Exercising Government through Parliament

Acting Prime Minister’s Speech to the NZ Business & Parliament Trust
Legislative Chamber, Parliament

25 July 2018


Good afternoon.

The role of the Prime Minister has evolved along with our constitution. Core functions of the role remain the same–such as chairing Cabinet and key cabinet committees, appointing and dismissing ministers, and advising the Governor-General to call a general election–but there have been profound changes in the political and policy context in which the Prime Ministership operates.

One aspect of the role has never changed, however, and that is the professional and personal qualities that each individual brings to the Prime Ministership. For good or ill, these are the crucial variables that sort the great from the merely good or from those who prove ill-equipped to meet the challenges of the role.

Created out of convention, Political Scientist Leslie Lipson observed in the late 1940s that, ‘the authority of a prime minister is an attribute common to all and derives from the powers of the office. But it is their personal prestige, the respect they inspire, and the confidence with which they are regarded, these are what the individual themselves contribute.’

There couldn’t be a truer statement about the blending of person and role. While the prime ministership has undergone significant changes in recent decades, with our political system more weighted towards prime ministerial than cabinet government as a result, Lipson’s old verity remains.         

Two areas where changes to the role of prime minister are most pronounced are in the increased direct influence and insatiable demands of the media and in the new processes of co-ordination under a prime minister’s control.

With the advent of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, reinforced by a phalanx of lobbyists and corporate public relations professionals, there is a sense for any prime minister that they are engaged in a continuous campaign.  

The Prime Minister is at the fulcrum of this new media dynamic and must be disciplined and skillful in responding to the insatiable demands of the media, a media that is itself strapped for the resources, space and time needed to properly perform its role. This has regrettably seen the media’s trajectory descend from its historic role as a Fourth Estate into its current sorry state of purveyors of dumbed down and even fake news.

Thomas Jefferson, over two centuries ago, said, ‘To the press alone, chequered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been gained by reason and humanity over error and oppression.’

It is become harder to sustain that thought as evidenced by the sharp decline in basic political and historical knowledge of our political media. Rather, another Jefferson observation seems more apt: ‘From forty years’ experience of the wretched guess-work of the newspapers of what is not done in the open daylight, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, and almost never worth notice.’

In this wretched circumstance, never has the rhetorical role of the prime ministership demanded as much patience nor required as much effort to navigate the shoals of malice and mendacity to maintain effective leadership of their government’s performance and direction.

Turning to executive backing for the Prime Minister, there now exists a large executive operation, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, to support them in their work. Prime Minister Muldoon’s innovation of the day, the creation of an eight-member advisory group now seems quaint. The exponential growth in Prime Ministerial support began when Geoffrey Palmer established the DPMC in 1989. By the end of 1992, the number had increased to 146 staff. By 2017 there were 249 DPMC staff during the National Government’s last year in office.

This explosion of advisory resources and specialist staff reflects an ever greater need for policy co-ordination across government and increasing complexity in the formulation and operation of public policy and strategic policy advice.

The co-ordination issue is naturally even more complicated in the present Labour-New Zealand First Coalition Government, supported on confidence and supply by the Green Party. The need to consult and co-ordinate between three parties has become a fundamental feature of how the government develops policy and advances its policy programme; a challenge qualitatively different from the last administration where intra-party agreement dominated over any need for meaningful coalition consultation.

MMP has also had an effect on Prime Ministerial patronage in the cabinet selection process. While differences have always existed between Labour and National Prime Ministers, with Labour’s caucus nominating their colleagues for Cabinet positions and National granting their Prime Ministers the sole power of selection, the village nature of our parliamentary democracy has largely negated any difference. Potential Cabinet Ministers tend to select themselves based on their competence and experience, with most controversy and competition centred on the final couple of Cabinet selections.

Under MMP, however, ministers from coalition or support parties are selected by their party leaders, thereby circumscribing some of the power of patronage Prime Ministers previously held.

Returning to Lispon’s insight about the contribution that each individual brings to the Prime Ministership, if we turn to New Zealand’s recent political history one can see how influential the ‘wild card’ variable of leadership is.  

From Robert Muldoon through to Jacinda Ardern two qualities stand out that differentiate the successful from those who failed to meet their challenge. The first is the quality of their judgements about the opportunities and constraints that exist in their historical context.

A Prime Minister’s discernment of their context is paramount. David Lange, for all his oratorical brilliance, unleashed the Douglas-inspired torrents for which the country was poorly prepared. We live with the consequences of that failure today even though Lange finally saw the light after the 1987 election when he decided to take a ‘break for a cuppa,’ a choice that ultimately precipitated the fall of his own government.

Prime Minister Jim Bolger likewise failed to understand the exhaustion of the New Zealand people with reform when he allowed Ruth Richardson to further carry the neo-liberal experiment into labour market and welfare reform. Bolger did much better when he led more responsibly in the lead up to proportional representation and a new era of multi-party politics and, it should be acknowledged, he recanted twenty years later over his government’s contribution to the ‘revolution.’

Prime Minister Helen Clark keeping her election promises and her government’s policy incrementalism better matched the expectations of the electorate in 1999, creating a foundation for her three-term government. So while making accurate judgements can materially help a Prime Minister meet their challenges the absence of it will certainly guarantee failure. 

The second quality that underpins successful Prime Ministerial leadership is character. It underpins judgements about what is possible. Also, being comfortable in one’s own skin, having a good temperament, and having the ability to persuade other political actors to support the direction being set all contribute to Prime Ministerial success.

Those who can inspire confidence have the advantage over those who feel insecure in their role or unconfident about leading change, let alone those who see the prime ministership as merely advancing their own personal ambition.

In conclusion, the role of the Prime Minister has evolved over time although the core functions of the job are as identifiable as ever. While the context for, and demands of, Prime Ministers has changed a lot over the decades the core attributes of Prime Ministerial success have not. The public rightly expect a lot from their Prime Ministers. Each tries to the best of their ability to meet the high public expectations of them. At its heart, however, it is their judgement and character that most defines their time as Prime Minister, and that is unlikely to change.