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Chris Trotter questions whether PM Jacinda Ardern is really running the Government or is merely its figurehead

Chris Trotter questions whether PM Jacinda Ardern is really running the Government or is merely its figurehead
Jacinda Ardern by Jacky Carpenter.

By Chris Trotter*

I have given up rating politicians. Put it down to having accumulated too much experience of watching, listening to and, on occasion, even talking to the people who actually practice the dark arts of politics. It requires a special kind of arrogance to judge the practitioners of a craft you have not mastered yourself. A necessary arrogance, in the case of political journalism, since the health of our democracy depends upon politicians being kept under the closest possible scrutiny. But presuming to rank them from the other side of the doors of power? No. I’ve given that up.

Of more use, in any case, are the gleanings of experienced observation. In this regard, journalists and spies have much in common. (As all the best espionage writers long ago recognised.) One of the great merits of building up a detailed picture of any given political environment is that the changing positions, or extended absences, of key players are easily detected. Providing accurate explanations for all these comings and goings is a lot harder, but at least they tell you what you need to find out.

Often, it’s the little things that provide the biggest clues. Recently, it emerged that the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, had been unaware of a significant change in the rules pertaining to KiwiBuild. Instead of being barred from realising any capital gain from the early sale of a KiwiBuild property, the rules were changed to allow early sellers to keep 30% of the property’s increased value. The decision had been made by three senior ministers in the Coalition Government: the Minister of Finance, Grant Robertson; the Minister of Housing, Phil Twyford; and the Minister for Economic Development, Shane Jones. The PM only heard about it on the news.

Could such a thing have happened when Helen Clark was Prime Minister? Only over her Chief of Staff, Heather Simpson’s, dead body. The very idea of Helen Clark hearing about a small but significant policy change in a news bulletin is, quite simply, preposterous. Those responsible would have been lucky to keep their warrants. Prime ministers worthy of the name are copied into every decision because, as President Harry Truman so pithily pointed out, the buck stops on their desk.

What a mere observer cannot know is whether or not the PM cared about not being copied-into Twyford’s, Robertson’s and Jones’ decision. I hope she did care. I hope she summoned all three into her office and tore big bloody strips off them. I hope she warned them that if she was ever again forced to learn about her government’s policy shifts from Newshub, then those responsible would be sacked on the spot. I also hope she summoned her Chief of Staff, Mike Munro, and demanded to know why he hadn’t seen fit to warn her that Twyford, Robertson and Jones were changing government policy without bothering to keep her informed. “No surprises” is, after all, a pretty important part of a Chief of Staff’s job-description!

The possibility remains, however, that the PM didn’t care. That allowing her leading Cabinet Ministers to simply get on with the job is a central feature of her management style. I hope  not. It would suggest that Ardern has chosen the role of figurehead rather than leader. That her job is to supply the warm and sympathetic face of the Coalition Government while the heavy-hitters of her Cabinet: Winston Peters, Grant Robertson, David Parker, Phil Twyford, Meagan Woods and Shane Jones carry out the day-to-day business of governing the country.

Such an arrangement is not without precedent in New Zealand’s political history – which is not to say that all of those precedents are happy ones. The most recent example, that of David Lange and his team of free-market reformers, is hardly propitious. Yes, for a while everything went well. David Lange was a consummate performer and a superb orator: capable of lifting New Zealanders up where they belonged on warm updrafts of hope and aspiration. But then, as the policies unleashed by Roger Douglas, Richard Prebble and Michael Bassett began to take their toll, Lange tired of the role of ventriloquist’s dummy. The story of the Fourth Labour Government, as we all know, does not have a happy ending.

Is history repeating itself? Is Jacinda still playing second-fiddle to the other half of the “Gracinda” double-act that ran for the Labour leadership against Andrew Little in 2014? Has the order of that pairing – Grant + Jacinda – been inverted, or is the fate of Ardern’s government, like that of Lange’s, actually in the hands of her Finance Minister?

In one respect, at least, there is a very substantial difference between the governments of Lange and Ardern. In the case of the former, the shape and direction of economic reform (thoughtfully prepared by Treasury in advance) was condensed into a single, revolutionary manifesto – “Economic Management”. In the latter case, the task of mapping the progress of  government reforms has been farmed-out to a multitude of working-groups. Their combined reports will, presumably, constitute the Labour Party’s 2020 manifesto.

Is this the explanation for Ardern’s willingness to content herself with the role of Coalition figurehead? Because she knows that her key political strength has always been to present the ideas of others in a lively and compelling fashion? How to identify the emotional potential within any given set of policies and communicate it directly to the voters? Her skill in delivering the party’s messages is very different from the old-fashioned oratorical skill of Lange. His was a twentieth century talent, hers belong to the twenty-first.

Being briefed is not, however, the same as being convinced. The greatest risk confronting Ardern is that the jumble of working-group reports and Treasury innovations will fail to cohere in a way that permits the government’s spokesperson to “sell” them to the electorate. The astonishing quality of Ardern’s presentational skills allowed her to rescue Labour in 2017 without having to do much more than offer a youthful and empathetic contrast to her dour and unconvincing predecessors.

In two years’ time, however, Ardern will not only have a programme to present, but a record to defend. If her government’s past and future actions are not able to be presented as part of the same story, then she will be in trouble. In politics, reading from a prepared script works best when the person doing the reading also did the writing.

*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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But, but, but, this is the Peters/Ardern government after all. It is President Peters who decides what may or may not be done, who is in and who is out.

Roger, reading CT's article carefully, I find myself thinking 'he's turned Conservative'. He certainly ain't swallowing the stardust - could it be that he's becoming less of an ideologue, and more of a pragmatist?

Or old and grumpy

I was a somewhat surprised myself, not at all what I was expecting. I almost avoided the article in case I got over excited.

It's been long time now since Chris Trotter has been a reliable lefty. He says it as he sees it. Usually I disagree with him still, but his view is always worth the read. A commentator of the type we need more of.

Someone who picks up the phone and encourages AirNZ and Engineers Union to sort there @%%# out does not strike me as someone who is happy playing figurehead.


maybe the government having a 51% stake in Air NZ had something to do with it eh?

I suspect it was Angry Andy who called in a Union favour.

Andy angy? It's more like angry antis these days

From the outside looking in it appears to me to be the case. In the election labour changed from Andrew Little to Jacinda with no policy changes (that I noticed), it was only her personality and due to that it makes me think that the labour machine has a strongly set party agenda and the leader is an interchangeable figure head.


Ardern is only there by the grace and favour of Peters.

What Peters wants happens, because Ardern knows that he could sink the ship at any moment.

Ardern herself comes across quite well, but the truth is that she has no real substance and she is leading a poor quality, disorganised team. Even Ardern fan girl, Tracy Watkins, acknowledges that the Labour front bench is pretty useless.

What could Winston do? And for what benefit?

You really think he wants to work with the National party instead? Sieves leak less.


Figurehead, anyone who has to keep forming a working group to get advice from before doing anything fits the profile. The group is then a great cover if and when things go wrong, you get to cover your own ass. Weak leadership with no real world experience.

How do you get real world experience? Trading Desks and hobnobbing on golf courses?

Surely you're aware that the number of working groups formed by the incoming government this time around was about the same as the previous incoming government? How are people so unaware of this stuff? Does Leighton Smith not mention it?


Look where she choose to spend her time; schools and Fashion Mag photoshoots. Looks like a figurehead to me, a Show Pony at best.


At least she is not pulling pony tails, as another show pony was wont to do from time to time.


so that counts as achievement now ? - in the absence of anything else I guess.

hardly unique...just following the lead of the last buffoon.....


JK got dressed up for a photo shoot to promote a New Zealand event.

JA gets dressed up for photo shoots to promote herself.


JK promoted himself. Gave himself a knighthood, encouraged NZers int housing debt servitude, cashed out and joined a bank. Followed the short term strategy of making the figures look good while disguising the real cost.
His legacy? Bought back knighthoods for himself and Bill. Self serving all the way.

And bailed out before the sale of his house to a foreigner for balmy money became public knowledge

@ Rastus and PocketAces

I see KDS is alive and kicking.

If JK had wanted to enrich and aggrandise himself, he would hardly have come back to NZ.

He could have stayed in the UK, made pots more money than he could dream about making in NZ, and he could have got himself into the House of Lords.

Two different things, he wanted to check PM and a knighthood off his bucket list, he could afford it, he was however, not averse to an extra $20mill once he had those things ticked off. NZ was an easy "get" as far as aggrandisement went, and if you look back to his words about housing prior to 2008 election you quickly realise he certainly was not in it for the people of this country.

Man, that's just silly.

He came back to NZ pretty as much no one. That's why he was only #42 on the Nats list in '02-'05.

And getting a peerage in the UK is way higher honour than a knighthood in NZ.

As for the extra $20mill, he could have made several times that by not coming back to NZ.

So what the hell was he here for, as he did nothing? It was a vanity project. I don't really care how much that ruffles your feathers, he did nothing. He called out lack of housing affordability and did nothing, he made commitments to the Pike River families and did nothing, he said we should not become tenants in our own land and did barely anything at all (bright line test), he was no great shakes, lived up only to his moniker he had in investment banking "the smiling assassin". If that is your sort of hero, so be it, I guess.

Indeed, he was very open about the fact it was a long-held ambition of his to be PM. I suspect that's why his commitment to address problems seemed to evaporate once in the job. He enjoyed being PM, it's what he wanted to be, and once he got there he enjoyed being there for a while.

Agree wholeheartedly. Lightweight. Never run anything in her life! Personally I'm sorry David Shearer didn't stick around.

Sorry Bob but that would have been even worse. Think Kiwi Power, KiwiBuild, Kwi Nanny State


I'm actually kind of fed up with Chris Trotter.
Ardern has some hard working people behind her, maybe she does not need to be constantly whipping them into shape. Yes, she has had her problems, but who hasn't, it seems?
Use the holidays to get over your disappointment that Peters went with Labour, it's done, they are the coalition. National have no answers at the moment, they are, as many have pointed out, just barking at cars.
There is leading then there is "leading".


You misunderstand the difference between hard working and actually getting something useful done, if you can point to anything that the coalition of losers & liars has done that benefits the majority of Kiwis as opposed to giving tax payer's hard earned cash to those who do nothing constructive please reply on a post it note.

I could ask the same of you of the National govt quite honestly. At least this govt is trying to put to rights stuff that has been ignored for years, which is a whole lot more than I can say about the other lot.

They banned overseas purchase of existing houses, when National said it was impossible.

The change in Kiwibuild policy was more significant than you state - the lucky lottery winners only need to repay 30% of the capital gain I think - not keep 30%. So they keep 70%.

As you say its staggering Ardern wasn't aware of this - and does suggest a complete sidelining of her.

If kiwibuild works, there won't be much capital gain anyway. I guess they are planning for kiwibuild to work, so it is not a big issue who keeps the gains?


What did everyone think was going to happen once she'd popped out her sprog? She's busy being Mummy, not running the country. Not that it really matters, she was only ever appointed leader to be a pretty face and appeal to the younger voters who wanted someone more "modern". Remember that interview she did a couple of years ago when she said she didnt want to be Prime Minister because she'd rather have a baby? And you all thought she'd changed her mind. More fool you.


"a Front?" Jacinda who? (Ill get crucified for stating this but it is my honest opinion)

I cant help but think that this rabble is fronted by Winston, with Clark and Cullen pulling the strings. For the most part Jacinda appears M.I.A.

I have yet to be convinced, although would be happy to admit my error if say in a years time, she has upped her game and has been able to maintain her status in the preferred pm popularity stakes

No she is not running the government. In modern times the last PM, and probably the only one who ever tried in fact, to run the country on his own was Muldoon. Clark no doubt considered that she should, and that would be best for everybody, but she didn’t really take it over the line. Speaking of which agree it is not difficult to conclude that the Clark Cullen duet is the puppeteers for this lot. The 2009 election loss left much undone, which is now coming off the shelf. Taxation for a start.

Perhaps with her UN connections she could sell the fighter planes she mothballed?


The problem with Labour leaders is that they don't understand macroeconomics so they lack a compass when making decisions and either do not much or get bamboozled by radicals like Douglas. They don't have a clear view about how an economy is best run to deliver the social outcomes they want. I'm not saying you need economists in charge. But I am saying that you need a clear theory of what a government's role is in the economy and then act on it. I disagree with Key and English's conclusions, but they had a clear understanding of what a state's role should be. NZ Labour hasn't. NZ Labour's is sort of "Not National" - but then what?? But then Labour has been lacking a coherent political philosophy in my living memory.

To all those who think this government is some kind of spendthrift however, Michael Redell points out that he is very surprised just how low as a % of gdp this government's spending plans are compared to the last 4 governments since the 1990s. The holy grail of paying down debt has trumped spending on revitalising an ailing nation. Small staters among you should be very happy and voting Labour. That's what I mean by Labour lacking in any conviction - it is quite happy being austere even though it supposedly wants to help the poorest/ use the power of the state to improve public services. It's a fundamentally contradictory position and it should create a lot of dissonance, but apparently not.

I quote Redell
"They could spend $5 billion more in 2022/23 and still only have spending as a share of GDP at around the average level of the previous Labour-led government. Given the low quality of many of the things they are already spending on (fee-free tertiary education, regardless of means or ability, or the Provincial Growth Fund, to take just two examples), I’m reluctant to encourage them. But it still looks odd. "

Nice to see the COSL out in force today...I suppose with Leighton off air gives them more time to cry on this site. Fancy a prime minister having a baby...just not cricket!


Absolutely in front and absolutely not in charge. Second opinion?

Would a figurehead decide to have a baby instead of being PM? No way, she is a courageous young woman leading with her heart! Everyone who voted for her did so because of her years of experience, steadfast beliefs and single minded determination. When she says child poverty is proof capitalism has failed, and that she will eradicate it, I believe her. #Letsdoit

This is drier than the Atacama haha

Child poverty is proof that paying beneficiaries to have more children is a stupid idea. So Jacinda goes and pays them even more money to have more babies! I guess Jacinda is just shoring up the next generation of Labour voters, while the taxpayers get stung supporting all these freeloaders. Its the same reason Labour want to let all the prisoners out of jail - so they can vote.

When the true extent of the huge financial long term implications of her single minded " Captain's call " ban on oil & gas exploration become apparent - she may be seen in a different light.

Re-opened the new smelter line recently at Tiwai - a large new point source of unavoidable CO2 emissions.
Either totally cynical, totally dumb or both.

Our nuclear moment - Didn't stop her from smiling in front of the cameras as the large new emitter was switched on !

Climate change impacts (losses) on the economy will trump any perceived short term gain from oil and gas, especially as it was in decline anyway. Meanwhile lots of other places are getting of fossil fuels as renewables are now as cheap, or cheaper.

Tiwai, by the same token then we are a country of 4.5million but produce food for 20million, are you saying stop feeding 15million ppl?
PS Tiwai, is unless Ive missed something is 100% hydro powered.

Smelter emissions come from the carbon anodes consumed in the reduction process.

Perhaps government-by-single-individual is less than ideal anyway.

If Jacinda the CoL had half a brain it would be a fine thing. Truth is, they only know how to spend it, they haven't got a clue how to make it. And as for child poverty, well, we are world famous for that. This country has created a place where today, almost half the kids are brought up in 'relative' poverty. What created it exactly? The rorting of the welfare system by a people who couldn't believe their luck, once they'd finally figured it out in the late 1960's. That took their population from 40 something thousand at the turn of the 20th Century to more than half a million, in less than 100 years, with 75% of that done in the final 30 years.
Look at child pregnancies today and they still dominate the statistics from their 1 in 6 of the total population base. These poor unfortunate people that our Jacinda is so concerned about, are multiplying like rabbits. Open your eyes my love.

And what did the Labour Govt do as soon as they got into power? Increased the amount they pay welfare beneficiaries to have more children. I expect a baby boom.

When the economy is running strongly and NZ faces few threats to its wellbeing, it's not surprising impressionable Kiwis continue to feel ' lifted up ....... on warm updrafts of hope and aspiration' (to quote Trotter) as Ardern issues her latest set of state the obvious facile observations. It's been a media facilitated soft ride for her so far and she remains completely untested despite Peters teetering on oblivion and the Greens struggling for traction. She will eventually be exposed to the blowtorch of a genuine crisis and the korowai wearing new mummy facade will not cut the mustard.

a) Its a Govn and not a person and b) under John Key's leadership National's response to the 2008/9 event was to run the country into the ground, knowingly.

I cant see how she can do worse myself.

John Key was only head of FX at ML London he would never have made $20 mil in that time. He knew exactly what he was doing with the housing market and cashed out on his personal residence and various other properties as owned by company partnerships with a well known Auckland Architect and developer. Then as rightly pointed out gave himself a knighthood and a couple of board jobs. Too easy.

His biggest regret was not changing the flag. Out of all the things to be regretful of as a Prime Minister. Out of all the things the National Government could have done better on, regardless of whether the challenging landscape (GFC/CHCH EQ) made it impossible to achieve those things.

These types of leaders are globalists with minimal loyalty to their own country. E.g. Macron
Hence the flag change attempt by JK.

Please don't comment on the flag change without adding it was a part of the labour election manifesto - often overlooked.

Maybe Key was just trying to do something that we all agreed on should be tested.

We DID need to change the flag , and it was first raised by Helen Clark in the mid 2000's if I recall correctly .

People who disliked John Key then decided to vote against it .

Idiots .

So we didn't change the flag, and now 10 years later with the same flag the world hasn't ended.... Guess we didn't need to change the flag after all.

No, people who saw it was a hideous option voted against it. It was an abomination - black and blue (yuk) and way too busy for goodness sake.
Take a look at a couple of outstanding designs, my absolute favourite the Australian Aboriginal flag, and our own Tino Rangatiratanga flag. Other noteworthy ones, Japan's and Canada, although Canada only just misses qualifying as a logo, but it is simple so they get away with it.

China was disappointed that the Union Jack has stayed on the NZ flag - with the 3 crosses and all that they represent for NZ and it’s historical lines.

The commentary above provides an entertaining cross section of polarised views with only a couple I feel coming close to what I suggest is the truth. The article suggests to me that Chris Trotter is stuck in First Past the Post expectations. Comparing JA with HC, I feel is highly unfair. HC was an appalling example of a Prime Minister, comparing only with Muldoon. I found her to be self-serving, dishonest, self aggrandising, autocratic and dictatorial. she certainly did not serve the people well. I suggest she and Michael Cullen bullied their coalition partners into line from a basis of power, knowing that they were essentially secure where they sat. Today JA does not have that luxury. As a Leader she must first of all gain consensus. The balance of power in the coalition Government does not allow her to dictate, and with out a real ability to lead such a disparate group, she would be anything but secure, and under these same circumstances HC would probably fail dismally.

Yes some details may slip past her on occasion, but the real question is is it significant? In this case probably not, but to me there is some worthy debate to be had on that policy. Government is so large that no one person can keep track of all the important details, and yes that is why the ministers have staff, to keep track of those things. But they still may miss out. It really depends on many things.

Leadership is more than just dictating and getting your way. Leadership is about bringing a disparate group together in a common cause and having them work together successfully. Where there is a clear balance of power, that will mean allowing those other groups have their say and influence. From my perspective JA seems to be doing that very well, indeed better than most.

It's been obvious from the start that she was only really interested in being a Celebrity. In fairness she's quite good at that, but the hard work of taking actual responsibility, thinking in depth, gaining a real understanding of real issues beyond the soundbites, making and owning decisions that will hurt because they must - yeah, nah. Baby costumes.

Hilarious. This is a regular old Deacon-McAllister-from-Torbay-long-time-listener-first-time-caller stereotypical talkback radio thread in here.

Rather entertaining to read the partisan comments above. And yes, I'm laughing at both sides. It is amusing as to how both the CoL and CosL supporters can be so partisan. There are some entertaining facts to discuss... it seems that ignoring the rational discussion and instead going for the low road with various attack posts is de rigueur for both party supporters. I'd be happy to see the low-brow political discussion diminish, and the economic discussion increase as it seems that virtually noone has ever changed their viewpoint due to the content of an online post... I'd say "nobody" but there must be at least one exception to the prevailing rule.

The most entertaining part is that I'm dissing both sides, so I'll get negative comments from all... such is life! :) Time to don my flamesuit.

You be gettin' all hot and sweaty in that thing by now?


You’re quite right,but life is so much easier for those who never look beyond one side of any topic. Their world is comfortingly black and white. Their worldview is reinforced by the bubble in which they live and rational argument means nothing to them
I have spent a lot of time in recent years on the work of psychologists like Kahneman and Tversky and have come to realise just how powerful confirmation bias is,

Our Government is a joke ........... and an expensive one at that .

The clowns have now taken over the circus