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Chris Trotter argues Jacinda Ardern's 'year of delivery' was naivety of a very particular kind and 'transformational government' requires an unflinching exercise of political mastery over her civil service advisers

Chris Trotter argues Jacinda Ardern's 'year of delivery' was naivety of a very particular kind and 'transformational government' requires an unflinching exercise of political mastery over her civil service advisers

By Chris Trotter*

With the “Year of Delivery” winding down, some stock-taking would appear to be in order. Among political journalists, the stock-take is largely complete and the emerging consensus leans heavily towards the damning. They have decided that the Coalition Government is not only guilty of failing to deliver on its promises, but also – by failing so spectacularly – of exposing its naivety in promising to deliver anything of significance in the first place.

Consciously, or unconsciously, the commentariat is contrasting Jacinda Ardern’s commitment to “transformation” with her predecessor, Helen Clark’s, deeply cynical, but highly effective, strategy of “under-promising and over-delivering”. Clark, herself, was strongly influenced by the political innovations of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. These “Third Way” leaders had eschewed anything as risky as “transformation” in favour of those small-but-welcome policy changes which had generated, if not enthusiasm, then uncomplaining acceptance, from multiple focus-groups.

Clark’s understanding, like Clinton’s and Blair’s, was that the age of “transformational” governments was over. That, in the words of Francis Fukuyama, author of the infamous 1989 essay “The End of History”, liberal capitalism and its philosophical defences had become “the common ideological heritage of all mankind”. Smoothing “neoliberalism’s” sharper edges, and implementing the less threatening agenda items of the “New Social Movements” of the 1960s and 70s, now constituted the generally accepted limits of the “Left’s” electoral remit.

The deficiency of the commentators’ collective stock-take lies in its failure to address whether these limitations are still an adequate summation of “doable” leftism. The implications of their critique certainly point in that direction. There has been considerable tut-tutting about Ardern’s apparently ill-judged re-introduction of the idea of “transformational government” to New Zealand politics. Such language having long since been deleted from the mainstream electoral playbook.

Those journalists with a grasp of New Zealand’s recent history (a regrettably small number) have recalled the “excesses” of Rob Muldoon’s “Think Big” projects of the late-1970s and early-80s. In the words of Matthew Hooton: “We must never return to a free-for-all where politicians, no matter how popular or powerful, can draw lines on maps for new roads, railways or dams.” Clearly, politicians and prime-ministers need constant reminding that they live in the Age of the Market. “Transformation”, as even Karl Marx understood, is Capital’s business – not Labour’s.

And yet, “transformation” and “kindness” were what Ardern (still, admittedly, in the afterglow of “Jacindamania”) promised New Zealand – and 2019 was designated as the year in which the Coalition Government’s promises would be delivered. That the delivery has not been made: certainly not on the key promises of taxation, child poverty and affordable housing; is the unanimous verdict of the commentariat – Left, Right and Centre. Where the journalistic jury has been less than forthcoming is on the subject of why the delivery failed.

The most commonly voiced explanation is that Ardern and her colleagues are insufficiently experienced in the art of government and/or woefully incompetent. A more nuanced view, however, would focus on the extreme difficulty of re-purposing a civil service which has, for more than 30 years, operated on the assumption that the state’s capacity for independent action should be reduced – especially in relation to economic policy. If Ardern and her closest allies merit the accusation of incompetence, then it’s because not even the years spent serving Clark and her ministers as executive assistants appear to have equipped them with an adequate understanding of how the neoliberal state works.

In mitigation for this offence, however, it should be pointed out that for Ardern, Finance Minister Grant Robertson and Education Minister Chris Hipkins, the “Rogernomics Revolution” was not, as it was for Clark and her Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, a period of intense and very personal political struggle. For these Gen-Xers, Rogernomics was political history, and Neoliberalism was the status-quo. That they never understood the power of the neoliberal state to thwart the plans of renegade politicians was simply because Clark and Cullen, after the message delivered to them during the 2000 “Winter of Discontent”, never again provoked its defenders into action.

Ardern’s experience of the past two years may have changed her perception of the neoliberal status-quo. Like David Lange before her, the Prime Minister appears to have entered office with a belief that economists, like electricians, were apolitical technicians. If the lights no longer come on – call an electrician. If an economy no longer delivers for the poor and the marginalised – then order Treasury economists to fix it. Two years on, there are signs that Ardern is beginning to grasp why “political economy” has always been a clearer term than “economics”. The wisely cynical are forever reminding us that “you can’t keep politics out of politics”. Well, it’s even more impossible to keep it out of economics!

If Ardern is, finally, beginning to grasp that becoming a “transformational government” requires an unflinching exercise of political mastery over her civil service advisers, then she needs to sit down with Green co-leader, James Shaw, and share her new-found insights with him. Few players in this government show more signs of having drunk the neoliberal Kool-Aid than the Minister for Climate Change. (Although, to be fair, the Labour Minister, Iain Lees-Galloway, is right up there alongside him!) Prior to his weekend announcements to the Labour Party’s Annual Conference, a similar pep-talk with Robertson also seemed advisable. In the light of the Finance Minister’s promise to spend-up large on infrastructure in 2020, however, prime-ministerial counselling no longer appears necessary.

In summary, Ardern’s promise to be a “transformational government” and her designation of 2019 as her government’s “year of delivery”, were, indeed, indicative of a degree of political naivety. It was, however, naivety of a very particular kind. What it demonstrated was not an incautious beginner’s failure to follow the well-worn path of her predecessors; but a touching innocence of just how much grief any leader who declares her intention to step off that path should expect to encounter.

That said, 2020 must also be a year for delivery. Not simply of promised reforms and improved services, but of votes. Societies are never transformed from the top-down: they are only ever deformed and destroyed. Genuinely transformative politics is always about harnessing the power of ordinary people to the realisation of their own interests. That is a process of finessing the rules of the status-quo, and of persuading those charged with turning policies into realities that the surest way to avoid being scratched by the cat-of-state is to pat it from head to tail – not the other way.

If Jacinda finds herself struggling to understand that metaphor, then she should sit down for an hour or two with her Deputy-Prime-Minister. Because if anybody understands how to make this country’s dilapidated democracy purr – it’s Winston Peters.

*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. His work may be found at He writes a fortnightly column for

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Jacinda has delivered on the most important issues, like more regulations and criminalisation of farming and carbon zero which means we can still drive cars every where because we just off-set the emissions with trees, but farming emissions can't be offset by trees but only by getting rid of farming.


I don't think you soy boys understand how the world actually operates. Believe it or not, farmers grow your precious soybeans. They dont just turn up on the organic shelf after a session of hot yoga. If you hate farming that much, please eat just pine needles from now on to save the planet on our behalf


Pay no mind, skuvdiv is merely a mediocre troll.


I think he was being sarcastic rather than saying farming was at fault

Carbon offsets are just bulls&%# ............. what they effectively say is can continue to produce as much carbon as you like , and to get out of pergatory for your sins , you must plant a few tress .

How we got into this mess in the first place eludes me

Catholic church got immensely wealthy through selling indulgences. And the climate change industry (academia, NGOs and politicians all earning salaries, gaining power and in some cases getting rich off of it) is now worth $100's of billions per year. With so many people's incomes deriving from it and creating new opportunities to grow individual's power and income all the time they are of course going to promote the hell out of it and sex it up wherever possible. If there was true belief, rather than venal self interest then they would put all the money into effective policies like energy R&D and vast build up of Nuclear power, PV, Wind. But they don't, cos that doesn't benefit the armies of grasping hands in the climate change industry.


Whatever positive qualities Ardern has (and I don't think there are many, apart from an ability to virtue signal), the problem she has is that the CoL is bereft of talent.

Year of delivery? Don't make me laugh.


. . Taxcinda is a deeply caring huggy person .. . Possibly more suited as a counselor for lost souls , the flotsam and jetsam of life ... a cuddler and carer of the needy and incompetent....

Hang on a mo' .... looking at her ministers ... she is in the right place !

Seems like you didn't actually read the article:

The most commonly voiced explanation is that Ardern and her colleagues are insufficiently experienced in the art of government and/or woefully incompetent. A more nuanced view, however, would focus on the extreme difficulty of re-purposing a civil service which has, for more than 30 years, operated on the assumption that the state’s capacity for independent action should be reduced – especially in relation to economic policy. If Ardern and her closest allies merit the accusation of incompetence, then it’s because not even the years spent serving Clark and her ministers as executive assistants appear to have equipped them with an adequate understanding of how the neoliberal state works.


We don't have a civil service in NZ.
And the first thing that gets drummed into you when you join the public service is that it is your Ministry's/Department's job is to do what the Minister wants.

oh cruel world ; my heart bleeds for Jacinda and her crew.

It's not easy being a new mother AND a new Prime Minister, we should all just give her unconditional loyalty and support because she proves that women are greater than men. I just hope she has another baby in time for the next election.

Tiu need a sense of humour to be able to laugh


They're coming for freedom of speech next - hopefully that'll be another thing they fail to get across the line.

If only Trump had been reigned in by his own political naivety...

Chins up, the school Board down the road is phoning around plumbers' & chippies to fix their broken lot.


... rained ! ... the raccoon on Trumpys head looks like it needs a rinse...

What the heck are you talking about Trump for, this is about our govt ?

Haven't you heard?
There's flooding in Yorkshire, Ferrari have been completely useless in this year's F1, there was an earthquake in Albania, and there is measles in Samoa

Dont forget the financial crisis and climate change.....yep think we got it all covered


For a government that wanted "transformation" their performance has been disappointing.
The $400 million for school property just announced with fanfare is not transformation; it is just a one-off, sounds like an idea made one day before breakfast, and in a few years time - when the new coat of paint has faded - will have no lasting consequence.
The difficult significant social issues such as child poverty, homelessness, and housing shortages have not been addressed - or failed. Other than by throwing more money at them, innovative ideas reflecting deep thought are lacking. Solving homeless by putting families in motels is another solution that seems little more than another idea coming to mind before breakfast.
Rather than planning for transition in energy use, simply banning oil exploration again another idea that could have been thought of before breakfast and announced by morning tea time - and according to some government officials probably was. The $3 billion Regional Growth Fund seems to be little more than a "Vote NZ First" policy decided at coalition agreement talks. Maori health was identified as an issue and was solved the next morning by allocating $20 million.
Flagship policies such as KiwiBuild which seemingly had some depth of thought and could bring needed change to housing was a failure.
"Transformation" implies innovative thinking, having a clear succinct vision backed up with sound well articulated policies to bring lasting improvement. Other than allocating large sums of money, the Wellness Budget seemed little more than simply throwing money around like fairy dust.
Rather than simply acting as a fairy godmother, Jacinda, please start to articulate a clear vision with coherent plans of what you want to achieve. I am not interested in allocations of $400 million as bolts out of the blue.

The $400 million is just something promised.

Do you think they'll actually be able to deliver?

... it's a scatter gun approach .. the $ 400 m. is being sprayed around at any school that asks for some of it ... not a targeted approach to spending taxpayers money ...

the $ 400 m. is being sprayed around at any school that asks for some of it .

They don't have to ask for it, every school is getting money, a minimum of $50,000 and a max of $400,000, with the figures in the middle depending on the school roll.

not a targeted approach to spending taxpayers money

Is it targeted, at every school in the country. Schools can use the money as they see fit, because they know what they need to spend money on, not relying on the ministry of education to deign from upon high how the money must be spent.

Sounds like you're in favour of a big government "we know best" approach instead of leaving it up to schools to decide how to spend the money. Weird.

Writing a cheque is something the Coalition does know how to do and will be able to deliver on - as it requires no competence in management or planning. Big government tax and poorly targeted discretionary spend is in Labour's DNA

Totally agree.
Although it's not to say there isn't some need for the school property maintenance expenditure.
One billion miles from 'Transformational'.


I hate Shane Jones, he's a narcissist, but I'm with him on this issue.

We should be able to talk about immigration.

Pity NZ First are only talking about it, not actually doing anything about it.

Yea he's definitely not my cup of tea. But the only pen pusher so far to approach the topic

Come on you can't blame there incompetence on neoliberal's and the public sector, your trying to make an excuse for the outright incompetence.
"certainly not on the key promises of taxation, child poverty and affordable housing;"
You mean the promise to NOT increase TAXES ? Now if you said a 3 Year term of Jacinda promoting herself then heck no one has done better !

Things are suitable for elections -- best singer, comedian, beauty queen, artiest, painter and etc.

Things are definitely not suitable for elections -- leader of a country, CEO of a company, medical doctor.

So, one needs to use the same benchmarks to measure the performance of singers, comedians, beauty queens, artiest, and painters to measure a elected leader, in this case Jacinda Ardern.

Then, JA's performance was great!!! Her media exposure rate and audience reaction were all very great!!!

Congratulations!!! Indeed!!!

What planet are you living on? When has there ever been an election for "best singer" or "best painter"?

Planet CCP

X factor, American Idol....

That's not an "election" is it.

It is.. I elect not to watch that crap..

xingmowang, do you ever wonder why no other country in the world - not one out of 190 or so - seeks to emulate the CCP's governing strategies or hold hands too closely with this regime? Various dictators and tyrants appear here and there, of course, but death or revolution usually removes them. Another question: do you ever feel fortunate in being able to voice your opinions in NZ? Democracy depends on this freedom. The non-elected depend on curtailing it.

You know where to go if you like being controlled, why they are even going to use facial recognition so you can be completely controlled, right down to crossing the street. Do not, however, assume anyone else is interested in such a life, I will take what we have warts and all over what you desire any day of the week.

Xing - how do you think a national leader should be chosen?

In a democratic country, an election campaign is one of the longest job interviews possible. It is the people of the country who need to be convinced. If you think that process is flawed (and I agree that it has flaws) and there is a better way, describe it? If you think a bunch of political appointees, or other group of appointed people will be any better then you have little to no understanding of human nature and how self interest influences their choices.

Corruption takes many forms and political and monied elites are usually very good at putting a spin on their actions to make it look like they are lily white in their motivations and ethics, but history tells a different version, and it is through this lens we learn how to shape our future.

If you think China is better off with President for life Xi, look up the English word MEGALOMANIA. Please tell us what the Chinese version of it is.

So the Government can borrow at 1.3% for 10 years..... Seems foolishness not to invest for future productivity.

Every bounce needs a floor to hit first.

It is dangerous for politicians to get relaxed about borrowing money to fund their policies in such good economic times. We are enjoying low unemployment, reasonable economic outlook at home and abroad and should be paying down debt as fast as possible - because bad times will come again soon. Coalition have been better than I expected on fiscal management - though they have hidden a lot of borrowing off-books (at higher cost) in SOEs, and have killed off a lot of efficiency/growth-generating roading infrastructure projects to satisfy Green's anti-car zealotry - they are taxing like crazy but not giving the things we need in return.

Maybe you right there.
I do think, and am very glad to see, a Reserve Bank with a strategy at last. Who'd of thought? And a finance minister prepared to add fiscal stimulus. Cullen 2.0 is ok by me.

I thought it's economic policy 101 what's happening?!

looks like the PM has no friends on this morning,still think she will be there after 2020.

Labour are a shoe-in for 2020 because National are so hopeless at the moment, same reason National won in 2015 even though they really didn't deserve it.

2023 will be a real test.

Most definitely not a shoe-in for 2020, do you know how many gun owners are now pissed off and thats just for starters ? I'm not expecting them to get back in for 2020, they have been an epic failure on every front. She should have joined Green peace, not politics, totally clueless.

Obviously not enough gun owners to show up in polling that puts Labour in a position to form a government with either Greens or NZFirst and gives National no chance of forming a government at all.

Not many out of our nearly 5 million population. i read somewhere that their are approx. 250,000 registered gun owners in NZ. My pick is a lot of them will be voting ACT rather than National

so overall no effect on 'left' vs 'right' vote distribution?

To be honest, I couldn't care less about the left vs right malarkey. All I know is that ACT were the only party to oppose the rushed legislation, therefore a significant portion of that 250k of people may gravitate towards said party.

Oh dear the Gun owners are pissed off? I cannot name one person I know who owns a gun.. but apparently you think that Soyman and the gun runners are a shoe in? Dreaming...

Well i guess since you don't know anyone, that must make you right. Well done

You really are consistant with your user name - keep it up

I was just congratulating you on not knowing anyone that owns a gun. So woke of you

But said I know no one? What's woke dumbo ?

Are you dense? Or not read the comment?

I can think of 4 or 5 off top of my head just from friends and family, and now thanks to a Police contractor so does the criminal community. Let's do this.

. . as a person , I think she is blooming marvelous...

As a politician ... not so impressed ... she has managed to hold a weird coalition together ... but , their policies and failures have been dreadful ... now backtracking on their decision to kill off our infrastructure rebuilds and upgrades... 2 years wasted...

@GBH ............ and worst of all they have delivered absolutely sweet Fanny Adams .................. virtually no affordable homes whatsoever , just gave a Wanaka ( of all places ) property developer a get-out -of bankruptcy card .

No poverty alleviation
No new roads .......... just more congestion
No new clinics or hospitals
No new schools
No reduction in Maori youth unemployment

Just more immigrants ........ an all time record number this year ...........packing them in here like sardines , so soon enough we will really be an overcrowded third world country dependant on the Government for everything , and the productive sector will be paying more tax for all the handouts

And of course a desire to make drugs like cannabis legal ............

Suggest you READ Adam Smith in full. State and market are both required to keep a society in order and prosperous and market leans considerably on State investment to do so

"the extreme difficulty of re-purposing a civil service which has, for more than 30 years, operated on the assumption that the state’s capacity for independent action should be reduced – especially in relation to economic policy"

Perhaps.... but that does not excuse after a year in power claiming 2019 would be a year of delivery. Had she not realised in that first year the enormity of fulfilling those promises?

The promises made by Jacinda in the election were, if we are feeling charitable, naïve. To say her comment about the year of delivery was also naïve as she had not realised the enormity of refocussing the task is nothing short of excuse making.

Why does she get another free pass?

Sorry Chris.. but perhaps the commentariat are calling her year of delivery an absolute failure.. cos that's what is has been.
Perhaps the commentariat are citing "her colleagues are insufficiently experienced in the art of government and/or woefully incompetent" because that's exactly what they are.

I know there is a desire for opinion pieces to offer a nuanced or different view but your constant position of being a Jacinda-apologist is somewhat unbecoming of your journalistic integrity,

Not totally fair. Chris is old school left in leanings, but I think he honestly presents the opinions he holds. Though I'd agree with you that I don't think Mr Trotter's opinions are correct in this case. The Coalition has continued to be woeful in their 'year of delivery'. That is a team effort - Jacinda is just the public face of the failure.

Are you sure the whole article isn't just the "communism is really good, but it just hasn't been done the right way", argument? I'm all for a sense of common purpose and looking after those in need, but by a system that encourages choices, not one that seeks to control. Do we want a manipulative government or one that encourages choice? My vote is for the least manipulative.

To me, both the international socialism of Jacinda and her comrades and the national socialism of Winston and his mates are the perfect recipe for stagnation, decline and hardship. That's what people voted for, that's what we got.

How is it that many children on the African Continent can learn very well with a dirt floor and minimum informational material and yet we in NZ feed them,heat them and generally cuddle them and yet produce many that leave scool not knowing the basic stuff.

Good bloody question NG

Because for them, it's a matter of life and death. Survival instinct - you learn fast or get left behind

Metaphorically speaking the country is directionless and drifting while neolibs merrily financialise ever millimeter....changing course of a drifting vessel is hard when everything that used to move and direct it has been privatised or disestablished in the name of a quick buck...

Sure. Neo Libs are evil. But governments are also financialising everything by taxing, well, everything.
We need a proper balance. Too strong a government, disaster. Too strong a money oriented business, disaster. I really wish I knew the point that the balance would have worked the best.

Neolib is not the answer it breeds inequality and conflict because it favours one sector of society ahead of the rest, neither is socialism as it is too obstructive, the moderating influence of regulation of markets is necessary to ensure a reasonably fair distribution of the resources while promoting the dynamic of moderated enterprise....hows that?

Buy more (investment) houses, burn more fuel, more iphone.. live the day and bugger the next generation!

They knew what they wanted and where willing to do anything to get there. It's our fault as gullible voters, we look to policies instead of judging results. As a result there is little incentive to align policy with action.

Over sold under delivered - that would be my view of it. But worse, the current Government has also failed to adequately explain in simple terms, exactly what they are trying to achieve. Robertson in his post electoral speech spoke about jobs for all, every where including the regions. He didn't say why or how (although in part it may seem obvious and superficially it is). But then no Government has been good at this.

CT in paragraphs 2 and 3 then over sells HCs Government and what she achieved. I suggest that rather than rocking the boat, what she actually did was seek to preserve and embed power and privilege for the political and monied elite. This has been largely successful, by ignoring emerging issues, and only providing lip service to things that the public cared about. Thus she largely avoided being really challenged in her Government. An attitude of cowardice really. Unfortunately looking around the world, i think this attitude and trend is all too common.

Jacinda and her party depend on feeling. They feel - often rightly - that various things need fixing or improvement, and feel that there must be policies somewhere within reach that'll get these various betterments underway. But feeling is not enough. Delivery takes hard thinking, and the party seems shy of really muscling out problems, strategies, solutions, implications, etc. Perhaps this kind of thinking doesn't fit with touchy-feely, always-empathetic, non-confrontational personal attitudes.

I think their big problem is that they don't know where to get or how to manage the competent help they so obviously need. If you don't have the personal skills required to get things done then hire someone who does, given them the necessary autonomy and get out of their way. Very telling that Kiwibuild lost two CEOs in the first year.

Many of my school reports read 'could do better'.If only I could have written the type of justification/obfuscation Trotter has here my Christmas holidays would have been much happier. Roll on 2020.


Sympathetic my backside.............. this woman is running the country like a badly run dairy convenience store in South Auckland owned by a benevolent society .

Added to which she has failed to keep a single election promise.......... even Donald Trump has done better than her .

Trump? Sorry boatman your out of order. I'm giving you the SIT DOWN BOOMER card.

Excellent. Especially re neo liberal consensus and lab need to challenge it. Cue splenetic outrage from Tories on here

The real question is..Is the baby healthy ?


and the world thought MAGA was the laughing stock of catch phrases

With so much having been neglected for so long, you'd need to be an octopus with a conjoined twin to have enough arms to get it all done.

Well, one certain Delivery-Accomplished, is the Delivery of a Guns Shopping List to the Dark Web. Perhaps, Maybe, who knows, who to believe?

Because if anybody understands how to make this country’s dilapidated democracy scream like a scalded cat and run straight into traffic – it’s Winston Peters.

What was the budget surplus again? Somewhere between 10 and 20 billion?
Cullen delivered surpluses and by std neoliberal politics that was comforting and good thing. I might have agreed back then. I dont anymore. 10 billion represents 2k for every man woman and child in the country. My naive head spins thinking about how many simple needs could have been met for that amount.
I'm suspicious that the best most effective way to deliver that benefit to those who need it is to simply hand it out. This should be the punishment for the budgetary oversight that a surplus from a low debt government gets rewarded with. It just gets handed out and turned into haircuts holidays and hugs instead of being metered out and siphoned off by overpaid mandarins and their private accomplices.

Days to the General Election: 28
See Party Policies here. Party Lists here.