A sincere, likeable personality innocently struggling to lead, but lacking the key skills? Or cynically hawking a utopia she knows won’t happen tomorrow?In New Zealand, Prime Minister Ardern has garnered a popularity long missing from her Labour Party. Plainly, she commands handy qualities to have generated that appeal around her support base.
Those who endorse Ms Ardern, cite her performance around the Christchurch mosque shootings as a shining example of her ability. The text of her 2018 speech at the United Nations mesmerized followers with her call for kindness and collectivism to solve the world’s problems. Since 2017, the bulk of Ardern’s photos and releases have been made at schools where she was idolised by youngsters under the blessing of fawning teaching staff. Some, claiming to know, see her as a lovely personality with a fresh approach.Right from go, Ms Ardern’s zealous references to future transparency and accountability drew followers. Although her cries against poverty diminished early in her tenure, Ms Ardern sustained a divisive call for so-called generational change. The undercurrent of ‘them and us’ rallied the vocal popular groups and causes. One example being “this generation’s nuclear-free moment” against oil exploration. Another was the cry against capitalism; bosses versus workers. Add ‘town versus country’ – reignited with strident calls on farm run-off into waterways. The resultant polarisation swelled the ranks; ‘them versus us’ discord got recruits. Her trumpeting for generational change, young versus the old, enrolled anti-establishment supporters. Just months following her election, abolishing first year university fees, Ardern told students that their first year of study was “on me”. Firing up division has worked for Ardern as, by inference, she is on the right side. “She really cares.” Some labelled her as a “fantastic leader.”
This provokes the perennial question, “What does the public want when it chooses a political leader?
Leading a nation to success is no easy matter. It demands an array of talents. Consider the brilliance of legendary nation leaders such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, George Washington and Winston Churchill. They achieved greatness without glitz, spin, PR, mass media or Facebook. Honourable and faithful, all were adept at bringing people and groups together. They excelled in organisation, planning the path and inspiring others to strive for targets. Magnificent and formidable achievers, it seems unfair to compare them against today’s leaders, but can we measure up?Since Ms Ardern’s promotion, brand Labour has lifted. She is owed credit for popularity and improved support. Students have shown it in their eyes as she has visited strings of schools. Others were attracted by her calls for conscience and appeals for future change. Public nostalgia for church-like homilies might explain why followers praised Ms Ardern’s ‘sermons’ from the ‘pulpit’, her arms spread, like the Messiah. Who doesn’t want to end poverty, save the planet and have a great future? Some truly love her appearances with the baby or her boyfriend, now fiancé, affirming her as being “just like us.” Her activities copy a common pattern; rally the followers and work the crowd; get the faithful excited about what is coming. Refine this style to basics; it’s called cheerleading. In this role, Ms Ardern has talent. The crowd loves the cliché, the calls, the posing, the pom-poms and the promise for the future. Cheerleading is nifty for any leader – it is great for the team if you’re good at it. But does it make a nation leader? When the game gets tough and the next play needs solving, does the team look to cheerleaders or to the coach and captain for a win?A prime minister is Cabinet boss, government chief and leader of the nation. As ruler of all government activity by delegation, the prime minister is responsible for tone, organisational culture, and productivity. Prime ministers choose their teams, they call the tune, and they make things happen through drive and motivation. Can cheerleaders hope to be nation leaders who firmly organise and inspire their ministers and staff? Nation leaders who energize the teams to action quickly, honestly and cleverly as a government?
By January 2019, Ms Ardern claimed big advances in her programme and promised that, with “first things now sorted,” 2019 would be a “year of delivery.” Central to the promised delivery would be a “wellbeing budget”. This generated anticipation.However, by mid-2019, concerns had compounded around Ms Ardern’s ability to guide her ship:
- Since starting office in 2017, no progress in building the hundred thousand “Kiwibuild” houses so earnestly promised, and even after “recalibrating” supply, little was happening.
- Homelessness had expanded rather than reduced as vowed.
- Child poverty stood unchanged with no action plans implemented other than a declaration in her “wellbeing budget” to shrink it by roughly 1% – measurable after the next election.
- The vast, showcase tree planting programme had stalled with no sign of assured completion.
- Amidst controversy and finger-pointing, Ms Ardern had dumped the capital gains tax (CGT) which she had long heralded as critical to the Labour-Green vision for NZ. In blaming others for the ditching, she implicitly revealed her glaring inability to lead and push that policy into her government.
Luckily for Ms Ardern, these shortcomings do not seem to have eroded support. Fortunate, because they tarnish her leadership. To obtain government achievement of those much lauded policies, it had been her duty to organise and influence key players, either by charisma or the whip. Is she truly in charge if she cannot insist her handpicked team deliver on her declared projects? Ardern had been responsible from the start to shape and motivate the best organisational culture within her cabinet to gain results. Where is the vibe of Cabinet energy driving hard towards a strong shared vision? The leader sets the tone, the attitudes and the values.In blaming others regarding CGT, Ms Ardern insinuated it was not her responsibility. That is alarming because, as Prime Minister, she is inescapably responsible for every single broken promise.
Coupled with betrayed promises, issues around ministerial performance have been another difficulty. Ministers Curran, Whaitiri and Lees-Galloway had been separately embroiled in well-reported instances of misconduct or bad practice. This reflected poorly on Ms Ardern, their guide, their boss. Crucially, prime ministers set standards and enforce expectations. Bad management was again unearthed around budget 2019 as controversy raged regarding premature release of financials. Yet again, Ardern typically retreated, remaining tight-lipped for a week, giving every impression that she was not responsible. Do good generals stand back, deserting troops in difficulty, without directing support and taking command? From a distance, it sometimes seems no one is responsible for Cabinet and no one is in charge.Scuttling from trouble has been an Ardern trait. In November 2018, as tens of thousands of state-paid nurses were on strikes, Ms Ardern evaded her duty as cabinet leader and government chief, instead electing to travel to mundane engagements overseas. These could have been covered by her deputy, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Ardern opted for retreat and self-interest above her role to lead her team publicly. So who models the example she expects her team to follow when challenges arise?
Ms Ardern’s neglectful leadership was again exposed in May 2019. A commissioned report on parliamentary bullying found that Parliament was “a toxic workplace with systematic bullying.” The release coincided with the budget, neatly avoiding attention. As Prime Minister, Ms Ardern has had oversight of Parliament since 2017. It was her obligation to step in to fix the organisational culture on behalf of victims and the nation. Given her calls for accountability, transparency, and better workplace relations, this hushed dereliction of duty, for whatever reason, has an air of hypocrisy.Ms Ardern is proficient at rallying people and calling for change. But now she needs to detail the paths to follow. Leaders provide solutions and organise the steps. Her nation depends on it. Many love the cheerleader and are willing to overlook shortcomings. But the country cannot rely on endless working parties to provide roadmaps, rattle the pompoms and drive the bus. We need a nation leader. And that poses a remaining question …
Is Ms Ardern innocently struggling to lead, lacking the key skills, or is she cynically hawking a utopia she knows will never happen during her term of office?