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Jenny Shipley talks to RNZ's Guyon Espiner about middle class welfare, working with Winston Peters, and the influences, conflicts and complexities of being Prime Minister

Jenny Shipley talks to RNZ's Guyon Espiner about middle class welfare, working with Winston Peters, and the influences, conflicts and complexities of being Prime Minister

In part four of The 9th Floor, RNZ's Guyon Espiner talks to New Zealand's first female Prime Minister, Jenny Shipley. 

By Guyon Espiner*

Jenny Shipley evoked strong responses from New Zealanders during her time in politics and I suspect that, with her new comments about "middle class welfare" and working with Winston Peters, she is about to do so again.

But while people respond strongly to Shipley, there has been very little examination of her leadership. Researching the interview for The 9th Floor series, Tim Watkin and I found there were few books and very little academic study of this hugely influential New Zealand politician.

We’ll look at why that might be in a moment - but it certainly isn’t because she doesn’t generate debate.

During the day we spent with Shipley she said New Zealand needs to take the “blowtorch” to middle class welfare, with student allowances and healthcare areas where middle and higher income earners should pay more. She finds it “morally bankrupt” that the country doesn’t have an honest discussion about this and that she personally feels “sick” that on her income she can’t opt out of subsidised health care.

She also has some fascinating observations about working with Winston Peters, who may again be a key coalition player after the coming election.

Shipley, who sacked him as Treasurer in 1998 as the first MMP government fell apart over the sale of Wellington Airport, offers bouquets and brickbats.

“Winston could have been Prime Minister but for want of himself. His complexity often got ahead of his capability. Watching him on a good day he was brilliant,” she says. “He was an 85 percent outstanding leader. And the 15 percent absolutely crippled him because he would get so myopically preoccupied with a diversion that it took away his capability and intent on the main goal.”

Shipley also says that Peters, Deputy Prime Minister from 1996 to 1998, was excellent at absorbing information but sometimes simply hadn't done the reading. “I would make a personal judgement as he came into my office as to whether the envelope with the papers in it was either open or closed and it often would tell me the extent to which he had read what we were then going to discuss. I learned to both respect and manage it and on those days the meetings were short.”

Shipley was Prime Minister for two years and before that was Minister of Health and of Welfare, two of the biggest spending and most important portfolios. So where are the books and the documentaries and the academic study?

Mike Moore and Geoffrey Palmer have generated a pile of books taller than your average populist politician. Shipley was Prime Minister longer than both of them put together. But there is almost nothing. Why?

She was New Zealand’s first woman Prime Minister. She was the first woman in the world to chair an APEC leaders conference. She was the first New Zealand Prime Minister to go to a Hero Parade - and her reasons for brushing off the objections from her conservative colleagues and doing that are compelling on their own.

And yes I know the rejoinder: she wasn’t elected Prime Minister. No she wasn’t but neither were Palmer or Moore. And neither was the current Prime Minister Bill English.

There is one hint of a regret towards the end of the interview - and it’s a critical one - but largely Shipley is unrepentant and puts the case for her legacy forcefully. Her argument for many of the toughest cuts National made in the '90s boils down to this: "We can't squander a future generation's chance, just because we are lazy or it is hard".

Perhaps more than any other leader we spoke to she lets us in on the influences, conflicts and complexities of being Prime Minister.

There are two striking aspects to this. The influence and impact on her family is one, and includes a harrowing story of how death threats against her affected her young son. The other is being a woman at the top of politics. Would history have treated Jenny Shipley and Ruth Richardson differently if they were men?

I know a lot of viewers and listeners saw Jim Bolger in a new light as he reflected on his legacy for The 9th Floor. I wonder whether people will be as generous with Jenny Shipley.


*This is part four of RNZ's The 9th Floor series and first appeared here. It is used with permission. 

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The obvious comment about free public healthcare for all is: if she really wants to pay, what is stopping her providing a large donation?
The government takes money for numerous things when it wants to in many many areas. One example: look at the increased fire service levy being imposed on home and contents insurance and it is being introduced for the first time on 3rd party car insurance. All coming in on 1 July.


Yes, I would like to see her take a "blowtorch" to her own wealth. Can we start with blowtorching all those entitlements ex-MPs get?


She could start with reimbursing the state for the free education she received that young Kiwis no longer do. She can pay it and any allowances received back at the going rate today.

And as you note, she can voluntarily opt out of the generous trough given to former parliamentarians for the rest of their lives.

Perhaps she might also consider donating back her Mainzeal director fees to any investors out of pocket due to its failure. It seems difficult to argue she earned those fees.

Rick - you could pay a 66% tax as my father did, and have a "free" education as well - that free education comments always comes from the young and or unborn at the time who actually have no idea how to compare two different periods because either they were aware or not alive in both, or are poorly read on the topic before commenting

Personally I prefer the option of people keeping more of their own money and then deciding for themselves if paying for an University education is the right thing for them, rather than them being forced to pay for yours if they choose not to.

I'm curious, do you think healthcare should be privatized too?

Plutocracy - if that's directed to me the answer is clearly no - you can die from lack of health care, but if you choose not to get an education it probably won't kill you, and indeed some do well in life without a university education.

Pot calling kettle black. You really have no idea of the mechanisms of wealth transfer at play do you. Or the fact that the underlying reason is a decline is wealth per person that planet can supply.

That 66% tax rate kicked in at 3 times the average wage. What was also 3 times the average wage at the time? the average house.

Government spending as a percentage of GDP has changed remarkably little between those time periods. So the tax load on the population is also about the same. There maybe lower income tax, but there is GST and some other stealth taxes. Though this time the taxation is less progressive.

Grant, I think young Kiwis are well aware that the older generation received many more benefits - including affordable housing through earlier government builds, cheap housing corp loans, cheap housing corp leasehold land etc. - because the earlier generations were prepared to pay a bit more tax at the top end. I'd suggest reading up on the history of housing measures in NZ, for example. Also on such points as how young Kiwis today are saving at a higher rate than previous generations did (contrary to misguided "smashed avocado" / Tony Alexander rants).

They're well aware that the Boomers are the generation who received these benefits, then whose politicians did away with many of them so they'd get to enjoy the benefits of lower taxes and more money in their pocket...And it would seem a positive sign that you can identify that your father paid higher taxes so your generation could have those benefits, and that's something you have no desire to do for the next generations.

Somewhat of a charmed position, really - benefiting from the higher taxes and more selfless policies of the previous generations, then keeping more of one's cash by not passing things on as they were received.

The place where the consistency of position seems to fall down is that many of older generation is far from "my own bootstraps" when it comes to pension...where they still seem to expect young NZers who did not receive the same benefits they did to pay them a pension regardless of wealth, lest one's ability to maintain a wealthy lifestyle is compromised by paying one's own way. Apparently it's the taxpayer's job to maintain their lifestyle at that point.

[ Uncivil drive-by smear removed. Please stay issues-based. Ed ]


Hahaha. Middle class welfare. Cheeky! Beware of a neoliberal bearing an opinion.

What are the implications anyway? Catastrophic I would imagine.

Upper Class Welfare is the Real problem.. (Plus welfare in general, in particular and above all else)

Those who think they are entitled, are the problem, not the solution.

Never met a Politician yet, who did not think they were entitled to have their nose in the trough.

Know it all-s everyone, Have it all-s everyone, Rule it as I please, not as you Citizens want.

Ruin a country, run it badly, on the take, then point the finger at others.

Most businesses are run this way too. Over paid, Inflated over achievers, achieving stuff all, not worth the grief they bring to the business, their Country, their staff , constituents...and the World.

The ruin-nation of the World is obvious. Mankind ain't that kind to man nor beast.

Has no one the sense to see, if these people were Right!!!, nothing would be Wrong???


the problem with her user pays argument is why should those that pay more not be entitled to the services they are paying for.
if you take it to the extreme and say well I don't use this or that so I am not paying towards it.
its the same agreement used to justify insurance, and becomes a personal choice whether one covers themselves or just accepts the risk of non coverage BUT we are talking about a country not individuals


I have listened/watched all of RNZ's excellent 9th Floor series and Jenny Shiply was by far the least impressive former PM. Jenny talked up her leadership skills, to the point of embarrassment, due to her obvious self promotion. Yet her recall of events and how she and others contributed to it was superficial at best.


This was the stand out. She learned the least, understood the least and is unable to self-review critically. No wonder she was a terrible PM.

Totally agree. She rolled Jim Bulger because she "was a leader" - not because he was screwing it up, or she could do better. She was and is just too self absorbed.

Another disappointing and disgusting part of the interview was when she turned an entirely legitimate question about whether the Minister of Finance had any influence on her welfare reforms into a gender issue. She completely avoided giving a good answer but wanted to discuss the fact that in her view she had a rough time of it because she was a woman. Utter rubbish of course. If her gender had been a factor working against her, how could she lead a faction to roll the incumbent and then become Prime Minister? She was the least impressive of all the leaders interviewed. No wonder she has inspired the least of all analysis of her time.

Really terrible to go back to has been politicians for answers to today's problems....Such a waste of time,aye.

maybe maybe not....
Wisdom comes with knowledge, experience and age...
Jim Bolger showed some wisdom with his review of neo liberalism..

I think that is actually part of the problem,in that we don't use older people who have far more knowledge , more. You only have to look at the all backs under graham Henry. He initially lost the World Cup, but they kept with him due to all the knowledge he had,even though many people want a new coach, and they eventually won later on.

They seem to be picking positions based on popularity, the way they look and talk, rather than how much experience they actually have. There is a reason why overseas presidents and prime ministers are often over 60.

Probably a PM who should never have been. When Bolger sent Ruth Richardson exit stage left then so too did any real iniative his government possessed. His government became stereotyped , lacklustre & went into an election over the top in complacency. That election should have been won outright at a canter, but ended up in the fiasco of the coalition with NZ First. That dismal performance ushered the way for Mrs Shipley as leader but who did not in any way improve matters & just thought rubbing shoulders with President Clinton would be enough. That dismal performance ushered the way for Ms Clark.

"That dismal performance ushered the way for Mrs Shipley as leader but who did not in any way improve matters & just thought rubbing shoulders with President Clinton would be enough. That dismal performance ushered the way for Ms Clark."

Who's dismal performance ushered in John Key, and now we have Wild Bill.

God help us, following this pattern the next one will be even worse again.

The reason not much has been written on her is because very few like her. She comes across as narcissistic with very little charm. Whatever the merits of her policies the personal is still an important factor; the people spoke in 1999 and it wasn't for her. And of course it wasn't misogyny - we elected a woman as PM for the next 9 years.

2 year threshold conveniently covered with 2 years 2 days in office, pockets Inflation adjusted life long plus annuity (presently around a grand a week),
New car every 60000ks and numerous flights with Burton continuing to benefit should he become a widower.
Probably reminded Jim that he would be getting his similar dibs also!
Alas, Good riddance!

jenny shipley, heartless and cruel, with a holier than thou attitude towards 'welfare' - rich given the entitlements that she as an ex PM gets (car for life, free international business class travel, pension etc) and she has the temerity to moan about the middle class. A pitch (sic) then, now and always will be.

Yes, and let's never forget the lowering of the drinking age to 18 because, don't you know, my kids thought it was a great idea! (such shallow thought processes)
Some people we are well rid of, even if we are still paying for it.