There comes a time for every Prime Minister when the very multi-dimensional gnarliness of the job makes them tense up. Visibly.
The smile lines become frown lines. There’s an impatience at events, at the media’s fixations and at the lack of political dexterity by colleagues.
Jacinda Ardern is nearing that point, relatively early in her premiership. She will know it is not a permanent state of being. Her predecessors have bounced out of their funks repeatedly.
Her round of broadcast media interviews this morning – she has swapped the conventional Monday morning slots for Tuesday, giving National leader Simon Bridges the first day of the working week – and latest press conferences exhibit a certain weariness and wariness.
In some ways she is a blend of the two long-term predecessors of her era, Helen Clark and John Key. From Clark the philosophical purpose and not suffering of fools gladly. From Key the ‘I’m pretty relaxed about that’ imperturbability. Grunt, with a disarming nonchalance.
There are flashes of Clark. In her stand-up with the media outside her electorate office last week on the Young Labour summer camp assaults, she delivered an array of Clark techniques. The blunt one-word or one-phrase answer and then a determined look away to the side, moving on to the next thing. A challenge to one voluble questioner suggesting she had demanded accountability of National over the years involved a soft, deadpan “When did I say that?” The reporter, jolted by the response, amended the accusation to her ‘party’ having thus accused National.
At her post cabinet press conference yesterday, the short, flat answers fell like drop-shots against the media far from the net. But she wasn’t as controlled and footsure as a Clark. On her decision to delay going to the official lunch for visiting Indonesian President Joko Widodo so she could accept a Greenpeace petition against oil and gas exploration she wavered.
While having encouraged the Greenpeace petitioners, she had to play a softer line; Labour wasn’t making a call, yet, either way on stopping new exploration, a decision was expected soon, perhaps within a month or so; Labour takes the ‘nuclear moment’ implications of climate change and the need for renewables deeply seriously; and the Government was going through a standard ‘block offer’ annual process; nothing to see here.
The early gesture on Parliament’s forecourt was high in symbolism and something of a political risk. The later explanation was from a politician aware of the perils of over-promising. The combination of the two performances probably disappointed both her audiences.
The lack of diplomatic instinct from her Foreign Minister Winston Peters produced another awkward stanza. As the western world recoiled at Russia’s use of a nerve agent on British soil, he was fresh from talking up trade with Russia and questioning its role in downing the Malaysian airliner MH17 and did not march those comments back adequately.
Ardern claimed the early Peters reaction to the Salisbury attack had been world-leading in its denunciation. It did indeed denounce the use of nerve agents in an attack, but only raised Russia by way of questioning how the substance had travelled from there to the UK. Not a word of direct criticism of the Motherland. It took Ardern’s joint statement with Peters to hammer Russia and its reaction. And, she offered in evidence of New Zealand’s correctness on the matter, she had received a Friday night text message from the British Prime Minister Theresa May thanking her for her support.
At the press conference, the Prime Minister ended up saying she didn’t want to debate the use of particular words and repeated that Peters had been early rather than late in confronting the issue.
On television today, she had that prime ministerial countenance which comes after a difficult week. There was little in the way of the upbeat vitality from the general election campaign, Waitangi and the trip to the Pacific Islands. It was more frowns, her mouth pursed as she reached for answers. On RNZ’s Morning Report she was clearly over being questioned about Peters and his Russian peccadillo.
“The frustration I have here is that we are actually in line with our international partners here; both in the response on Salisbury but on wider issues. We have never operated outside of the sanctions that have been imposed post Crimea. We had not started FTA negotiations. We have made a very clear statement, we have condemned what’s happened in Salisbury. We have not and will not resume FTA discussions as a consequence at this time. I do not think we could be more clear than that.”
Well, the foreign minister probably could have been. Had he done so, he might well have had a text from his counterpart at the Foreign Office, Boris Johnson, some days earlier.
And her government was until Friday committed, through its coalition agreement with Peters’ New Zealand First Party, to “work towards a Free Trade Agreement with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union”.
While oil and Russia might have been vexing, Ardern was very relaxed at the end of the day (Monday) and the start of her Tuesday with the Greens’ decision to hand their primary questions In Parliament to the National Party. “Ohh, it’s one to two questions a week, it’s absolutely their prerogative. I’m not going to be giving ours away, so that probably suggests how I feel about their use generally.”
What had she said to Green leader James Shaw when he told her of the change?, Kim Hill asked her. “Oh: ‘Interesting idea. That’s one for you. Not one that I necessarily would have taken’.”
That’s the problem with the top job. Others around you make calls you wouldn’t necessarily make. And you get to answer for them.