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Archived Government 06-09
Archived Government 02-05
Making a difference
The role of the Prime Minister
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The role of the Prime Minister

Public policy junkie
Meet the people
Communicating vision
Visions from party, people

The Prime Minister is the head of the government. There is no statutory provision that establishes the office of the Prime Minister or defines its role. Probably the best description of the role of the Prime Minister is set out in the Cabinet Manual, at paragraphs 2.4 to 2.11. The Manual explains that the Prime Minister heads the executive government, determines the ambit and title of each portfolio, decides on portfolio allocations and ministerial rankings, chairs Cabinet, maintains and co-ordinates the government, oversees the government's general policy direction, and is traditionally in charge of the security and intelligence agencies. As long as the Prime Minister has the confidence of Parliament, he or she is the principal adviser to the Queen and her representative the Governor-General. By constitutional convention, the Prime Minister alone has the right to advise the Governor-General on the appointment or dismissal of Ministers, or to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election.

It is entirely a matter for the PM of the time to decide where to go from that formal role. Some PMs may be very passive chairs of the board, but minority New Zealand Labour Government Prime Minister Helen Clark, three times elected as PM, says, “I don’t happen to be like that.” She describes her style as “Proactive. Direct. Task focused. Open. Gets things done. Not in the job for the position, prestige or glory – of which there is very little – but for the things you can do to make a difference for the better. Am prepared to put an enormous amount of time and effort into getting a good job done. Communicating it.”

Dr Brash, whilst Leader of the Opposition on the eve of the September 2005 General Election defined the role of the Prime Minister. Dr Brash, whilst putting himself before the electorate as a candidate for the role of PM, said a PM is expected to chair the Cabinet, appoint Ministers, advise the Governor-General and act as a spokesperson for the Government.

"But more importantly, the Prime Minister has the main responsibility to project the vision his Government has for the nation" Dr Brash told DecisionMaker.

Dr Brash believes he would be a very proactive and involved Prime Minister.

“I entered politics because I had become worried about the direction our country was taking. I am fighting hard because I believe in this country and I will fight even harder when I become Prime Minister to lead New Zealand back in the right direction."

Leadership and management is a key aspect of the job. Dr Brash was the Reserve Bank Governor before stepping down to enter politics in 2002. He has had a long career in management and finance, including five years at the World Bank and as Managing Director of New Zealand Kiwifruit Authority.

“I believe that my proven track record in management and leadership in the cut and thrust of the business and finance worlds proves I am well able to lead New Zealand."

Dr Brash says he would be a Prime Minister who remains as accessible to, and in touch with, his constituents as much as he has been as Leader of the Opposition. In that regard he will ensure he gets out and about meeting people, perhaps even more than he did as Leader of the Opposition.

“It is crucial that the Prime Minister does not lose touch with the people, because that is the only way to be sure you are acting in their best interests. That is the way I will operate and that is the way any Government led by me will operate."

Public policy junkie

Helen Clark had told DecisionMaker early in 2003 that her approach in the Prime Ministership was to take a close interest in the policy of the government. “I’m a public policy junkie!”

If she is to be the most public face of the government, she said, she needs to be very well informed.

“ I have key issues referred to the Cabinet Policy Committee, which I chair myself, so that I can be a key part of shaping the outcome. I keep a very close eye on policy, which I am intensely interested in.”

She also keeps a close eye on ministerial performance – if a minister falters, her approach is to bring others in to help them.

Sometimes a wider range of skills are needed. “Some issues are too tough for the single person and department to wrestle with,” she said.

Meet the people

Helen Clark believes in making herself accessible to a wide range of New Zealanders.

Thus she hears of a lot of things that should be fixed. “I come back and phone ministers in the middle of the night and leave messages on their answer phones! I get my staff to follow them up, and say, “I think this needs to be fixed. What can we do about it?”

She minimises the time spent in ministerial offices in the Beehive in Wellington, so that she can spend more time out in the community at various events and functions, addressing and meeting people, seeing what is happening on the ground, moving around.

“That ensures you always have feedback on how things are. You expose yourself to a wide range of people. You are going to find out what is ticking,” she said.

This Prime Minister is proactive in running the government agenda, and in getting out in the community with a very wide range of organisations.

Communicating vision

Helen Clark said “the leadership and the vision for New Zealand have to come out of the cabinet, the tenth floor of this building. And people do look for leadership. People go off governments where they go off in the wrong direction, and when they see drift. And they will mark both down. If they can see direction and purpose that is broadly consistent with how they feel about the future they would like for their families and their communities, then it is going to work.”

She believes governments must communicate “strategic vision from the centre”, as illustrated in her comments on the case study of blindness prevention advocacy in DecisionMaker How Participation works. She uses a pyramid of influence, insisting on a vision the specialist Ministers take on down the line. "Set the tone from the top" she says.

“Then if I go out and someone says to me: there is something that was supposed to happen in the action plan, and it has not, then I will be right back to the Minister saying “hang on, this is in our plan, what happened? You chase it back down through.”

Visions from party, people

Helen Clark says that she looks to the public service to implement the ideas that are generated by Parliament.

Policy partly comes from her brain. By 2003 she was attuned to 32 years of the Labour Party. She says policy comes from the fact that “I and the people around me are constantly talking about ideas, following trends in other social democratic parties and governments - and following very closely how others are meeting the challenges we are trying to meet.”

Content updated 10 February 2006




China's top legislator Wu Bangguo(R) is greeted by Prime Minister Helen Clark at the airport in Wellington May 25,2005. Wu, Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China, made a four-day official good-will visit to New Zealand.

Photo source: Xinhua

National Party leader Dr Don Brash defined his view of the Prime Minister's role on the eve of his 2005 challenge to gain the role.