Story: Premiers and prime ministers

Page 4. Towards modern leadership

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Following the long Labour government between 1935 and 1949 came the lengthy prime ministerial terms of National Party leaders Sidney Holland (1949–57) and Keith Holyoake (1957, 1960–72), broken only briefly by Walter Nash’s Labour government between 1957 and 1960.

Younger leaders

Many saw the 1972 election of 49-year-old Labour Prime Minister Norman Kirk as a fresh start. The average age of incoming prime ministers between 1912 and 1972 was 61, but after Kirk they were younger, averaging 47 years. Only Robert Muldoon and Bill English (both 54) and Jim Bolger (55) came to office in their 50s. Some young prime ministers were also relative political novices. Neither David Lange (1984–89) nor John Key (2008-16) served long parliamentary apprenticeships. At 37, Jacinda Ardern was New Zealand's youngest prime minister since 1856 when she took office in 2017. She gave birth while in office, one of the few leaders anywhere in the world to have done so. Chris Hipkins, who took over from her as prime minister in January 2023, was not much older at 44, having cut his teeth in the world of student politics at Victoria University of Wellington, and then entered Parliament in 2008, at the same election as Ardern. 

Post-prime ministerial posts

Relative youth enabled some leaders to carve out significant post-prime-ministerial careers. Only Robert Muldoon and David Lange remained in Parliament for long after defeat. Geoffrey Palmer worked in academia, business and public life. Jim Bolger and Mike Moore were ambassadors to the United States and Moore was also director general of the World Trade Organisation. Helen Clark was head of the United Nations Development Programme from 2009 to 2017.

Terms of office

Norman Kirk died in office in 1974 and was succeeded briefly by Bill Rowling. Politically, the period from 1975 to 1999 was dominated by the nine-year term of Muldoon (1975–84), by Lange’s radical fourth Labour government, and by the nine-year National term from 1990 to 1999 under Bolger and Jenny Shipley.

Leadership under MMP

After the mixed-member proportional (MMP) system was introduced in 1996, prime ministers had to learn to manage coalition or minority governments. The art of MMP management was exemplified by Helen Clark’s nine years as prime minister (1999–2008), when her Labour Party remained in power thanks to a range of agreements with five smaller parties. Even when Labour won a majority of seats in the 2020 election, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern included Green Party ministers in her government.

Getting around

With the emergence of party politics, leaders became more focused on wooing voters. Richard Seddon regularly travelled around the country by train as a way of keeping in touch with the public. Making international contacts in the early 20th century, however, involved time-consuming journeys by sea. As aviation developed from the 1940s, leaders increased their overseas travel.

Manipulating the media

Whereas prime ministers once led regional and personal factions, increasingly they led political parties and the nation. Leaders had to develop their communication skills to explain government policy and actions and gain popular support.

Radio broadcasting began in New Zealand in the 1920s, but it was not until 1936 that sittings of Parliament were broadcast. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage controlled this medium, deciding which debates would be broadcast and who would be allowed to speak. He used radio talks as a way of appealing directly to the electorate.


Some prime-ministerial nicknames hint at the character or appearance of the leader, while others indicate leadership achievements:

John Ballance – ‘The Rainmaker’
Richard Seddon – ‘King Dick’
William Massey – ‘Farmer Bill’
Keith Holyoake – ‘Kiwi Keith’
Jack Marshall – ‘Gentleman Jack’
Norman Kirk – ‘Big Norm’
Robert Muldoon – ‘Piggy’
Jim Bolger – ‘Spud’, ‘The Great Helmsman’
Helen Clark – ‘Aunty Helen’, ‘H1’
John Key – 'Teflon John'.

Radio continued to be important after the Second World War, but television, which arrived in New Zealand in 1960, had an even greater impact. At first television journalists were reverential towards prime ministers, but over time they became more questioning. Starting with the campaigns of Robert Muldoon and Bill Rowling in the mid-1970s, leaders had to master the medium. Personal appearance became more important, and several leaders, notably David Lange and Helen Clark, had image makeovers. Prime ministers had to learn to get their message across quickly and forcefully, while projecting warmth, ease and a sense of being effortlessly in control. In addition, they had to manage interviewers and handle debates with opponents without alienating a broad television audience. Those skills became more vital as television channels proliferated and later as new internet and social-networking media emerged.

Prime ministers in print

A few modern prime ministers bared their souls in print. Robert Muldoon’s The rise and fall of a young turk (1974) and David Lange’s My life (2005) were both best-selling books. After leaving office Geoffrey Palmer and Mike Moore published books on constitutional and international issues.

How to cite this page:

Gavin McLean, 'Premiers and prime ministers - Towards modern leadership', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Gavin McLean, published 20 Jun 2012, updated 1 Dec 2016