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Dame Jenny Shipley: if I knew then what I know now …

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What would New Zealand’s first female prime minister do differently in hindsight? Dame Jenny Shipley has some advice for public administrators: don’t waste the opportunity, but watch how you talk about reform.

In a speech to the Australian and New Zealand School of Government conference earlier this month, Dame Shipley mused on what drove her into politics (“to induce meaningful prosperity” and “create a sense of security, which today is not just about defence it’s about sustainability”), the ongoing challenges for women to succeed and the importance of diversity in government, and a legislative agenda focussed around improving the budget position (“moving from a closed to an open economy”), creating more flexible labour markets and transforming the country’s welfare system.

Dame Shipley spoke on a panel including former Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet head Terry Moran and current Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet secretary Andrew Tongue.

Dame Shipley said her advice to her younger self would have been simple: she would have moved “further, faster if we had the chance”:

“Now that may sound reckless to you as people who lead public policy and public service, but as leaders I think the sense that you’re given this opportunity to make change is rare. And it’s very exquisite and very important that you don’t squander that opportunity.”

But still tread carefully, she warned. Bringing citizens with you on reform is crucial.

“Watch the language of reform. It’s very abstract and very hard. In reality what we’re trying to do is shift resources in a way that’s fit for purpose and meaningful for the generation with whom we are seeking to serve. And both the political leadership and the public sector leadership, in my opinion, need to think about what is the language of consumers’ rights and their desire to be prosperous and whether you’re a facilitator in that or impeding it. Because they have a view, and to serve them well I think the language of reform is critical.”

Dame Shipley outlined the reforms to government still enjoyed by New Zealand, including a more transparent budget and legislative process that allows citizens to access cabinet and treasury documents.

More at The Mandarin: Terry Moran: if I knew then what I know now …

Author Bio

Dame Jenny Shipley

Dame Jenny Shipley is a business director and advisor. She was prime minister of New Zealand from 1997 to 1999 and previously held a number of cabinet positions.