7 Apr 2023

The Week in Politics: Former prime ministers rate Jacinda Ardern as she exits

4:10 pm on 7 April 2023
Former Prime Ministers Jacinda Ardern, John Key, Helen Clark, Jim Bolger

Former prime ministers Jacinda Ardern, John Key, Helen Clark, Jim Bolger Photo: RNZ

Jacinda Ardern's five years as prime minister were marked by extraordinary challenges and she'll be remembered for the way she handled them, from the pandemic to the Christchurch massacre.

Her valedictory on Wednesday was her last speech to parliament, fully covered in RNZ's report, and her last words were about what she hoped she had demonstrated: "That you can be anxious, sensitive, kind and wear your heart on your sleeve… and not only can you be here - you can lead."

How do her predecessors see her term in office, and what will she be most remembered for? Here are the opinions of four of them.

Helen Clark told Morning Report Ardern would be largely remembered as the prime minister whose pandemic-era policies saved thousands of lives.

"I think that while I'm happy for Jacinda that she's going to get a life and design what she wants to do and when she wants to do it, you can't help feeling sad about her going," Clark said.

"Leaders like Jacinda don't come along too often and we've lost one."

Ardern did not mention the online vitriol and hatred she endured while she was prime minister, but Clark said she "fundamentally" believed it got to her. "It played out on parliament's front lawn and it still plays out and it's very, very vitriolic and divisive … it was horrible."

Stuff reported in January that University of Auckland researchers analysed the darkest corners of the internet for posts mentioning Ardern and six unnamed politicians and bureaucrats from 2019 to 2022.

Ardern was the target of 93 percent of toxic posts and the total number of abusive messages was 5438.

"The only conclusion you can draw is that it was just ongoing, incessant vitriol focussed on the PM, over a long period, that never went away," said senior lecturer in politics Chris Wilson.

The Herald's Audrey Young asked three other former prime ministers for their thoughts on Ardern's term.

Sir John Key said her response to the Christchurch massacre was "exemplary and faultless" and undoubtedly gave her an unparalleled profile.

"I think Jacinda has the highest and most stellar profile on the international stage of any prime minister in New Zealand's history and her legacy forever, I think, will be the establishment of that profile," he said.

The other factor that Key thought set her apart was winning the 2020 election outright, "which most people thought was an impossible feat".

That's where his compliments on her achievements stopped.

Key said Ardern had fallen short on her domestic political agenda.

"The reality is that most of the high-profile initiatives she had either went backwards or Chris Hipkins has essentially ripped them up," Key said.

He added that he personally liked Ardern. "I think she is a nice person. She did her best and I think every prime minister goes there to make New Zealand a better country and the conditions for anyone are never easy, and hers were particularly challenging."

Sir Geoffrey Palmer said that in his opinion Ardern was one of the most outstanding prime ministers New Zealand had ever had.

"I think her performance will be judged very favourably by history," he said.

"She was, I think, the best communicator I've ever heard in politics. She was also very empathetic. She brought a style of political management that we haven't seen before and I think it was a wonderful tonic to a tired political system that is not performing very well."

Palmer said Ardern put New Zealand on the map like no prime minister he could remember.

He thought her prime ministership was "knocked off course". It had a big set of policy priorities which weren't able to be carried out "because one thing the public doesn't understand is the government can't do everything at once".

He said politics was the art of the possible "and you couldn't have done more than she did to try and get on top of the pandemic".

All the systems of government had to be concentrated on it, to the exclusion of almost everything else, he said.

"I don't think many prime ministers have had to deal with the number of crises that she had to deal with."

Jim Bolger said Ardern's record in government had been shambolic.

"It is not the opposition that has absolutely taken the knife to her policies, it's her successor," he said.

Bolger criticised the political management of reforms the government started in centralising the health system and the polytechnics and overhauling the Resource Management Act, and the Three Waters reforms.

"All disasters. It has just been a shambles. It's sad but true."

Like Key, Bolger praised Ardern for her response to the Christchurch shootings, saying her empathy and outreach to the Muslim community had been "100 percent".

But he was critical of her impact on race relations.

"If you look at the broader issue of race relations, and primarily because of how she mishandled the introduction of co-governance, she has left New Zealand's race relations in a much worse position," he said.

"Her policy failure, her inability to explain what she meant with co-governance, has meant we are going to be more divided on race than we have been for years and years and years."

After the drama of Stuart Nash's sacking last week, Prime Minister Chris Hipkins had a relatively quiet week.

He started it by announcing the rules around lobbyists were going to be tightened, and it's hardly a coincidence that heightened concerns about that profession followed Guyon Espiner's series broadcast by RNZ.

Espiner took the lid off it, revealing among many other things that organisations such as Pharmac were using taxpayer dollars to hire lobbyists for advice on how to avoid media questions.

Hipkins probably regretted his first foray into this issue when he said that essentially lobbyists did not have better access to ministers than members of the public.

He had to walk that back a bit during the week, explaining when he announced swipe card access to parliament for lobbyists was being withdrawn that it was creating the "perception" that they had better access.

The Listener's political writer Danyl McLauchlan pointed out that the bulk of communications Espiner obtained were between lobbyists and ministerial advisers.

"These are staff appointed by ministers and they're extremely influential," he said.

"If you wanted to get draft legislation modified quickly and quietly, they're the people you'd speak to. If you could.

"The general public has no access to them."

For much more on this, and the other measures Hipkins announced, read Bryce Edwards' analysis on RNZ's website titled 'Victory for transparency in lobbying reforms'.

The only development in the Nash saga was his announcement that he was quitting politics at the election, and National continuing to wonder why he was still a member of caucus after his misdeeds.

Nash said his decision not to seek re-election came after a long family conversation and an eye to the future, RNZ reported.

He would not have seen much of a future in parliament. When he was sacked from the cabinet, Hipkins said there was no way back.

There was ongoing scepticism during the week about the reasons for senior staff in the prime minister's office failing to tell Ardern, prime minister at the time, or her chief of staff, about the email that caused all the grief for Nash.

Hipkins said the failure to recognise a blatant breach of the cabinet manual was a case of someone making a mistake - "I don't think there was any ill intent there".

National did not accept that and Stuff's Andrea Vance questioned it.

"If we trust Hipkins' explanation, then we must accept that there are shocking levels of incompetency in the highest political office in the land," she said.

"The simpler explanation is the more obvious: they thought they could get away with it.

"This was an administration obsessed with keeping an iron grip on the control of information, despite farting out promises to be the most honest and transparent in history."

Another cabinet minister in trouble this week was Kiri Allan.

The justice minister made a public apology after criticising Radio New Zealand's culture and treatment of Māori staff during a farewell event for her fiancée, Mani Dunlop.

Speaking at Dunlop's farewell in RNZ's boardroom, Allan referred to its treatment of Māori reporters and urged RNZ to have a look at its culture.

Dunlop left after missing out on a position as a presenter on the flagship news programme Morning Report.

In her apology, Allan said she accepted her remarks could have been interpreted as her telling RNZ how to manage its staff. "That was certainly not my intent and it is certainly not my job."

The prime minister's office issued a statement saying Chris Hipkins had accepted the apology. "In this instance it would have been better if Kiri, given her ministerial position, had chosen not to take the opportunity to speak," the statement said.

Former party leader and now political commentator Peter Dunne told Newshub's AM Show the way Hipkins handled the situation made him look weak.

He described the cabinet manual breaches by Nash and Allan as "bizarre" and thought Hipkins had been inconsistent.

"I think he should have done much more than simply just offer a mild rebuke. I think this brings into focus a bigger question about what sort of credibility or adherence this current cabinet is giving to the provisions of the cabinet manual about conflicts of interest," Dunne said.

* Peter Wilson is a life member of parliament's press gallery, spent 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

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