Jenny Shipley, Kim Campbell and Bill English
Keith Rankin, 30 June 1999
When Jenny Shipley became Prime Minister designate in November 1997, I suggested (in Jenny Shipley: Prime Minister, Centrist, Neoconservative), that she would be a strong political leader. I thought that her political skills would prove to be more reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher than the former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell, who led the Progressive Conservative Party to a calamitous defeat in 1993.
The "Hawkesby affair", in which Mrs Shipley made inaccurate statements on television about John Hawkesby's exit settlement with Television New Zealand (TVNZ) and was reported to have said afterwards ("off the record") that the $1million figure she used was "made up".
Given an earlier incident relating to statements about her dinner date with Saatchi and Saatchi boss Kevin Roberts, Mrs Shipley's difficulty with making factual statements is bringing her political career to a premature end. I may have been wrong; she's looking now more like Kim Campbell than the Iron Lady.
The Prime Minister's economy with the truth is not unlike many statements that appear in, for example, Family Court affidavits. These statements have a strategic rather than an informative purpose; a purpose which is seen to override the need for accuracy. Such statements are harmless so long as both the media and the public appreciate their political purpose.
In this case, it appears that Mrs Shipley was seeking to reduce Mr Hawkesby's eventual settlement. Given that TVNZ pays a dividend to the Crown, any reduction in the amount of the settlement would be money for the public purse. This was to be her good deed for the cause of "fiscal responsibility".
Jenny Shipley fluffed her Prime Ministerial lines. She only had to say that she "understood" that TVNZ was settling with Mr Hawkesby for "about" $1million. "Making up" the $1million figure was no big deal. It was a "ballpark estimate". Economists and economic historians estimate data (and not only future data) as a matter of course. While an estimate is a "made up" figure, it's not a lie.
A good political operator will use language much more carefully than Mrs Shipley does (eg Winston Peters always says that something that he wants to deny is "baseless" rather than "false"). While Mrs Shipley may be an excellent, indeed ruthless, backroom operator, she doesn't cut the mustard with respect to her dealings with the media.
In 1990, Prime Minister Geoff Palmer would have suffered the Kim Campbell fate had he not been deposed 7 weeks before the election. Mike Moore saved the careers of the Labour Party's front bench politicians. Mrs Shipley will suffer the same fate as Palmer if the National caucus faces decimation. (Admittedly, proportional representation will limit the damage. The National Party will get more than 2 seats in this year's election, even with Mrs Shipley at the helm. But their vote share may fall to 19%, as happened to the Progressive Conservatives in Canada in 1993.)
What if Mrs Shipley goes later this year? Bill English is the only real candidate to replace her. Yet he's only about 37 years old, and has just become Treasurer. An ideal scenario for him would be to really make his mark as Shadow Treasurer and Treasurer and to become the National Party leader around 2006. While he could do a Muldoon and be both Prime Minister and Treasurer, if that happened, he could blow both jobs. English does not yet have the presence of Muldoon. Alternatively, we could get Wyatt Creech as Treasurer (yawn).
OK, National is bound to be in Opposition for three if not six years. In that case, I'd rather Bill English was making a constructive role as Shadow Treasurer. He has the ability to foster free debate on economic issues without being threatened by criticism of the prevailing politically correct fashion.
So I would like Jenny Shipley to survive as National Party leader. I want the next half-decade to be dominated by Cullen versus English; Clark versus English (and Cullen versus Creech) doesn't work for me. A polity dominated by Michael Cullen and Bill English could just ignite the economic debate that New Zealand desperately needs.
So Jenny, please admit that you messed up on the Hawkesby affair, and then put it behind you. You could make a very effective Leader of the Opposition. But not by emulating the political careers of Geoffrey Palmer and Kim Campbell.
Shipley's flippant words backfire, John Armstrong NZ Herald 25 June
Shipley wins Lange scorn, Audrey Young NZ Herald 28 June
Evans cartoons (NZ Herald) 25 June, 28 June
© 1999 Keith Rankin
Rankin File | 1999 titles