Ardern claims she is strong in ‘What it means to be Kiwi’

Jacinda Ardern has followed up her speeches in New York with her contribution to a Stuff series: What it means to be Kiwi, examining the changing values that define New Zealand in the 21st century.

Prime Minister says committing to kindness shows strength, not weakness

Don’t mistake Jacinda Ardern’s kindness for weakness, she says.

“There is criticism around different leadership styles, and I receive my fair share. But the fact I still maintain my view that there’s a place in politics for compassion and empathy, that probably proves that I am strong”.

That seems to be in response to claims that back in New Zealand her leadership has shown weaknesses.

“Issues that some might characterise as being political, like child poverty, when you drill down and talk about what kids have in their lunchboxes and kids sleeping in cars, New Zealanders just didn’t want to tolerate that. So I do think that is a Kiwi value. ”

“Regardless of our own personal beliefs, we actually tend to want other people to have their own ability to live their lives.

“We know we’re interdependent, we don’t want to do any harm to others, but if it does no harm, then let people get on with it. That progressive nature still comes back to a New Zealand value of just being fair.”

Ardern said the Government’s wellbeing framework was an attempt to put Kiwi values in action.

“Part of the reason I raised actual kindness is there is an assumption these are values you can’t bring to life in politics or have no place in politics.

“I do think that you can embed it in what we do when we govern as well. We are trying to bring in a range of indicators that tell us a bit more about people’s lives,” she said.

“We don’t want just their income levels. When we bed in material deprivation into our measures, or look at home ownership rates; when we have a goal like everyone earning, learning, caring or volunteering, that tells us about social isolation.”

When measured, it could provide a sense of people’s wellbeing and their happiness, she said.

Sounds wonderful but is absolutely vague feel good stuff.

Ardern is yet to prove she has the strength and leadership to put at least some of this into practice to drive positive changes.

Current reality – Andrea Vance: A week of grubby politics in contrast to New York performance

New Zealand – well the news media anyway – basked in her reflected glory.

But there was plenty of chaos going on back home – most of it right in the heart of Ardern’s own Government.

Revelations about Meka Whaitiri’s bruising set-to with her press secretary were by far the most serious. Allegations that enraged by a missed photo call she injured the woman are serious enough for a party whose founding values are standing up for the worker.

But, add to that the unconditional and blind support of employment minister Willie Jackson – without even a cursory examination of the facts.

The overwhelming impression was that the Maori caucus holds too much sway. That, and after just a year in power, the party is happy to abandon its principles for convenience.

Then came geek entrepreneur Derek Handley, chaperoned by arch-Tory Michelle Boag. He first embarrassed the Government by overtaking their process of releasing communications about the chief technology job he won, and then lost.

Further documents revealed the fingerprints of Labour party president Nigel Haworth and former apparatchik GJ Thompson. Ardern was more heavily involved in the process than previously let on. 

Importantly, the State Services Commission ruled the appointment robust and unbiased.

But the cache of documents left the lingering hint of cronyism and a reluctance to share all the facts. Although the involvement of Boag did give off the whiff of dirty politics, and diminished National’s attempts to take the moral high ground.

The Wally Haumaha appointment scandal continued to dog the Government. The links between NZ First and the former cop and one-time candidate should preclude any of its MPs from being involved in the investigation into his promotion.

Yet, both Tracey Martin and Winston Peters have been at the heart of setting it up. They might be entirely blameless, but their involvement tarnishes the credibility of the entire process.

Ardern should luxuriate in being a shining beacon of hope in New York.  Because when she gets back home, there’s plenty of murk to cut through.

If Ardern has as much strength as she claims she needs to urgently address these messes.

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.