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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the United Nations General Assembly. Photo/Getty Images

Bill Ralston: Why is Jacinda Ardern more popular overseas than at home?

A shining star to her overseas fans, the Prime Minister is coping less well with domestic drudgery.

It is clear that, internationally, Jacinda Ardern is a near-perfect brand for New Zealand. During the Prime Minister’s attendance at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where she met US President Donald Trump and UK PM Boris Johnson, two men who much of the planet regard as less than statesmanlike, she shone as a leader who was sane, decent and caring. That is a great image for our country abroad.

Yet at home Ardern projects a different image. Her grip on the levers of government does not appear to be wholehearted until such time as there is a crisis or one of her ministers does something idiotic. Then she appears with a big brush and a dustpan to wearily clear up the mess they have left.

As Prime Minister, she seems to delegate to her ministers more freedom of action than, say, Helen Clark did in her time.

Clark’s Labour Government began in much the same operational fashion as Ardern’s, but relatively early in its time in office repeated public relations failures and ministerial crises saw Clark taking firmer control in an almost presidential fashion. Not a sparrow fell in the Beehive without the PM’s analysis and permission.

Most of her ministers were herded into the back of the government bus and firmly told to stay there until she and her advisers worked out the right course of action. The ninth floor of the Beehive became a well-oiled, tightly run, highly centralised prime ministerial machine that imposed its will on all aspects of the business of government. It got three terms in office as a result.

In contrast, the Ardern administration appears loose, decentralised and directionless as ministers and their staff ply their own courses. This can be dangerous.

The Labour sex scandal is a prime example of what can go wrong. Ardern was clearly ill-advised or not advised at all by her former party president that the now-departed employee in the leader’s office faced allegations of more than just bullying staff. One of her closest senior ministers clearly obfuscated on the nature of the accused man, whom he knew well. Ardern’s staff either were unaware of the unfolding shambles or kept her in the dark.

A slack grip on the direction of domestic policy means that instead of steady progress, you end up in many cases taking one step forward, two steps back. There is a lack of clear strategy, a lack of joined-up thinking. So you get “Let’s have a capital gains tax. Let’s not.” “Let’s do KiwiBuild. Let’s not.”

We see a similar pattern in the Prime Minister’s involvement in the Ihumātao land battle. She leaves open the possibility of the Fletcher Building holding in Māngere being returned to iwi, despite the previous tribal differences about the land’s use, the Government potentially having to come up with millions of dollars to buy it from Fletcher and the warnings of some of her ministers and officials that a dangerous Treaty of Waitangi settlement precedent would be set.

The matter has sunk in a swamp of indecision, but it is sure to resurface in an ugly manner.

We deserve better handling and control of our myriad domestic issues. It’s great that Ardern is highly regarded abroad, but at home her reputation and Labour’s brand suffer repeated damage from the appearance of incompetent and wobbly decision-making.

This article was first published in the October 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.