Thursday 26 January 2023

Jacinda Ardern and Sir John Key have set a new standard for New Zealand Prime Ministers. Too often Prime Ministers have clung to their position, often through thick and thin, until they have been either been tossed out by the electorate or dumped by their own party. But by resigning during a term, and openly acknowledging they both felt they no longer had "enough in the tank" to carry on, first Key and now Ardern have shown a refreshing honesty. They have set a precedent for their successors to emulate.  

There is no doubt the pressures on Prime Ministers have intensified in recent years, regardless of the circumstances they have faced. The immediacy of the media cycle and the pervasive impact of social media with all its pernicious impacts has thrust Prime Ministers into a constant public spotlight from which it is impossible for them - and often their families - to escape. What limited privacy they enjoyed as public figures beforehand disappears completely the moment Prime Ministers take office.


It is a far cry from earlier days, when the pace of political life was more sedate, and the public demands upon politicians less intrusive. (I remember a long-serving Ministerial driver telling me some years ago that when Sid Holland, a Christchurch MP, was Prime Minister in the 1950s, they used to take him to his Raumati beach house most Friday afternoons and leave him there undisturbed for the weekend, until they brought him back to Wellington on Monday mornings in time for the weekly Cabinet meeting.)


Some may sneer that Key and now Ardern have simply read the tea leaves and decided to jump before they were pushed. After all, being an undefeated Prime Minister looks better for posterity than being a defeated one. But that would be to denigrate their actions; both have shown a rare courage and acute self-awareness in deciding to step aside, at a time of their choosing, when both were at the peak of their authority. Too many of their predecessors would have chosen to carry on "for the sake of the party", even if their hearts were no longer in it, and they were increasingly past their best. It was not the “done thing” to walk away from office.


Ironically, by putting themselves and their personal wellbeing first, Key and Ardern could be accused of a sort of selfishness. But there was also a fair measure of honesty involved in this. Both realised that they were not indispensable to their party, and that staying on "for the sake of the party", like so many of their predecessors, was not the noble gesture of self-sacrifice it seemed, but just an expression of self-delusion.


The way in which Key and Ardern chose to leave office draws fresh attention to the way leadership succession is managed in politics. All parties have been extremely weak over the years when it comes to planning leadership succession. This arises from the prevailing culture of viewing political colleagues as potential rivals, and not wanting to draw too much attention to them, lest they usurp the leader already in place. The consequence has been the creation of leadership vacuums which parties struggle to fill. Labour after Clark and before Ardern, and National after Key and before Luxon are telling examples of failed successions.


Key attempted to overcome this at the time he stood down by publicly endorsing Sir Bill English as his successor, although it is not clear how much warning English had of Key’s pending resignation. Similarly, Ardern reportedly told Hipkins late last year that she was contemplating standing down. Both were small steps towards a form of leadership succession planning but were still far short of a comprehensive approach.


If Key and Ardern have established a new norm of Prime Ministers stepping down when they feel they have had enough and sense it is time to move on, then the question of proper leadership succession planning becomes that much more important. However, that will be easier said than done, for the reasons stated above.


Nevertheless, the onus will be on leaders to establish and identify a clear leadership team around them, from which the next Prime Minister or party leader could be drawn. New Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has that opportunity with his forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle, which needs to focus more on promoting future leadership possibilities, than pandering to the sectional interests and factions within the Labour Party.


The same goes for National. Right now, it is difficult to see beyond Nicola Willis as a potential replacement for Christopher Luxon when the appropriate time comes. While that may be no bad thing, the party needs to identify a wider corps of potential leaders that the public can begin to assess for the future.


Because of how they left office, Key and Ardern have broken the mould for New Zealand Prime Ministers.  They dominated their parties in office and were integral to their governments’ successes. Both were able to walk away, without qualms, at the time they chose. The intriguing question now is whether that legacy will be picked up by their successors.


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