The Game Changer

Jacinda Ardern's charisma, her ability to appeal to a younger generation, and her much sought after 'cut-through' that former leader Andrew Little just couldn't seem to muster are some of her most admired attributes by chief executives.

"It is refreshing to have an Opposition leader with a more positive outlook on life, rather than one that is stuck in the past or in a negative loop," said a transport head.

Says Mainfreight's Don Braid: "There is clearly a level of enthusiasm, energy and commitment to what is lacking in New Zealand at the moment.

"An injection of youthful energy and vision is sorely needed."


"Much is unknown, but perhaps that's the best way to be going into an election when she has the 'X' factor," says Simplicity's Sam Stubbs.

Although CEOs respect Ardern's courage - stepping into the Labour leadership role less than two months out from the election - most are worried she lacks experience and her unusually short job interview for Prime Minister won't give the public the chance to see her tested for the top job. "An impressive start as leader of the Labour Party but untested under pressure in her national leadership," observed Rob Cameron of Cameron Partners.

There is significant concern among chief executives that Ardern has failed to articulate the detail of some of her policies. In particular, tax policies including the expected capital gains tax and a failure to provide detail on whether the proposed levy on water use for farmers will be 1 cent or 2 (a difference of 100 per cent). Many consider this unacceptable for a party that has been nine years in opposition.

"We have not seen Jacinda Ardern in a leadership role for long but the initial signs appear impressive - not least in galvanising the Labour Opposition into campaigning hard to win the election and creating some self-belief," says Forsyth Barr managing director Neil Paviour-Smith.

Adds EMA's Kim Campbell: "It's too early to tell how good an administrator she will be.

"We need to see more substance in policy development.

"She is a superb communicator with a very engaging social style. We have yet to see her perform under pressure."

"I don't know enough about her capabilities to be useful but give her 10/10 for courage taking over as leader with eight weeks to go to a general election," says a banking boss. "But she has been very fluffy on tax policy and how we are going to pay for all the election promises.

"It feels like a tax hike for the 12 per cent of New Zealanders who already pay 75 per cent of tax in New Zealand."

A law firm boss said in any event, she is likely to persuade many voters to 'give her go' without having to prove her credentials as potential Prime Minister.

"She is in the right place at the right time."

Speaking publicly for the first time as leader, Ardern said: "We are about to run the campaign of our lives". Recent polling shows this is the case with Labour - jumping from 24 per cent to 43 per cent in the latest 1 News Colmar Brunton poll; its highest polling in 12 years.

Port of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns says: "An intelligent politician with clearly a freshening of the Labour brand. Early days though to judge Jacinda on producing sound policies (economic as well as social) and her skills at political management."

Adds Beca's Greg Lowe: "Jacinda Ardern is putting on a polished performance but as she has no track record her ability to lead effectively, manage the economy and put forward policy that moves New Zealand forward is unproven."

"I really don't know and nor do most voters," explained non-executive director Joanna Perry. "The trouble is a lot of people will forget that she is unproven and make assumptions (in their gut!) about these things."

A legal boss summed up the general sentiment from CEOs: "Jacinda is a very likable person. She is politically very savvy.

"She seems to care greatly about issues many Kiwis care about - social injustice and our environment, for example.

"She is a game-changer in this election.

"However, she is very young, and while that appeals to many, for others in an uncertain world we may feel safer with the more experienced hands of Bill English.

"Some may not see him as exciting, but experienced."

Political Horsepower

Bill English is admired by chief executives for his financial prowess. But they feel a lack of boldness and political chutzpah hold him back.

English became Prime Minister in December 2016 after John Key's unexpected resignation.

"It is challenging replacing one of NZ's most popular Prime Ministers less than a year out from the election, said Forsyth Barr managing director Neil Paviour-Smith.

A longtime National MP, English was briefly Finance Minister in the 1990s Bolger Government.

He reclaimed the finance portfolio in 2008 when the Key Government took office in the midst of the Global Financial Crisis.

CEOs rate his focus on getting the Government's books back into the black as the most significant achievement of the National Government since the 2014 election.

Investment banker Rob Cameron, who was himself one of Treasury's architects of the major 1980s economic reforms during the Lange/Douglas era, describes English as "an outstanding and hardworking Minister of Finance".

"He is still being tested in the PM's role in relation to political management and ability to form a coalition."

Others laud him as the economic "architect" and the "political horsepower" of much of New Zealand's success.

"We are lucky to have him," says Chorus boss Kate MeKenzie. "I often hear him described as the 'brains of the outfit'".

"He deserves to be rewarded for his outstanding economic stewardship," affirmed an agribusiness boss.

Said Port of Tauranga boss Mark Cairns, "Bill has done a fantastic job as finance minister in getting the country through the GFC and two earthquakes with the books in reasonable shape."

On the personal front, English is seen as variously as a "nice man and good family man".

"Bill is a fabulous servant of NZ who in private settings is a funny, warm and relaxed individual who has done a tremendous job for New Zealand economically," said a leading investment banker. "He has trouble connecting or conveying these qualities in the mass media format."

EMA chief Kim Campbell was perceptive." His self-effacing Southern reserve is misconstrued as blandness.

"Sadly we live in an the age of celebrity and infotainment where image dominates substance," explained Campbell. "He has shown an astute hand at managing the economy and been an innovator on social issues."

English - a former Treasury official himself - has introduced significant Government-led social reforms which have won international praise particularly from the Australian Liberal Government.

Said AIA chair Theresa Gattung, "Bill is completely genuine in his focus on social investment and putting in place game changing solutions to inter-generational poverty and some of New Zealand's most entrenched social problems."

Adds Paviour-Smith, "The Prime Minister has championed the social investment approach, being prepared to admit that previous approaches haven't worked and holding agencies to account to know what the problems are and seek alternative solutions."

But CEOs feel English is being held back by a lack of charisma.

"He is a solid performer but vulnerable to a charismatic opponent because the electorate in general probably seeks a bit of excitement," said a lawyer. "The missing attribute is appeal," added a manufacturing chief.

"I'm a big English fan as Minister of Finance," said an exporter. "He's a brilliant second in charge and a safe pair of hands.

"But he doesn't have the political management or delivery required by a good PM.

"The party looks and feels staid and flat-footed under his leadership even though not much has changed in term of economic management."

Ironically some of the most cutting criticism comes from the financial community.

"Mr English was a reasonably competent 'status quo Minister of Finance', holding the line on government spending against the usual pressures from spending ministers," said a senior banker. "But he failed to do nearly enough to solve the Auckland housing crisis (though clearly understanding what needed to be done), or to make the structural changes which might have improved our productivity performance."

English's brand was tarnished by the "Todd Barclay affair" which saw the young MP forced to resign after his former electorate secretary revealed he had made secret tapes of conversations.

The prime minister - who represented the electorate before Barclay - was well across the former MP's actions.

"He has taken a hit with the Todd Barclay stuff," said a legal firm chief. "But it is a tough challenge to show the vibrancy of a three-term Government."

The Herald's Mood of the Boardroom 2017 Election Survey attracted participation from 118 respondents. The results were debated this morning by shadow finance spokesman Grant Robertson and National's Finance Minister Steven Joyce.