Wednesday 23 October 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'They are us: Lessons in leadership'

New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern (AP)
New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern (AP)
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

We cry out for leadership. For leaders who aren't craven, narcissistic, wanting power for power's sake, seeking votes by spreading fear and hatred. Sometimes that leadership comes from unexpected places and awful circumstances.

We have become slightly immune to terrorist attacks in faraway places. But something about Christchurch got us. The numbers dead, the cause the killer espoused, the perception of a shattering of the innocence of a country of decent people, the fact that it was broadcast live on Facebook. All combined to horrify us.

Out of this darkness, it is no exaggeration to say that New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern seemed to offer hope, for society, for humanity, for politics, for leadership. The targets of the attack, she said, "have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not".

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''They are us.'' Such a simple and powerful idea. Extremists of all kinds specialise in othering, in creating ''them''. But Ardern turned that on its head. The only "them" are those who try to peddle hate. Everyone else, regardless of race, colour or religion, is us. Hate is the ''other''. Hate is ''them''.

You've seen Ardern speak, but her words are worth writing down here. Of the targets of the attack, she said: "New Zealand was their choice. The place they actively came to, and committed themselves to. The place they were raising their families, where they were part of communities who they loved and who loved them. It was a place that many came to for its safety. A place where they were free to practise their culture and their religion."

And New Zealand was the attacker's choice, she said, "because we represent diversity, kindness, compassion, a home for those who share our values, refuge for those who need it". Of the attacker(s), she said: "You may have chosen us, but we utterly reject and condemn you." Turning the weapon of hate on its head. Hate is not us, you are not us. They, the victims, are us.

They are us. A notion we should all remember.

Leadership came from another unlikely source last week, too. On Friday, our children, who lead the way on environmentalism in most families already, put it up to us about the legacy we are leaving them. They maybe don't fully understand the economics of how hard it is to turn around a whole developmental model, or how hard it can be to tackle vested interests in all areas. But these children know one truth, which is that the future is theirs and we are not doing enough to secure that future.

They are us, too. And we owe it to them to listen and to act. And we should be proud of them.

They are us.

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