passage of gun law reforms, and starting the wrestle with social media companies to ensure terrorism and extremist views were stripped of platforms.

Ardern already had a strong international profile, courtesy of her relative youth and becoming the first Prime Minister to have a baby in office.

The mosque attacks saw that profile skyrocket.

Through all the press conferences and interviews since then, Ardern has said little about the impact that day had on her personally.

All she has said is that meeting with the families and the victims in private was an emotional time.

PM Jacinda Ardern visits Al Noor Mosque shooting survivor Rahimi Ahmad and his wife Azila. Photo / Supplied
PM Jacinda Ardern visits Al Noor Mosque shooting survivor Rahimi Ahmad and his wife Azila. Photo / Supplied

Christchurch-based MP Megan Woods was alongside Ardern throughout those days visiting families and the injured in hospital. Woods said of course it did have an impact on Ardern, although it never showed in public.

"I don't think any human could have gone through the days and hours after March 15 and it not have an impact on them. It certainly did for me, and it certainly did for her.

As with anyone who was spending time with a community that was reeling, was in a state of shock and disbelief as well as grief. It was just impossible for it not to have had an impact."

Some memories are starker than others for Ardern.

In a recent Time magazine interview, she said one of the most challenging moments was trying to calm down families who wanted the bodies returned to allow for the Muslim practice of burying the dead as quickly as possible.

That was held up by the process of identifying them and gathering forensic evidence.
Others told the Herald about that meeting.

It was the day after the attack.

Ardern had been to a refugee centre to meet Muslim leaders, and was told a crowd of families and others were at a nearby centre in Hagley Park waiting for more news.

PM Jacinda Ardern meets with members of the Muslim community the day after the attack. Phopto / SNPA
PM Jacinda Ardern meets with members of the Muslim community the day after the attack. Phopto / SNPA

Anger was building as people clamoured to know the fate of loved ones, and for bodies returned in time for the 24-hour Muslim burial custom.

Ardern was not supposed to go, but agreed to it when asked if she could help.

Her security detail was worried: they had not been able to check it in advance, the wider situation was volatile with the fear of copy cat attacks, the venue was very crowded,
people were angry and the Mongrel Mob were providing security outside it.

Inside, Ardern's group got split up by the crowds but a staffer took her to the front and put her next to the Police's Wally Haumaha.

Voices were raised, and Ardern stood and asked them for quiet. "Ssshh, ssshhh. Can everybody please sit down."

She then set out the need for body identification and forensics to take its course, saying she was aware of their concern about the breach of Muslim practice, but asking them to please, please try to accept it calmly.

The gun reforms were less emotional and more certain.

Ardern set out a decision to ban mass assault-style rifles within three days, with broad political support. The follow-up reforms are still under negotiation with NZ First, and are opposed by National and Act.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Police Minister Stuart Nash announce the second tranche of gun reforms in July 2019. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Police Minister Stuart Nash announce the second tranche of gun reforms in July 2019. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Then came the difficult process of getting big social media companies on board for the Christchurch Call.

On this Ardern directly lobbied the captains of the social media industry, and other leaders – such as French President Emmanuel Macron – to get them to sign up.

She still uses international summits to push for it.

Her efforts had some effect when a shooting in Germany was live-streamed as well as a more recent shooting in Thailand.

Changing the laws was one thing. But changing extremist attitudes is another.

There have been recent threats made on alt-right channels, including someone filming outside Al Noor mosque as the anniversary loomed.

Ardern says that shows the work that lay ahead.

"We have to get back to the basics of why is it that people would feel that they can make those kinds of threats against other people's lives merely for the faith that they have.

"That's not the country most of us know, but that is going to be the hardest and biggest piece of work that we have to do as a community, not just as a Government."

She has called on New Zealanders to step up to ensure that the change in New Zealand is also positive, by calling out discrimination where they see it and treating each other with respect.


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To this day, Ardern has not spoken the gunman's name.