First with the Goss

There’s nothing new about Prime Ministers being gossips.

Our recent leaders have been not only First Among Equals but also First with the Goss. 

John Key cultivated a regular channel of communications with a gossip columnist, for goodness sake. He was always open, within reason, to pass an observation or an anecdote.

Helen Clark could set a table alight with her views on politicians domestic and foreign and on what she knew about the news of the day.

Jenny Shipley was less forthcoming, less footsure among non-National Party listeners.

But even Jim Bolger could share the inner workings of global statesmanship complete with all his ‘CONfidence’ and ‘I surmises’ about what went down. "As I told the president" is a Bolgerism that will not fade.

It should, but also can, go without saying that none of these Prime Ministers ever shared in my hearing on issues of national security. The SIS and GSCB need not worry about their fingerprint-and-eye-recognition-only access to briefings having been a political sham.

Our new premier’s as good a sharer as the next Prime Minister, when the microphones are off and the eyes are turned away.

Jacinda Ardern’s error in retailing someone else’s impression of Donald Trump’s possibly mistaken view of her at the Apec/Asean summits was to whom she told it.

Does the PM know the unspoken conventions of international diplomacy? Did she talk Trump down, and herself up, over a backstage drink and in the euphoria of meeting Lorde again?

One month in to her initial 36 months as PM, she can cross one person off her list of confidants.

A comedian? A YouTube satirist? At the Music Awards?

One political operative used to swear by the maxim that every person to whom you told something would share that information with at least one other person. "It's just one person," they'd argue.

As the degrees of separation widen, the contract of confidence weakens. As time goes by, the informal Statute of Limitations on political gossip fades.

Ardern's mis-speaking was spectacular in that her one person (she acknowledges actually telling at least two) went on Radio Live within days and shared the snippet with not one person but one nation. And eventually the BBC.

She messed up. Diplomatically, politically and in the manner of her post-rationalising in that controversial 1 News interview with presenter Jack Tame. Tame over-egged the questioning, the interview seeming like an internet GIF on permanent recycle, but he was onto a real issue. Does the PM know the unspoken conventions of international diplomacy? Did she talk Trump down, and herself up, over a backstage drink and in the euphoria of meeting Lorde again?

Ardern will have learned brutally fast that loose lips sink our nation's diplomats' hearts. She'll be more careful, with friends and probably even around her office.

She has a good example to follow. In the dying months of the last government, two cabinet ministers and the Prime Minister's chief of staff were told about New Zealand First leader Winston Peters' superannuation overpayment. By their reckoning all three of them stayed shtum. Not a breath. No sniggers at the water cooler, no jokes with the team in the Beehive suite. Peters reckons that's as credible as a Tui beer ad, but if they didn't tell anyone else the politicians can, hand-on-heart, say they know when to hold 'em.

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