Ten Prime Ministers

Colin James’s chapter for Political Science edition on leadership, December 2004

Prime Ministers make a difference. Much of the success or failure of a prime ministership is determined by factors outside the Prime Minster’s control: movements in the economy, social change, external shocks, the condition of the party or government they inherited, the makeup of Parliament. But the personality, psyche and preferences each brings to the role determines whether he or she makes the best or not of those factors.

There are different measures of success. Winning elections is an obvious measure but less important in the long run than achievement as a national manager, inspirer or strategist. This is an impressionistic scan, as requested by the editor, of 10 Prime Ministers I have watched from the parliamentary press gallery.

Two of those 10 were on either side of a dislocation of this country’s evolution in 1984. Sir Robert Muldoon presided over the last years of the post-1935 social and political settlement. David Lange chaired the cabinet which up-ended that settlement and swept away the last vestiges of the colonial mentality.

Sir Robert was a child in the 1930s Depression and a young adult in the second world war. Growing up amid insecurity, he valued security, as did the great majority of his generation, and geared his prime ministership to security: economic security– jobs and businesses guaranteed by the state against international economic forces; cultural security — preservation of the social order from radicals or noisy minorities, including ethnic groups, feminists, gays and liberals of nearly every sort; security of minimal change; and the security of power — as an undersized boy he learned to counterpunch and as a politician, while ultimately respecting a majority vote against him, he fought harder, more tenaciously and, if he thought necessary, more viciously and underhandedly than anyone else. He rejected strategy in favour of management, inspiration in favour of fear.

In the end, Sir Robert immured himself in his own construct. The one-third plunge in the terms of trade between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s called for a large economic policy adjustment but Sir Robert tried to insulate the country and sank the economy under massive deficits on the Budget and current account. Maori — radicals noisily and elders quietly — were reclaiming indigenous status but Sir Robert persisted with the paternalism of an earlier monocultural era. A new generation of non-Maori was groping for and beginning to express in the arts a post-colonial New Zealandness beyond the colonial bloke and social laboratory myths and sporting prowess but Sir Robert clung to the remnants of empire and elevated the “ordinary bloke” into a semi-mystical figure at the heart of the nation’s identity, even as the bloke was struggling for air under the feminist assault of the 1960s and 1970s. Obsessed with his four securities, Sir Robert left the nation and even his special constituencies less secure than he found them.

Sir Robert was known at the time as a “strong” leader. This was because he could usually get his way, by skilful or assertive use or misuse of information or by asserting a superior understanding of the electorate and/or his party or by ruthless intimidation of those who got in his way. He demonised opponents as enemies of the ordinary bloke. But over time the number of such enemies grew until it became the majority. A truly strong leader builds and conserves; Sir Robert instead damaged many in society and society itself. His ouster in 1984 came as a relief to large numbers.

Sir Robert failed in his aim was to leave the country no worse off than he found it because he tried to manage conservatively in turbulent economic, social and cultural times. Even his ill-fated attempt late in his prime ministership to “think big” by backing with government money several financially disastrous major industrial projects was in essence a defensive manoeuvre to shore up a disappearing prosperity. “It is a difficult time to be in government,” he said often. It was. But he made it more difficult by clinging to the past instead of reaching for the future. He was stranded on the wrong side of a cultural divide at a turning point in the life of the nation.

His successor, David Lange, was on the emergent side of the cultural divide as a member of a new generation of independent New Zealanders. But Lange did not become leader of the Labour party through a long and tempering apprenticeship, as Sir Robert did. Instead, thrice-defeated Labour MPs, and particularly a group of younger or newer MPs, drafted Lange as a larger-than-life figure to finesse Sir Robert. Lange projected warmth and compassion with fluency and wit: his press conferences were the best show in town. At his best he could inspire. He could not manage and had no sense of strategy or even tactics.

Lange floated above politics rather than swimming in politics. He was at home in rhetoric but not in policy detail. He declaimed but could not assemble coalitions of support in the cabinet or the party. He was, in fact, ideally suited to be the figurehead for a radical cabinet — in flashes he did speak for the nation. But when he became disillusioned with the motives of his economic ministers and with the social disruption their initiatives were causing, he proved powerless and his resignation after five years at the top in 1989 was a defeat. The real leader, in the sense of engineering sweeping change and driving the cabinet agenda, was Sir Roger Douglas. The manager was his deputy, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, who succeeded him.

Sir Geoffrey forms a pair with Sir John Marshall: both very able and effective deputies, both made Prime Minister when the government was doomed. Both were intellectually able, masters of detail, able to handle very heavy workloads across a range of portfolios. Marshall was proper and courteous but flashed cold steel when the occasion demanded. Sir Geoffrey was often volatile behind the scenes; he did not instil fear and could be bullied. In benign circumstances they might have been competent though not commanding managers of the nation’s business; neither could inspire and neither succeeded in developing a convincing strategy before they lost office. Marshall was constantly harried by Sir Robert on the rise; Sir Geoffrey was confronted by a party in shock and rebellion at the revolution the cabinet had wrought. Helen Clark, his deputy, feared he would crack up in the 1990 election campaign and shouldered him aside seven weeks out from the election in favour of Mike Moore.

Moore had a powerful political virtue Sir Geoffrey and Sir John totally lacked: he could summon metaphors and phrasing that connected with ordinary folk; he verged on the charismatic and even inspirational. In smooth times he might have become a well-liked Prime Minister. Instead he could not win credibility from either the party or the electorate because of what he had stood for in the cabinet as one of the radical inner five. He was the leftwinger of the 1970s turned rightwinger of the 1980s. That was too great a hurdle to overcome and his penchant for grabbing at new ideas of widely varying quality and substance and propounding them to sometimes startled and perplexed audiences made matters worse. He often sounded as if he had a long-range strategy but it was more a loose collection of ideas.

Moore and Lange both evoked in (different) flashes the giant of post-1949 Labour, Norman Kirk, Moore with his common touch and working class background and Lange with his commanding presence in debate. But neither captured Kirk’s singular achievement among the 10 Prime Ministers under discussion: his encapsulation of an emerging nationhood, epitomised in a photograph of him unselfconsciously holding the hand of a young Maori boy at Waitangi commemorations in 1974. Kirk’s version of nationhood was in retrospect already under siege from the rising generation but 30 years ago it was a breeze of change from the post-imperial obsequiousness of the nondescript regime he followed and which Sir Robert Muldoon reinstated in 1975.

In another age, Kirk’s qualities of intelligence, simplicity of expression, instinctive sense of the right gesture and oratorical power might have made him the sort of Prime Minister who inspires, uplifts and unites –a nation-builder. But he reached the top at the apogee of the social democratic era when international economic forces were about to falsify the whiggish optimism of the classic welfare state and late Keynesian economic practices: he ruled with his party’s ambitious social manifesto at hand and insisted it be carried out to the letter. His social and economic values echoed those of the 1940s instead of anticipating those of the 1980s. And he was undone also by a paranoia that led him to mistrust and undermine colleagues, coupled with what some of those colleagues were convinced was a death wish: he ate and drank in ways that his enlarged heart could not accommodate and he died young after only 20 months in office.

His early death spared him being called to account for his profligate spending when the economy soured after the 1973 oil shock. Nor was he put to the daily grind of managing a cabinet through thick and thin and weathering the intermittent shocks that test the most competent Prime Ministers. He remains a tantalising trace in the sky, not a fixture in the firmament.

Jim Bolger was Kirk’s opposite: an iron constitution, prosaic, unimaginative, a sort of executive chairman of the cabinet who was smarter than he sounded and, senior public servants often pointed out in private, adept at distilling the essence of complex discussions and pointing ministers towards a resolution. But he allowed himself to be dominated by fiscal imperatives and by the determination of his Finance Minister, Ruth Richardson, to carry to fruition Sir Roger Douglas’s reforms. The country wanted a rest from revolution. Bolger promised that in 1990 but delivered Richardson and the electorate never forgave him.

A critical test of a political leader is to represent his party and its many parts, its traditions, obsessions and aspirations — and its potential to evolve and develop.

Kirk, though reviled by some in the Labour party, passed that test. Lange, chairing a cabinet which abolished the guaranteed job, failed the test spectacularly. Party members melted away, leaving not much more than a shell; the party council was at most a loyal opposition to the cabinet; a segment of the membership formed a new left party under former president Jim Anderton; other members and MPs eventually formed a new free-market party; still others ended up in a centre party under Peter Dunne. This diaspora is still visible in Parliament in 2004. Labour, damaged, dislocated and demoralised, didn’t recover until 1998.

National fared even worse. Sir Robert, worshipping the “ordinary bloke”, plunged the liberal-conservative National party he inherited into an illiberal populism that disdained the party’s conservative establishment, attracted in a different sort of member and promoted policies many in the party — and especially younger MPs who tuned into the worldwide trend to market economics from 1979 — considered “socialist”. Sir Robert left his party divided, depleted, dispirited and disoriented, especially when the Lange government began deregulating the economy. Bolger promised a return to tradition but twice turned in another direction, first in giving rein to Richardson’s radicalism (the antithesis of the mildly reforming liberal-conservative tradition of the party) and then in 1996 tacking on a populist coalition partner, Winston Peters’ New Zealand First party. National was still struggling to find its feet when Jenny Shipley took over in late 1997.

Shipley was a capable line manager in most portfolios she handled (the exception being transport in 1997). She mastered briefs well, was decisive and won the battles she chose to fight in the cabinet. Even officials in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs spoke well of her, though she was no 1990s feminist. But Shipley could not step up from line manager to chief executive operating across all portfolios. Moreover, she invoked overtones of Richardsonian radicalism to define her government. She should be excused her failure to overcome National’s unpopularity acquired over the preceding seven years — the country’s first woman Prime Minister was given her opportunity only when failure was a near certainty. But even allowing for that, she lacked the intellect and breadth to be a successful modern Prime Minister and failed to pull the party together and reconnect it with its core vote. (That had to await Don Brash in 2004.)

Helen Clark has demonstrated both intellect and breadth and married them to management skill. She also has had luck. The economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, plus historically high export prices, delivered her an export boom, full coffers and relatively flush voters. By contrast, Sir Robert Muldoon and Jenny Shipley governed at times of falling export prices and other exogenous economic dampeners (an oil shock in 1979 for Sir Robert and the Asian crisis and two droughts for Shipley). In better times both would likely have been judged more indulgently by the electorate.

But one mark of leadership is what a leader makes of luck, good or bad. Clark has made the most of her good luck. And it was not luck that she got to enjoy good luck as Prime Minister. She had to earn her leadership of the party, even after she was in the post. For three years she was actively subverted by those loyal to Moore and in mid-1996 serious coup talk was in the air. That she survived that trial and polls so low that she was widely thought unelectable and Labour’s decline into a minor party was forecast by some, including some of her MPs, attests an inner steel. But she had by 1996 laid the ground for her emergence in 1999 as a credible alternative Prime Minister by edging the party away from the deregulatory policy line of the 1980s and at the 1997 party conference there was a noticeable influx of new members at delegate level. Her “coalition-in-waiting” with Anderton’s Alliance in 1998 reached across the divide his departure from Labour in 1989 opened up. Her promise of a “correction” but not reversal of the 1980s-90s reforms helped reassure core Labour voters. This path to recovery was not so much a strategy as instinct and ideological preference but she proved adept at building on each gain.

In office Clark has proved brittle when her integrity is questioned, brusque with persistent questioners on embarrassing topics and hard on insiders she suspects of leaking to the media. She is sometimes evasive and unable to admit error or wrongdoing. She micro-managed her ministers so tightly in the first 18 months in office that the Beehive was nicknamed Helengrad. She failed to read warning signs that she was testing mainstream voters’ patience with moral reform and concessions to Maori. She has made some serious personal errors, including offending United States President George Bush by saying that if Al Gore had won the 2000 election the United States would not have invaded Iraq. And, while she has made the arts and “national identity” elements of her prime ministership, she has not been able to emulate Kirk as an inspirational nation-builder. She is a manager, not a visionary.

As a manager, however, she has proved clear-sighted and competent, quick to correct mistakes and contain damage, hard-headed when public opinion turns negative — most notably when the polls whiplashed after National leader Don Brash highlighted race relations in a speech in January 2004. She has carefully balanced the party’s various strands of opinion in allocating portfolios in her cabinet. She is highly thought of abroad and travels there frequently. She has set new standards of accessibility and response times in her dealings with journalists and does much of her business with them, ministers, officials and others over two cellphones. She has developed a range of unofficial advisers and contacts, with whom she touches base on a very wide range of topics. She travels and speaks extensively within the country and uses the people she meets as a sort of informal focus group. She is exceptionally well briefed and insists on copious information before making decisions. She attracts near-intense loyalty from her ministers and the party and respect from most who deal with her, including those opposed to her policy direction. None of that is accidental or due to luck.

Clark has another advantage: an excellent working relationship with her deputy, Michael Cullen. Cullen, also determinedly non-visionary, does much of the detailed, day-to-day management and handles most major issues needing cross-portfolio coordination or crisis management. There has not been so effective a top duo since Sir Keith Holyoake and Sir John Marshall in the 1960s. Not since maybe the early Holyoake days, either, has there been such a close camaraderie among ministers.

Of all 10 Prime Ministers in this brief scan it is with Sir Keith that Clark is best compared. I knew him only in the final three years of his prime ministership, when his command of the electorate was slipping. He did not have Clark’s depth of intellect (she is the brainiest and the best read of the 10) but, like Bolger, he had a native intelligence which, added to long experience, enabled him to manage a strong-willed cabinet, refresh it halfway through his 11 years at the top and get the best out of his ministers. Like Clark, he had the luck to ride a wave of prosperity and, like Clark, made the most of his luck. But, in what may be an omen for Clark, he found himself uncomprehendingly staring across a generation gap, perplexed by puzzlingly different values among the young and unable to respond to them.

Clark and Sir Keith are well bracketed as the most able manager-leaders of the 10, cautious, intent on consensus and determined to command the centre — Clark aims, if she gets a third term, to recast the political language in Labour’s favour and has made a useful start in 2004. Between them the standouts are Kirk’s brief comet trail as a potential national leader and the flawed pair of Sir Robert Muldoon and David Lange on either side of the generational divide that revolutionised policy in the 1980s.

Sir Wallace Rowling is missing from this scan. I was out of the country during his brief prime ministership, so I knew him only as leader of the Opposition. Sir Wallace was a capable and tough manager but incapable of inspiring either his MPs or the public and so depicted (incorrectly) as “weak” against Sir Robert Muldoon.

Leadership in opposition requires different qualities from leadership in government. A leader of the opposition must be more destructive than constructive. Few seem able to do both equally effectively. Sir Wallace was probably better suited to government than opposition. Sir John Marshall definitely was and so was Helen Clark. Jim McLay was an able Deputy Prime Minister under Sir Robert Muldoon but inherited a debilitated party disoriented by a government that was carrying out a programme most of National’s traditional membership would have wanted Sir Robert to implement. McLay never gained control of the leadership.

Presidents also play an important, and in some cases a critical, part in a party leader’s success or failure. Essentially, the president’s role is to deliver a united party, and present the broader party’s suggestions and criticisms, to the parliamentary leader, all the while balancing discretion and public prominence. This can be a difficult balancing act. National’s 1982-86 president in Sir Robert’s latter years, Sue Wood, put too much weight on the former role at the expense of the latter and thus failed to ameliorate the party’s demoralisation. Labour’s 1984-7 president, Margaret Wilson, faced with rebellion among the membership, took the long view and decided to change the parliamentary party from below through candidate selections; this not only did produce a different caucus over time but helped to hold together a small activist core on which Clark was able to draw to rebuild morale after 1993. In 2001-02 Alliance president Matt McCarten badly misread political indicators and publicly sided with party dissidents against Anderton; Anderton survived, but only just, in Parliament in the 2002 election on the strength of his hold on his electorate, in a wing of the party renamed Progressive; the Alliance disappeared.

Anderton, along with Winston Peters, merits mention as prime ministerial might-have-beens. Both were spoken of as potential leaders of their parties but fell out with their cabinet’s policy direction and formed new political movements dependent on their high-profile personalities more than on defined and solid voting and membership bases, even though both also had an ideological niche which helped define them and win voting constituencies. Both in due course rejoined their old parties in coalition, Peters unsuccessfully in 1996-98, nearly destroying his party and his own parliamentary career as a result, Anderton successfully in 1999 but at the cost of a split which drastically cut his vote in 2002. Anderton’s party will disappear when he leaves politics. New Zealand First is trying to make the transition from a loose movement to a structured party but will likely disappear from Parliament when Peters does. ACT, formed by Sir Roger Douglas in 1995 to complete his economic and social reform agenda and thus with a strong ideology, almost certainly nevertheless owed its subsequent presence in Parliament to Richard Prebble’s talented, though idiosyncratic, public persona as a campaigner and may be destined to follow him out of Parliament at the next election. Personality-based politics are ephemeral. Charismatic or transcendental leadership cannot compensate indefinitely for inadequate structure or organisation.

Contrast the Greens. The party is policy-based, almost anarchically democratic and downplays leadership. Its two co-leaders make a virtue of their complementary strengths and personalities and are less important to their voters than the party’s policies in building durable voter appeal. Turn that on its head: major parties by their very nature must maintain durable voter appeal or they lose their major party status, as the Liberals did early last century. Leaders of major parties cannot afford to turn them into leader-centric parties: Sir Robert Muldoon did (as a sort of forerunner to New Zealand First) and cost his party heavily. Lange was almost wholly personality and also cost his party heavily. Helen Clark does not have the personality or inclination to do that and neither did Sir Keith Holyoake; both maintained (in Clark’s case after first rebuilding) a strong party base.

Leaders of major parties must follow their parties as much as lead. The logical extension of that is that, to set up durable governments — which Holyoake achieved and Clark may be on the verge of achieving — Prime Ministers must to a large extent follow as well as lead the country.