Four of New Zealand's five most senior politicians are now under 45 and one the most notable features of this term so far is the sight of party leaders struggling to exercise power and to come to terms with the big jobs

Late Sunday afternoon my six year-old was wandering around in Spiderman pants, a pirate's cape and a variety of hats. A child playing dress-up made me think of nothing so much as the leadership on display in New Zealand's 52nd parliament.

Looking at major parties nearly six months said New Zealand First announced its choice, each has a leader looking for an outfit that will suit them over the next two and a half years, yet neither has yet found one that fits. What stands out at the moment in our politics is the timidity and lack of confidence being shown across the board.

For whatever reason, it was considered impolite to note Jacinda Ardern's lack of leadership experience in last year's election campaign. But I raised it then and it would be unwise not to raise it now. It's not necessarily her age as such – although being the second youngest Prime Minister in our history is notable – as it is her limited time as leader. A late run into the job turned out to be great for winning an election, but it's much harder when you're learning your own leadership style at the same time as you're learning how to run the country. It's a big ask and she seems to be struggling.

Listening to her interviews, you hear Ardern still earnestly explaining, sometimes almost pleading for understanding. The raw confidence of that famous first press conference is seen only in flashes. She still seems to be trying on the Prime Minister's clothes, and they don't seem to quite fit. 

Maybe it's just teething problems, but she's had a series of ministers who have put in at best sloppy performances in recent weeks, forgetting and mishandling sensitive issues of government. Sure, some of these have come outside her party, from the likes of Shane Jones and Eugenie Sage, but Ardern's response has lacked authority.

Ardern's power rests on her personal popularity. John Key entered government in much the same way, and over they years always had his own personal popularity and National's anti-gravity poll performance to wield as a weapon of discipline. But he quickly grew into his role and it'll be interesting to see whether Ardern can learn as fast. She needs to develop her power so that it also rests on discipline and judgement. For that reason, it's surprising she hasn't come down harder on the controversies bedevilling her government in recent weeks. She's seemed timid.

Labour's biggest problem in Opposition was a lack of discipline, and at this stage it seems they may have taken that trait into government with them. Oh, Labour MPs are no longer running around removing leaders and arguing policy amongst themselves, but they lack a sense of purpose. It's a long way, as some have over-dramatically said in the past week, from losing them the next election. However it is over-shadowing the sense of doing a new government wants to project. 

Consider last week's transport announcement. The general public should be left this week with a sense that the direction of travel – literally in this case, rather than as one of Grant Robertson's over-used metaphors – has changed. A new generation is in charge. The key message could have been that after years of drift, someone has finally taken the tough, evidence-based decisions. Yeah, we need some money off you to do it, but we are taking the lead and, with your help, doing what is long overdue.

Instead, we had niggly debates about the difference between a tax and an excise. Ardern nit-picked when she could have been a new generation leader. Timid. 

It's a timidity matched only by Simon Bridges. He too seems to be trying on a number of hats – the reasonable hat, the attack hat, the regional hat, the hair-splitting hat – without coming across as convincing in any of them. In the morning he's saying one thing, in the afternoon another. And he too seems to have trouble remembering things.

On Russia, he tried the 'international embarrassment' approach rather than taking on the substance of the issue and he was weak on Middlemore, giving Jonathan Coleman a (hospital!) pass when he could drawn a line between old National and his National.

The truth is, both of these leaders were appearing on TV as 'Young Guns' not that long ago. Both are under 42 years of age (their combined age is only six years older than Winston Peters) and watching how – and if – they grow into these new jobs will be one of the most fascintating political spectator sports of 2018.

Who will be the first to show the natural authority of a leader?

The same observations stands, to some extent, with the Greens and New Zealand First as well. Winston Peters can hardly be accused of timidity or inexperience, but at very least he seems to be trying on a ushanka for size. Shane Jones' cockiness and Jenny Marcroft's naivete, for example, don't exactly make New Zealand First look as though they are the grown-ups in the parliamentary playroom.

And the Greens? Well, they have a whole new leader to try on. Will Marama Davidson stick to a Metiria Turei-type outfit or can she find one that fits her style? She'll want a sparkly one that stands out, but also one that works in the suburbs, where most Green Party voters live. 

Like James Shaw, Davidson is 44. So young leaders across three of the four main parties is now a sign of our times. 

The point is, we're in a political moment where our leaders have their training wheels on and are still barely out of leadership creche. The leaders they become will be one of the most significant indicators of what kind of politics this country will enjoy over the rest of this term, and perhaps beyond.


Comments (7)

by Kat on April 09, 2018

Simon Bridges is displaying what he is now and that is not the leadership qualities this country needs going into the future. Bennett, Adams, Collins are all of the same ilk. None of them are of PM quality.

Winston Peters is a natural for PM and not at all interested in covering his silver fox appearance by wearing a fur cap. He has the opportunity assist a rising star in Jacinda Ardern and they are a refreshing change from the predictable duo's such as Bridges & Bennett.   

by Liam Hehir on April 09, 2018
Liam Hehir

Good insight Tim.

by Charlie on April 13, 2018

Tim: But he quickly grew into his role and it'll be interesting to see whether Ardern can learn as fast.

I think not. This was just the press misjudging Key. Before he became PM he was already a significant player - having fought and won in an international business environment one could consider the NZ parliament to be a temporary step down for him.

Not so Jacinda. She has no business experience. She's never even held down a real job. In politics she'd only ever been in opposition and achieved to no cut-through in that role. In essence she's managed to land the PM job on the coattails of being Helen's intern and being in the right place when Little fell on his sword. And it shows.

As for Bridges, I wouldn't underestimate him. Labour already have handed National a laundry list of stuff-ups that they can pounce on. Better that he hands each one to a team member so that they can run them down. This is good team work and good capability building (Look how well Melissa Lee handled the RNZ /Curran fiasco. Prior to this I'd never even heard of her). He can step in when the coalition is finally on its knees and deliver the coup de grace...

by Kat on April 13, 2018

This from the "misjudged" John Key in 2007:

"I have no intention of being a Prime Minister who tackles only the easy and convenient issues. I don’t pretend I’ve got all the solutions. But I can tell you that dealing with the problems of our growing underclass is a priority for National, both in opposition and in government"

By the time Key quit being a PM and parliament at the end of 2016 the problem was not only people living in substandard houses but working families living in cars.  And from recent reports some families were actively helped by WINZ to live in tents.  During a time of crisis Key and his National govt closed and sold many state houses. These actions may have met some right wing business ideology but certainly did not show much nouse from a human and social perspective.

This is the difference in real terms between players with pretend PM credentials such as quiters like John Key and his wannabe clone Simon Bridges and the real deal long term peoples PM Jacinda Ardern. 

by Charlie on April 14, 2018

Kat: You need to get over your one-eyed Labour partisanship, because the reality of the matter is far more interesting:

Firstly my property went up in value far more under Clark than it did under Key. Thanks Helen!

Secondly, do you recall a massive state house building program under Clark? Me Neither. Neither party wants social housing because it is not cared for and the communities living in them literally and figuratively have no ownership.

This housing shortage problem has been building (pardon the pun) since the 80's and it has been passed over by one government after the next. It's origins are complex:

Firstly, it's not a national problem. It's only an Auckland and to a lesser extent a Wellington problem. It's no coincidence that both are severely constrained by geography. One a dissencted isthmus and the other ringed by mountains and sea. In fact the two dumbest places to put a commercial centre and a capital, and that's not even mentioning the volcanoes and earthquakes...

Secondly, the real reason for the shortage is the constrained land supply. You can buy a brand new 3 bedroom house down country for $300K is less. Houses are cheap to build and will get even cheaper as automation and factory assembly take over the role of chippies. So land supply is the big issue.

As well as the geograhical issues, the other big culprit is the RMA. It's been getting in the way of growth since it was introduced. The RMA allows councils to meddle with land supply and the conditions applied to building consents. The big issue in Auckland has been the arbitrary rural/urban boundary. If it hadn't been for that we'd have housing developments from the Bombays to Warkworth.


by Kat on April 14, 2018

Charlie: You need to get over your anti Labour sentiments and cease trolling against the current coalition govt.

Your constant memes of painting Jacinda Ardern as incompetent and how the coalition is doomed to failure have worn less than thin. All you are doing is parroting the daily commentary from the likes of Hooton, Hosking, Hawkesby et al.

My coment on the housing situation shows the difference between the lip service from someone you described as "a significant player" who succeded in becoming a celebrity PM, failed as a natural leader and quit. 

Jacinda Ardern has members in her coalition cabinet that have obviously a lot more experience and she cannot therefore be expected to be such an authoritive leader as Helen Clark. Jacinda Ardern as PM is a new broom and her strengths are the highly developed negotiation skills she has already exhibited. I would view her leaderhip style as more affiliative and democratic.

Its been only six months in the job, its time some commetators gave her a fair go.

by Charlie on April 15, 2018

Kat:  Give me an example of her "highly developed negotiating skills"

The media have sensed weakness in the coalition and are circling like sharks. That's the job of the 4th estate.




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