I went for “effective” which is more neutral than “best” or “worst”. Key general test was: did they change New Zealand for the good? It needed doing.
RANK: 1 Peter Fraser PM 1940 – 1949
Massive nationwide leadership and mobilization through World War 2. Instrumental in forming the United Nations and Commonwealth. Continued building New Zealand’s infrastructure in electricity, telephone, water systems, education, health, social welfare, foreign policy. But only mildly popular with the public or caucus.
RANK: 2 Sidney Holland PM 1949-1957
Maintained welfare state and full employment policies. Dumped the legislative council. Dumped rationing. Strongarmed unpopular waterfront union. Invested massively in motorways. Encouraged tenants to buy state houses. Successfully encouraged Auckland to reticulate water systems and massively accelerate its growth. Introduced Fiordland, Mt Cook, Nelson Lakes, and Uruwera National Parks. Introduced PAYE tax from lump sum. Built the National Party up. Great common touch and very popular.
RANK: 3 Helen Clark PM 1999-2008
Introduced Kiwibank, New Zealand Superannuation Fund, and Emission Trading. Reformed social welfare with generous Working For Families package and interest free student loans. Signed world first free trade agreement with China. Supported troop deployments to Afghanistan and East Timor. Presided over nearly a decade of economic growth while maintaining a strong government surplus. Sustained three MMP coalitions. Multiple Treaty of Waitangi claim resolutions. Rakiura National Park and Great Walks system formed. Agreed Lord of the Rings deal that accelerated major tourism and film location industries. Actively diversified economy. Formed Fonterra. Re-energised and organized the Labour Party. Popular and effective especially in first two terms.
RANK: 4 John Key PM 2008-
While unfair to rank a sitting Prime Minister, Key’s successes include multiple Treaty of Waitangi claim resolutions, successfully leading country through major financial crisis, reforming public sector with gradualist but cumulative structural reforms, and sustaining a sweet spot of low unemployment and low interest rates. The Prime Minister most at ease with the media and remains popular and effective well into third term. Broadband fibre-optic rollout, rebuild of Christchurch after earthquakes, education reforms, Auckland reforms, and major motorway and public transport investments are further achievements.
RANK 5: Robert Muldoon PM 1975-1984
Led New Zealand through major economic crisis. Stopped Labour’s superannuation scheme. Shifted tax burdens off lower paid New Zealanders, and increased taxes on luxury goods like boats. Divided public opinion over South African rugby tours. Invested in large-scale industrial projects, in part to enable greater independence from imported oil, in part to rejuvenate economy. Initiated closer economic relations with Australia. Very popular for first two terms. Major long term impact in employment policy, infrastructure development, alignment with US, union relations, and economic and fiscal policies.
RANK: 6 Jim Bolger 1990-1997
Very severe first budget instigated by BNZ bailout that constrained first term. Corporatised and partly privatized a number of key government assets. Implemented MMP. Settled 3 major Treaty of Waitangi claims and accelerated others. Implemented first 2 new national parks in decades. A steady reformer with strong impact.
RANK: 7 David Lange 1984-1989
Instigated major reform program of all parts of New Zealand government from fisheries to education, health to local government to electricity. Not really in control of the Finance Ministers’ structural reform program. Responded inadequately to French sabotage of Greenpeace in Auckland. Initially popular but lost control. Strengthened legal recognition for Maori through Treaty of Waitangi. Deregulated financial and share markets causing exposure to huge international boom-bust cycles. Arguably instigated the modern New Zealand state.
RANK: 8 Keith Holyoake PM 1960-1972
Re-wrote criminal legal code and abolished the death penalty. Sustained economic prosperity and social stability for over a decade. Got rid of 6 o’clock closing in bars. Sustained a strong and economically activist state. Re-established compulsory military training. Charming, avuncular and popular, but not a major mover and shaker of New Zealand’s future.
RANK: 9 Norman Kirk PM 1972-1974
Withdrew troops from Vietnam war. Protested testing of French nuclear weapons in the Pacific. Abolished compulsorily military training. Focused principally on foreign policy. Hugely popular, but didn’t have enough time in office to have a lasting impact.
RANK: 10 Jack Marshall PM 1972
PM for just 6 months. Establishing ACC continues to be his major significant impact on New Zealand.
RANK: 11 Geoffrey Palmer 1989-1990
Deeply unpopular. Achieved key legal reforms. Achieved for New Zealand later as Privy Councillor, Law Commissioner, law professor, and law partner.
RANK: 12 Jenny Shipley 1997-1999
First female Prime Minister. First Prime Minister to attend Hero Parade.
RANK: 13 Walter Nash PM 1957-1960
Drastic Black Budget to respond to financial crisis, with hugely unpopular taxes on cigarettes, alcohol, and petrol. Failed to act over South African Rugby tours. Often absent from country. Massively unpopular with the public.
RANK: 14 Mike Moore 1990
PM for just a few months. Not popular. Achieved for NZ in trade negotiations particularly GATT.
RANK: 15 Bill Rowling 1974-1975
Not much chop as leader after Kirk. Led Labour to massive defeat. No lasting impact.