New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been named ‘Pacific Person of the Year’ by a regional magazine; becoming the second person of non-Pacific heritage to be awarded the respected title.

The Islands Business magazine, a regional publication based in Fiji, commending Ardern for her advocacy for urgent action on climate change at the 2019 Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu.

Particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change, Pacific Island nations are increasingly endanger of rising sea levels and tropical storms.

The magazine’s editor Samisoni Pareti selected Ardern for her charisma, valuable negotiation and diplomacy for consensus building in the regional forum, announcing the provision of NZ$150m for climate change fund to be dispensed exclusively for Pacific nations.

Though Ardern is not a Pacific islander by nationality or race, she caught global attention for her compassionate leadership following the Christchurch terror attacks and more recent consensus-building negotiation skills showcased in the Pacific.

“She’s almost everything that the usual Pacific leader is not. She is a woman, she is young, and she is a mother. Yet she can be firm when she needs to be, and emphatic when required. She is very open, candid and transparent in her style of leadership, a refreshing change to the traditional Pacific patriarchal style of governance…She listens, she is decisive and she always tries to bring people together and not too divisive,” explained Pareti.

Cover of the regional magazine ‘Islands Business’ featuring NZ Prime Minister Jacinta Arden. Source: The Guardian.

Regrettably, the forum was on the verge of collapse due to Australia’s strong opposition to an ambitious emission target proposed by host Tuvalu and other small Pacific island nations.

During the conference, Ms Ardern boldly stated that ‘Australia has to answer to the Pacific’ for its effort in emission reduction to combat climate change. Nevertheless, Ardern has attempted to persuade her male counterparts including Scott Morrison to find the middle ground solution to climate action.

As part of Ardern’s administration “Pacific Reset” which sets out the principles to guide New Zealand in the Pacific, she has identified the importance to seek Understanding; Friendship; Mutual Benefit; Collective Ambition; and Sustainability. Ardern has invoked the need for co-operation between Pacific nations, big and small for economic growth, peace, security, and resilience to natural disasters.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) and NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (right)  meeting in Auckland, NZ. Source: Daily Mail

New Zealand is a relatively small state within the wider Indo-Pacific region which holds significant influence in its immediate region, sharing the same environmental challenges with its neighbours. Ardern has expressed that New Zealand would support Pacific Islanders who wish to remain on their islands and adapt to climate change. 

“We recognise our neighbours in the Pacific region are uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change,” said Ardern. 

One of the main drivers of New Zealand’s foreign policy is its shared regional identity as a Polynesian country.  Around 15 per cent of New Zealand’s population is Maori, with the Maori language used for customary communication. Moreover, the country has a significant number of people that identify with other Pacific heritages. This familial and cultural kinship makes its regional credibility all the more influential for its Pacific neighbours.

Speaking at the United Nations, Ardern stood willingly amongst Asia-Pacific nations to outline her plan to tackle climate change.

“We have a responsibility of care for the environment in which we live, but the challenge of climate change requires us to look beyond our domestic borders, and in New Zealand’s case towards the Pacific,” mentioned Ardern.

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard was the only other non-Pacific islander to receive the award.

Similar to Australia’s “Pacific Step-Up” policy, early in her term Ardern announced her government’s Pacific Reset policy, in what is regarded as a pivot strategy to counter growing Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region.