Prime ministerial power is not limitless and its exercise is circumscribed by a number of boundaries: the government must continue to enjoy the confidence of the House of Representatives; the Prime Minister’s actions must be within the law; all big decisions must go through Cabinet – and it is not unknown for Prime Ministers occasionally to be against a collective decision that Cabinet makes.

What are the sources of Prime Ministerial power? What exactly does a Prime Minister do?  Our interview with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern examined the democratic principles of her role.

Can you outline the role of the government caucus, and your role in it?

One thing that I hope is an indication of the way that we run it, when we’re in the Cabinet room, I refer to everyone as Minister. It’s a way of us just acknowledging the magnitude of the roles that we have and the respect we need to treat everyone and their perspectives with when we’re in that room and with the decisions that we make.

When I’m in the caucus room, ministers drop the ‘Minister’ title and we all just go by our first names. I can’t quite get everyone to strip back and call me Jacinda, they still call me Prime Minister.

For me, that’s indicative of the environment that I want in our caucus – that we feel less like there’s a hierarchy in that room – that we’re all Labour MPs and we’re all elected to be, first and foremost, Labour representatives. Caucus is the place where I expect that ministers bring policy and ideas to, to add to the process. So ideas start there and then goes up through the Cabinet process, sometimes the process flips around, but no matter what, our caucus need to be involved.

The most important job that I feel like I have there is to keep the unity, the cohesion, and people’s sense of fulfilment by being part of that team…I see my role as just keeping the team together, keeping us rolling through hard times, supporting one another, and making the most of the amazing experience in that room as well.

How do you conduct Cabinet meetings?

I put papers and decisions into two different categories. Often they’ll have gone through a really rigorous process, everyone’s kind of really had their say. And so we’ll present the paper, take it as read, to have a final round to see that everyone’s content with it. Other times, actually, we might genuinely have not resolved the issue, it might be a vexed issue with multiple options. Often I’ll either, if I’ve got a strong view, start by putting mine forward and saying, what’s everyone else’s or I’ll just put the issue out there and I’ll let it go around the room, which is quite often the case.

From there, then I’ll listen and think, okay, I can feel a bit of consensus forming around this option, I’ll propose this as a way forward….Often we come out with a solid way forward just by being willing to let it play out and hear people’s views and perspectives. And if we don’t land on it, then I’ll just make a decision and then we move on. But it is a solid process and it serves us well.

The Prime Minister’s role is sometimes described as ‘the minister for coordination’, ‘the government’s prime communicator’ and ‘the political leader of the government’. Do you agree with these interpretations?

I do, and I think the degree to which a Prime Minister at any given time is seen to be any one of those things will depend a little bit on what drives and motivates them. If you’re a Prime Minister who has been motivated by politics, and the sport of politics, then you might take a particular approach to what the idea of governance is. And what greater position from which to govern is there than being a Prime Minister?

But if you are, like me, driven by ideas and change and policy, then you might see yourself as fitting into a range of those different pieces of the puzzle. I would like to think that first and foremost, I’m a policy wonk. I’m sitting in the company of probably one of our prime policy wonks though, so I can’t quite claim that degree.

I think it depends on the person. Political leader – that’s if you really love the politics. Prime communicator, I think that, actually, that’s probably the least flattering of all of them. Minister for coordination – that’s a given, everyone has to be that part, and play that role. I feel like I do a bit of all of it. Less emphasis on the last one.

How do you work alongside ministers and public servants in your role?

I like to be quite direct. I don’t like to have too many layers between me – certainly not between me and ministers. One of my lasting memories of working in the British civil service was how much time I used to spend on things that I felt could be so easily remedied with closer relationships and even cohabitation in buildings. I could spend half a day setting up a call between ministers….The direct relationships that we can all have as a Cabinet lead to greater cohesion and greater efficiency, it just removes layers of bureaucracy.

I feel the same way about public servants, having the ability to really give direct and quick feedback so that you don’t slow down processes. In a Covid environment, that’s been so key. When working with Ministers and public servants directly, I like to engage in that detail of issues. I don’t feel as if I can communicate ideas to the public unless I go through that process myself. So, that’s why probably more public servants get to see my handwriting than perhaps in other places. It’s probably, again, a reflection of what I’ve said before, if you’re really interested in ideas, then being really engaged like that is just how I tend to work.

How do you decide, and what criteria do you use, to recommend the appointment of ministers and the allocation of their portfolios?

My way of making these decisions is that the Cabinet office prepare for me a bunch of portfolio cards and then every potential candidate’s name. And literally I sit down either on my floor or with a whiteboard and I do a first cut of moving people and portfolios based on two criteria: the strengths of that individual, both in their experience in portfolio knowledge, but also in their personality and the way of operating. I try to match that based on whether or not I believe a portfolio needs to be a place where we need to direct change through putting that new person in that spot and how their personality will match with that, or, where we need just the ability to roll out a large programme or a tough programme, one that requires additional policy work. Either I’m signalling something with my choice or I’m pushing an agenda through with it.

That’s the process that I loosely go through. I know that in some cases, Prime Ministers have not talked to the different members about the decisions until they’re made. I don’t do that. I will call and talk through my proposal. I’ll hear a minister out on whether they’re content. In fact, my first iteration often is to ask ‘What’s your bid? What would you like to do?’ Then I call back and say, this is what I’m thinking. And I might make changes as a result, or I might stick with it, but we do have a conversation. So it’s quite iterative, lots of moving around on the board.

What about the Palace? Do you have much to do with that?

More so than I probably expected. When New Zealand has gone through times of tragedy and difficulty, despite us being one of many nations within the Commonwealth, the Palace has taken, I think, particular care of an interest in New Zealand. I’ve spoken to Her Majesty, since the pandemic, twice. She just wanted to see how New Zealand was. I’ve spoken to Prince Charles on a number of occasions. He’s incredibly interested in what we do on environmental issues, very engaged. And I’ve met Prince William and Prince Harry a number of times.

I didn’t expect that level of engagement. Nor did I expect the level of interest and knowledge in New Zealand and its affairs. It’s quite striking for me. I have a philosophical position on New Zealand’s future. But undeniably, I see the role that the Royal family plays for New Zealand here and now.

Do you think that, over the years, the Cabinet government system in New Zealand has become something more like Presidential government?

Perception? Perhaps yes. Practice? No. From a practice perspective, the only thing that I think has adapted would probably be in the way that within the policy process now there’s much more consultation with either coalition partners or supply and confidence partners. So you build that into your policy development.

But otherwise, the perception is probably that it’s much more presidential because of things such as quick media cycles that are constant, a social media world, and probably less focus generally on different ministers or different MPs

I would say there’s a presidential perception just based on the fact that there’s a focus on a figurehead, but in terms of the way our system functions, we are well served by the fact that our Westminster system allows us to make very quick and nimble decisions when we need to. Coalitions can slow it down a bit, but not like the US. And this is not too dissimilar to the philosophy around having a Cabinet – you make, by and large, for the most part, better decisions as a result of going through a process that involves a range of people and experiences, and the same holds for political parties, for the most part.

How do you ration your time? Because there’s far too much to do, the demands on the Prime Minister are extraordinary. So how do you manage to ration your time and rest?

I don’t martyr-sleep. When I first came into the job, people would often ask me, oh, you mustn’t sleep and I almost felt like that it would look like I was somehow not working hard enough, if I said, no, actually, I do prioritise getting a good night’s sleep. My last Labour predecessor was Helen Clark, who famously slept very little. So I thought, oh, will people think I’m not working as hard? But I’ve since been very open about the fact that I’ll sacrifice many other things, but I try not to sacrifice that. Because I noticed it impairs my decisionmaking. And so that’s not good for the country! Certainly, I don’t get a huge amount, I wouldn’t say that, but I don’t run on three to four hours.

What do you think the best features of being Prime Minister are?

There’s no other job in the world where you can simultaneously be making decisions that you know will change the long-term future of a country whilst also getting the joy of seeing the impact of the little things. And that’s, to me, the privilege of the job. To give you an example, I know the architecture we’ve created for climate change will make a long-term difference, but at the same time, I get the same joy from that legislation passing as I do from going out on the road and seeing a young person make the decision to be vaccinated. I get the same satisfaction.

What are the worst things about it?

The grinding anxiety.

 Yes, quite, and quite a lot of abuse too?

Yeah, do you know what, I always thought that would have a bigger impact on me than it does. I remember my dad being quite concerned about me choosing to enter into politics because he knew how thin-skinned I am. And I am; I’m a very sensitive person, I take everything to heart, I worry about everyone. I expected, you know, comments about the way I look or those superficial things to upset me, but they genuinely don’t. Instead, the thing that I find hard is the grinding anxiety of the ‘what if?’ A pandemic is the worst for that.

Taken from Democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A survival guide by Geoffrey Palmer and Gwen Palmer Steeds (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $40), available in bookstores nationwide.

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