What Jacinda needs to do when Winston takes over

by Bill Ralston / 05 May, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks at the National Cyber Security Centre with Theresa May, Justin Trudeau and Malcolm Turnbull. Photo/Getty Images

The problem for PM Jacinda Ardern when she returns after a six-week absence will be reasserting control.

churlish column in the New Zealand Herald inspired a remarkable outpouring of bile from readers. Deborah Hill Cone grumpily complained that the Prime Minister’s partner, Clarke Gayford, was looking smug and enjoying himself far too much on the political stage. Hill Cone was deluged with abuse and wrote a column the following week that effectively apologised for her lapse.

Prime Ministers’ partners are generally seen but not heard. They are expected to be an ethereal presence either on the leader’s arm or, preferably, a pace behind. But frankly, if my wife somehow became Prime Minister, I would be very chipper and more than a little smug – at least until I realised how hard she had to work and how often she would be away in meetings or travelling.

The role of being the Prime Minister’s partner is often a lonely one. The PM’s baby is due in the middle of next month, so Gayford can content himself with the thought that he and Ardern can be together for at least the six weeks of her maternity leave.

Whether she will be as relaxed about letting go of the reins of power for so long is another question. Cabinet ministers tend to gravitate towards whoever is in charge, even for a short period of just a few weeks.

Winston Peters will be the Acting Prime Minister for half of June and most of July, but do not expect anyone from Labour to gravitate to him. Years ago, when Helen Clark was heading abroad on a trip and her deputy was away, a colleague was to stand in as Acting Prime Minister. “Don’t let him do anything,” she sternly instructed her staff. It will be much the same instruction when Peters is in charge.

Labour ministers will instead drift towards whichever of their colleagues becomes the strongman (or woman) in Ardern’s absence. That person will not be her remarkably ineffectual party deputy, Kelvin Davis. Basking in the afterglow of the Budget, it may be Finance Minister Grant Robertson or perhaps the Minister of Everything, David Parker. It might even be the man now regarded as Labour’s wise old kaumātua, who put Ardern into the job in the first place, Andrew Little.

The problem for Ardern when she returns after a six-week absence will be reasserting control. Her collegial style contrasts with the way John Key and Clark channelled final decision-making into their hands alone. Clark learnt the hard way, after a chaotic period in her first term, that power needed to be concentrated in her office, and her ministers fell under her tight control.

Ardern’s strength for the Government is her ability to communicate best what it is doing. In the 1980s, David Lange was also a great communicator, but, in the end, he lost control of his Cabinet and met a politically messy end.

Lange’s fate should be an object lesson for the Prime Minister. She will, on her return from maternity leave, need to regain her dominance of Cabinet. There is no reason a new mother cannot do this, except that the job of Prime Minister tends to require undivided attention from dawn until well into the night, and she might like to see her partner and child every now and then.

She would be wise to create a “Tight Four” or “Tight Five” inner cabinet of key Labour ministers to provide her with active support during her time in both the job and new parenthood.

Such power-sharing would be a new concept in the Beehive. I hope it works.

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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