Political credibility – expertise plus trustworthiness

A US publication by two academics has said that political credibility comes down to two things – perceived expertise and trustworthiness. Gordon Campbell considers the two in respect of Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges.

Werewolf: Gordon Campbell on the Ardern/Bridges problems with credibility

Credibility is always such a fickle, unstable element in politics. You know it when you see it, though.

In January a US publication called The Journal of Political Marketing featured a (paywalled) article called “What Does Credibility Look Like?” in which two American academics grouped the attributes of political credibility into:
(a) “the performance-based traits of competence and strength” and
(b) the “interpersonal characteristics of warmth and trust.”

In brief, they concluded that credibility came down to “expertise” on one hand, and “trustworthiness” on the other.

By the time the 2020 election rolls around, voters will have enjoyed a further two and a half years of exposure to the administrative expertise of Jacinda Ardern and Simon Bridges, and to their capacity to generate feelings of trust.

At this stage Ardern has had a lot of media exposure. When she first stepped up into the Labour leadership role she looked competent but the gloss has worn off, with some performances of the Labour Party rubbing off on her. Her competence has taken a hit, and this week in particular as Shane Jones and Winston Peters virtually ignored her telling off of Jones she looked impotent and weak. She has certainly worked hard on displaying warmth, but that too has looked strained recently.

Jacinda Ardern doesn’t do ruthless. Not yet, anyway. Last year, Jacinda-mania was incited almost entirely by her interpersonal skills and a general image of her being a straight shooter. Such qualities do not easily transfer to the daily grind of the bureaucratic processes of government.

Of late, Ardern’s sympathy for those seeking to end the planet’s dependence on fossil fuels has clashed with the necessity to allow the bids for oil exploration blocs to run their bureaucratic course.

At this relatively early stage of the term Labour and Ardern are suffering from having assigned or delayed many decisions, with many working groups and inquiries being one of their most biggest achievements – or non-achievements. It may be prudent, but it doesn’t look strong, yet at least.

…finding the right balance between competence and compassion in government is never all that easy. With John Key, his foibles on that front were balanced by the stolid figure of Bill English.

Ardern, unfortunately, has a far more mercurial deputy in Winston Peters and a Cabinet wild card (Shane Jones) not renowned for being a team player. Compared to what Ardern has to manage, the Key/English regime was an administrative cake-walk.

Government credibility is being stretched by attempts by NZ First and the Greens to set themselves apart, lately through publicity stunts of dubious merit.

Ardern has another perhaps larger problem – the credibility of her Labour Cabinet.

Much will depend on Grant Robertson and his first budget – spending priorities and perceptions of financial management skills will matter a lot in respect of competence.

Another critical portfolio housing. Last year Labour made a big deal of National’s incompetence in dealing with a growing housing problem, and promised a lot – in particular they promised a lot of houses, and an end to homelessness.

Phil Twyford seems to have had trouble leaving ‘opposition’ behaviour behind – like nearly all incoming Labour ministers he had only ever been in Opposition before.

It was always going to be difficult to crank up the Government house building programme, especially when starting with a shortage of labour and resources. They won’t get many built in their first year, but if by year three of the term 10,000 houses a year aren’t being built, and there are still obvious housing shortages, then Labour will have a real credibility problem. Trust they can deliver on strong words will figure in the next election campaign.,

Some other Labour ministers are noticeably struggling with their jobs, like Clare Curran.

And appointing Kelvin Davis as Ardern’s deputy may have seemed like a good idea going in to an election campaign, but even then Davis performed poorly and was quickly hidden from sight. That continues now they are in Government.

Helen Clark had a strong deputy, Michael Cullen. Key had English.

Ardern has no one in sight from her own team, and Jones and Peters are filling the vacuum, threatening even her own authority. This may get worse while Peters is Acting prime Minister while Ardern takes maternity leave.

To remain successful – and to avoid her baby-related temporary departure from the political scene looking like a retreat – she will need to lead decisively on her return.

It looks like managing and competing with Peters and Jones will be an ongoing challenge for Ardern. It will be a particular challenge when she comes back from her baby break.

One thing in Labour’s favour at the moment is the retirement of English and Steven Joyce. National need to rebuild, and they have a new leader that most voters barely know, if at all.

Bridges has only recently become National leader and has a lot of work to do to be noticed let alone be seen as competent, strong and warm. His most noticeable attribute so far is boring, in part due to media indifference, and in part (and related) due to his manner and speech, which struggles to grab attention.

Sadly, gender gives Simon Bridges a head start on the ‘expertise’ aspect of political credibility. Trust, on the other hand, could prove to be his Achilles heel.

I think the “head start on the ‘expertise’” is debatable. I haven’t seen much to give me confidence in his expertise yet. And Bridges needs to be noticed to be able to build trust.

He also has a deputy problem. Paula Bennett has not lived up to her purported potential. She has a lot of work to do to be noticed, to appear competent, but as for every good deputy, not to overshadow her leader.

And in the modern era of media obsession with ‘celebrity’ getting positive publicity will be a battle.

Ardern is sure to get saturation coverage when she has her baby. Winning the warmth stakes shouldn’t be a problem. But whether she will come out of that looking competent and strong and trustworthy as a leader, alongside Winston Peters, is another matter altogether. We will see over the next few months.

Bridges will be overshadowed by all of this. There’s little he can do about it but build his leadership skills, take what few chances he can get to be seen and heard, and be ready to step up for the campaign in 2020.

Much may depend on whether voters are sold on the idea of having a celebrity style Prime Minister – Bridges will struggle to compete with Ardern (and Trump) on that, presuming Ardern stays in charge – or whether they are over the glossy magazine superficiality and want more substance.

Public perceptions of expertise and trustworthiness are important in politics, or at least they were. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to have a good view of our leaders beyond the media headlines and PR plastering.

Leave a comment


  1. NOEL

     /  25th March 2018

    Aw comon, for generations politicans have always been below use car salesmen.

    • When your PM skites so much she makes Max Key and Trudeau seem retiring.

      Her showing off is now reaching ridiculous proportions.

      • Blazer

         /  25th March 2018

        yes Sheeren is a mega star…and connects with Arderns age group.National still has Max Key son of a…who wants to be the next..Justin Bieber…so a ‘brighter future’…is…um!!

      • Gezza

         /  25th March 2018

        Carn, trav, keep it in perspective!

        Your guy here was like a bloody limpet with poor Richie.

        And he spent last week big-noting about conning his Air NZ board into paying for him to play golf with his half million dollar buddy who used to be some president & friend of bankers somewhere.

  2. Alan Wilkinson

     /  25th March 2018

    You can only trust politicians if you can trust the people who vote for them. That is why they score so low.

  3. Kevin

     /  25th March 2018

    Her failure to get the Medical Cannabis bill passed proved she’s just Winston’s lapdog.

    • PartisanZ

       /  25th March 2018

      But then again, you haven’t got Big Pharma, Big Liquor and Big Business [Old White Men] breathing down your neck …

      • Trevors_elbow

         /  25th March 2018

        “Old white men”…

        So you confirmed you’re a sexist and racist Partizan. Lovely stuff…

        Well done Parti, well done…

        • PartisanZ

           /  25th March 2018

          *Sarcasm* Trevor … harmless sarcasm, that’s all …

          Ya know? … It’s an allusion to one of this week’s BIG news stories.

          • Trevors_elbow

             /  26th March 2018

            Nah. You are never anything but serious about politics Parti…..

  4. Blazer

     /  25th March 2018

    perception always trumps reality in politics.We see it time and time again…’National are sound economic managers’….no evidence to support that.They are a ‘safe pair of hands’…compared to??Play the media game,keep it…simple,have a bag of diversions handy…and all will be well.The average voter has a short attention span,and is not interested in in depth analysis of….credibility.

  5. David

     /  25th March 2018

    I think its a bit early to expect too much from Ardern, she is more the smiling face who is pretty talented at delivering her message. Her problem is a talentless cabinet as pointed out and what has always been a lack of drive or work ethic and she is hardly an innovative thinker.
    Lets just be grateful she isnt changing much of anything and sure all the inquiries are costly but keeping Nationals policies is worth the price.

  6. David

     /  25th March 2018

    Not sure on Bridges yet, I think we all remember giving Labour a serve for barking at every passing car so perhaps the strategy of just watching the wheels fall off this lot and preparing yourself for power may pay off.

    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  25th March 2018

      At present it’s more of a passing circus than a car. Dog wouldn’t know which bit to bark at.

  7. sorethumb

     /  25th March 2018

    Political credibility – expertise plus trustworthiness
    If you are PC you will never have political credibility except with the converted. We have no non-pc opposition. Winston was it but he appears to lack a sincere ideology beyond “this will get me over the line”. In that sense I think many will see him now as a phoney and as an opportunity waster : we would have been better off without him.

    • PartisanZ

       /  25th March 2018

      That brings about the (strong) likelihood that lack of a sincere ideology has now encompassed 100% of politicians and parties …

      Good for TOP – Having a sincere ideology that doing what the evidence strongly suggests is best to do is best … is better …

  8. David

     /  25th March 2018


    Might be a shock to Audrey Young but Ardern is not some global superstar that other politicians feel the need or desire to be anywhere close too, they calculate there is zero benefit and quite some risk to being in her orbit. Her behaviour with Turnbull was ridiculous and her comments about Trump just stupid.


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