Why National shouldn’t fall into Labour’s trap of under-estimating the Prime Minister of the day

Many Labour MPs and activists spent the best part of a decade under-estimating John Key. They thought his popularity was artificial, and that as a Prime Minister who had never been a Minister he wasn’t up to the job, and that he was basically a rich prick charlatan that the public would see through at some stage.

Their under-estimation of his very real political abilities, led to them making bad strategic decisions.

I have a worry that National may fall into the same trap with Jacinda Ardern. They some on the right may think Ardern is just popular because she is a young woman with a baby, and that she is really hopeless at the job of Prime Minister and that the public will one day realise this.

While I do not like many of Ardern’s policies, and do think there are areas where she is relatively weak (lack of action on non-performing Ministers), I also think there are some areas where she is very very good. If you are on the right and can’t see the areas where she performs well, then you are in danger of under-estimating her just as Labour did with John Key.

I was invited at the beginning of May by DPMC to a “dialogue” on the ” Christchurch Call to Action to Eliminate Terrorist and Violent Extremist Content Online” to be held at the offices of InternetNZ on Friday 10 May. The purpose was “engagement” and to ” to build a unified sense of purpose on constructive measures to address violent extremist content online”.

I agreed to give up three hours to go along, even though my expectations of it were relatively low. By low, I don’t mean negative. Just that I expected this to be traditional let’s make stakeholders feel they have been consulted, and hear their views. This is stuff Governments do all the time. I’ve been to a lot of these.

I was a bit surprised when I got the agenda 48 hours before the meeting and read that the PM was attending the second half of the meeting for around half an hour. That was pretty unusual for a PM to attend a consultation meeting. I figured it was mainly for optics – allow for a photo op (which was mentioned in the agenda) and allow us to hear what the Government wants to achieve directly.

As the meeting resumed after the tea break, Jacinda walked in and sat down in the circle of chairs with us. I looked around the room for her minders (as I know a few of them), and there were none there. This is pretty rare. Normally a press secretary will always be with the PM, making sure they record what is said, and also an advisor to field technical questions.

As the discussion from the first session was summarised, the PM grabbed a piece of paper and started taking notes. Not a staff member, but the PM. Then the facilitator handed the meeting over to the PM. She actually chaired or facilitated the next session herself after a brief outline of what they are trying to do. As each person made a contribution, she responded with comments or followups and kept making notes.

It dawned on me that rather than this being the PM telling us what she is doing, she was genuinely engaging with those in the room for their ideas about various issues and complexities. She was very much over the detail of what is a very complex landscape which is an intersection of Internet architecture, free speech issues, social media companies, behavioural incentives and issues of market dominance.

I’ve observed various Prime Ministers for over thirty years. The Prime Minister in that meeting was highly impressive – one of the best performances I have seen. I don’t mean just on empathy (always a strength) but on policy, on strategy, on tactics. She is obviously highly involved in the Christchurch Call, not just fronting it. She is driving it.

The combination of her mastery of detail, her actively seeking opinions and taking her own notes, her lack of staff in the room, and also the total lack of barriers between the PM and participants (all sitting around in a circle) made everyone in that room feel they were genuinely being useful, and this wasn’t just tick the box consultation. Her performance reminded me in fact of John Key at various events, as Key had a way of talking with an audience, rather than to an audience, that was first class.

A thought also occurred to me during the meeting that if an overseas visitor had been in the foyer of InternetNZ that day and saw the group in there, they probably would never have guessed that the Prime Minister of New Zeland was in there, and she was the one wearing jeans, taking notes next to the guy in a suit. They may have assumed she was the secretary! That’s not a reflection just on stereotypes because the PM is a young woman, but that she was so interactive in the session.

I remain an opponent of many of the policies of the Government of course. And Ardern has areas where I regard her performance as lacking. But she also has areas where she is very strong performer, and people will be making a mistake if they under-estimate her abilities. I certainly won’t be.

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