27 Apr 2017

The Challenger - Jenny Shipley

From The 9th Floor, 10:00 pm on 27 April 2017

In part four of The 9th Floor, Guyon Espiner talks to Dame Jenny Shipley about being the first woman Prime Minister, plus coups and coalitions, welfare reform and Winston Peters. And, above all, her commitment to change.

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. 

Jenny Shipley at her home in Newmarket, 2016

Jenny Shipley at her home in Newmarket, 2016 Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

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.  

New Zealand's first woman Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, in the parliament lobby, December 23 1997

New Zealand's first woman Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, Parliament, December 1997 Photo: Supplied

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?

Moore and 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? 

Jenny Shipley at the helm of Team NZ, with Russell Coutts, February 1994

Jenny Shipley aboard Team NZ, with Russell Coutts, February 1994 Photo: Supplied

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.

Jenny Shipley with her three sisters and mother, the day she was sworn in as New Zealand's first woman Prime Minister.

Jenny Shipley (second from right) sworn in as New Zealand's first woman Prime Minister, with her mother and sisters Photo: Supplied

The 9th Floor has heard from the four former NZ Prime Ministers 1989-1999 - Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Mike Moore, Jim Bolger, and Dame Jenny Shipley. Next week, Helen Clark.

Interviewer - Guyon Espiner

Executive Producer - Tim Watkin

Director/Editor - Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Camera – Diego Opatowski

Camera/Editor - Rebekah Parsons-King

Editor - Damian Golfinopoulos

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