How outrageous. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been led by his officials to believe that Helen Clark is a domineering, distrustful control freak.
Helen said she thought it "a hoot" and "had a good laugh" when she heard. The rest of New Zealand simply thought, "Yes? Tell us something we don't know."
The fact is to be a successful prime minister you have to be dominant. A leader of a government must exercise tight control, and any prime minister who is too trusting of colleagues will end up dog tucker.
David Lange lost control of his cabinet very quickly in 1984 and was forced to wage a hugely divisive struggle to re-establish his dominance. The resulting bloodshed led to several resignations, including eventually his own, and the collapse of that Labour government in 1990.
In the late 90s a too-trusting Jim Bolger relaxed his vigilance and Jenny Shipley rolled him in a coup when he least expected it.
Helen Clark learned these lessons well and in the past nine years she has exercised extremely tight control over her team, instilling a discipline in the Labour caucus that had been lacking for most of the preceding century.
Ralston is right on the money here, and much as Helen Clark's tendancy towards control-freakery is often portrayed as an object of fun, it's also an object lesson. She most certainly runs a tight ship. And this is the nub of Ralston's advice to Key:
In terms of pure political management, over the past decade it is hard to fault her and if the Labour-led government is in trouble now it is because of a public mood that has wearied of an administration that has had three terms in office and appears to have run out of ideas.
It is the old "it's time for a change" syndrome that plagues all governments after that length of time in power.
To take advantage of that mood, John Key has done a good job of dragging National into the centre of the political spectrum, making it appear much less scary to swing voters. Which is why he was furious at the laxness of some of his MPs in their random comments to the "secret taper" at the National Party conference, because it gave Labour the chance to portray National as secretly planning a rabid Rogernomics agenda.
Key learned a valuable lesson Clark already knew. You need to tie down all the loose cannons in your caucus or the blabbermouths will cause you endless trouble.
I am reliably informed the "secret taper" is not yet finished and will pop up again with something more during the campaign, when National can least afford another negative distraction.
For someone who appears to favour a more collegial style of management, Key will have to be a lot tougher with his team. Most of us are averse to conflict, but in politics it is absolutely essential to enter into conflict when challenged and a leader cannot avoid it if they want to retain their dominance.
I'm convinced that John Key is no-one's fool. He could not have prospered in the international investment environment without a ruthless streak that we may not have seen yet in his political life. But I have no doubt that it's there. And as the election draws ever-nearer - it will need to be.