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John Roughan: Ardern the invisible PM for much of 2018

Author
John Roughan - NZ Herald,
Section
Opinion,
Publish Date
Saturday, 22 December 2018, 11:59a.m.
I forget what Jacinda said. Too much of what Jacinda says is immediately forgettable. Photo / NZ Herald
I forget what Jacinda said. Too much of what Jacinda says is immediately forgettable. Photo / NZ Herald

COMMENT 

At times this year I've been very proud of our Prime Minister, never more so than when she made a public apology to the parents of Grace Millane at her post-cabinet press conference. That was a fine thing to do and she did it so well, with the genuine feeling every parent has for those who suffer such unimaginable loss, and with the shame we all felt that it could happen to a beautiful and vulnerable young visitor to this country.

I'm not sure it would have occurred to any previous Prime Minister to do that.

But at other times I have been disappointed in her. Such as on Tuesday morning when she was challenged on Newstalk ZB about the sentencing of a teenaged driver to home detention for causing the death of a cyclist. I forget what Jacinda said but she certainly didn't say she thought that was probably the right sentence.

It would take some courage to say that on the day the mother of the cyclist was petitioning Parliament for a stronger sentence. And how do you tell parents who have lost a 15-year-old son that you do not think the person who knocked him off his bike needs to go to prison? Especially when that person had been drinking wine and smoking pot, especially when she had failed to stop after hitting him and especially when she had made light of it on Instagram at Halloween.

Well, you start by saying you feel for the victim's family, and you do, every bit as much as you feel for the family of Grace Millane. I do, I lost a teenaged brother on his bike at an intersection. Then you can try to assure them home detention is not a walk in the park, assuming you checked that out before you let your Government promote alternatives to prison.

I forget what Jacinda said. Too much of what Jacinda says is immediately forgettable.

Looking back on her first full year as Prime Minister, I'm surprised at how little we have seen and heard from her. Even making allowance for her six weeks on maternity leave, she is the least visible Prime Minister I can remember.

Maybe I'm looking at the wrong media, maybe she is always on Facebook and other online forums. But if she was saying anything interesting on those media it would be picked up by newspapers and television.

Weeks can go by without a glimpse of her on television. That's quite hard for a Prime Minister, they get asked to comment on just about everything that happens and the power of their position makes their views news. Their post cabinet press conferences on Mondays are normally a feast for reporters at Parliament, often starting a story that lasts the week. Jacinda's seldom merit a mention on Monday night.

When the year began, we all looked forward to the novelty of a Prime Minister having a baby and the National Party probably feared the prospect. But nobody could accuse Jacinda of exploiting that opportunity. In fact it's remarkable how little we've heard about the baby.

Considering how big a presence a baby is in the life of any new parent, now matter how busy their day job, and how much the media will have been hanging out for any snippets of life in little Neve's nursery, it can only mean Jacinda never says a word about it.

It may be that a self-effacing prime minister is exactly what this Government needs. It is our first truly coalition government in the sense that its leading party did not win the election and is not as dominant as we are used to. Winston Peters has obtained more latitude for his party than any junior partner in a previous government and Shane Jones is making the most of it. The Greens, meanwhile, are managing to keep one foot firmly in the Government while their other foot is free to give it a kick along.

Presiding over this cannot be easy. It probably helps that it is a woman who doesn't put herself forward, who is happy to share the limelight with other ministers and party leaders. She did not even put herself forward for party leadership if we remember. Labour had three elections and she stood in none.

Now, leading a coalition with two parties from opposite ends of the spectrum, she may feel she is not as free as previous prime ministers to say what she thinks on subjects they haven't discussed. But the public is going to get tired of empty phrases delivered in an anxious smiling rush.

She can trust her own judgment, the coalition comes to the end of its first year in good shape, she can afford to relax and let us hear her think.

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