When he installed Annette King as his interim deputy, Andrew Little said he would revisit the decision around this point in his tenure. It’s a promise he would be wise to break. The advantages of a generational swap between King and Jacinda Ardern, the widely touted alternative, are fewer than they initially appear, and the risks are greater.
Annette King is not a leadership rival to Andrew Little, nor is she likely to become one. The same cannot be said of Ardern. That’s the first, and most crucial, box ticked. Unfulfilled ambition is the characteristic a leader least wants to see in a deputy.
That’s true. Having a deputy who wants your job rarely works out well.
Combined with an absence of unrealised ambition, King’s standing in caucus uniquely enables her to play hardball when called for, giving Little room to establish goodwill and build trust among colleagues.
It is hard to imagine an MP less temperamentally suited to inheriting “bad cop” duties than Jacinda Ardern. In fact, a change in deputy would demand a recalibration of responsibilities, forcing Little to take a greater role in managing (read: disciplining) caucus. He doesn’t need that: it’s not among his strengths, and it shouldn’t be his focus.
A good deputy will manage much of the caucus relations for the leader, and to a degree help manage the office also.
Ardern certainly appears to be well liked by the public, and has the backing of many inside the Labour Party, as well as a sizeable bloc of MPs, in particular those aligned with Grant Robertson with whom she ran on a joint ticket as deputy in last year’s leadership election. These are put forward as arguments in favour of promoting her, but they leave me cold.
For one thing, personal popularity is neither here nor there in a successful deputy. None of the most successful second-in-commanders of the recent era – Geoffrey Palmer, Don McKinnon or Michael Cullen – were beloved by the wider public. What they each offered were complementary skillsets, along with personal attributes, that made their leaders stronger.
This is true, but Ardern does have the ability to grow the vote for Labour if she is in a leadership role. The problem is she may over-shadow Little, but they need to lift their vote in Auckland and neither Little nor King can really do that.
It may be that Annette King wants to retire – and who could blame her after 28 years in Parliament? This would bolster the case for Jacinda Ardern without making it a slam dunk. Breakfast telly affability – undeniably useful in a senior politician – is not what Andrew Little wants in a deputy. He needs a compelling or charismatic figure far less than someone who provides the space necessary for him to become effective and popular in his own right.
I think he needs someone who can lift their party vote in Auckland.