John Armstrong: Jacinda Ardern has appeared flustered, even rattled, during the first crises to hit her Government

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

Jacinda Ardern sold herself to the voting public last year as a politician who was as fresh and pure as driven snow.

During the past couple of weeks, her prime ministership has looked about as fresh and pure as mud-caked slush.

She has been deluged with unwanted distractions which have dominated the headlines and made it commensurately difficult to talk about the things she would prefer to have highlighted by the media.

Dealing with such an unrelenting litany of political mishaps goes with the territory of prime minister, however.

All of a sudden Wonder Woman is looking like just another struggling premier side-tracked by side shows.

Brand Jacinda would seem to be metamorphosing into Calamity Jacinda. 

For the first time since her seemingly effortless ascension to the country’s top job just five short months ago, she has appeared flustered, if not rattled.

Ardern’s difficulties have left many wondering whether they are a sign that the wheels are already falling off her Heath Robinson-like contraption of a government.

Her three-party combo is far more complex and potentially much more volatile than any other constructed since the introduction of MMP.

Labour needs no reminding of the Greens’ capacity to be thankless thorns in its side.  

Add the in-your-face bolshiness of New Zealand First to the mix and you have a recipe for mayhem.

With regard to the latter party, Ardern can expect more friction of the kind generated this week by Shane Jones in his full-on offensive against Air New Zealand.

In one stroke, he made it absolutely clear that such constitutional niceties as collective Cabinet responsibility, which constrains ministers from going solo in speaking out, now count for very little.

No politician lost votes pinging the national carrier. There are correspondingly no votes gained in defending the airline.

But the latter was the invidious position into which Ardern was thrust courtesy of the deliberately over-the-top call by the Minister for Regional Economic Development for heads to roll on the board of Air New Zealand.

Jones got the media attention he was seeking. But his undermining of Ardern did nothing for public confidence in the stability of the Government overall.

Well might she feel let down by Jones. Well may she feel let down by Jones’ leader who backed him to the hilt.

It is high time Winston Peters worked out that being Deputy Prime Minister —a post which enjoys a $37,000 margin on top of the standard $290,000 salary paid to Cabinet ministers — requires him to act in the Government’s wider interest rather than solely New Zealand First’s self-interest.

The list of those who have let Ardern down in past weeks is not confined to Peters’ party, however

Ardern was badly let down by Andrew Kirton, Labour’s general secretary, and Nigel Howarth, the party’s president, following the shocking revelations of under-age drinking and allegations of sexual assault at a Young Labour-organised summer camp.

In particular, Howarth took so long to front in public that you could be excused thinking he was auditioning for the role of the Invisible Man.

Well might Ardern wish that Peters was the Invisible Man.

He further badly let her down in his other role as Foreign Minister. 

She bent over backwards to stem the criticism rightly heaped upon him for his woeful handling of New Zealand’s response to the attempted murder of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.

Peters veered close to provoking a foreign policy crisis through point-blank refusal to use the words “assassination”, “nerve agent”, “Russia” and “responsible” in the same sentence.

The Prime Minister has also been badly let down by the Greens, who have instantly revived their flagging reputation for adopting the weird and the whacky by announcing they would be gifting their allotment of parliamentary questions to the Opposition.

James Shaw was the first to agree the idea sounded crazy. Not only does it sound crazy. It is crazy. It is also little short of treachery.

It seems to have escaped the Greens that their gesture —ostensibly made in the interests of improving ministerial accountability — is a breach of the spirit, if not the wording of their co-operation agreement with Labour.

If things are going to fall apart, however, it will likely be because of clashes over policy matters.

One such battle is already looming. The Greens’ parliamentary wing now looks likely to yield to pressure from the wider party membership to block legislation instigated by Peters which would see MPs indulging in party-hopping chucked out of Parliament.

Peters is obsessed with getting an anti-waka jumping law back on the statute books after a previous such measure expired more than a decade ago. There is little or no room for compromise.

We are thus entering unchartered waters. When it comes to steering into the rocks, there are going to be many false alarms, however.

Should the governing arrangement collapse, the party deemed as responsible for bringing the House down can guarantee it will be punished heavily by voters. 

It could prove to be fatal. The Greens and New Zealand First are currently registering less than 7 per cent support in opinion polls. Neither party holds an electorate seat which would void the 5 per cent threshold.

The Greens are hogtied; New Zealand First slightly less so. Were the current Government to collapse, Peters could approach National and try to form an alternative administration.

He would have little bargaining power.

Moreover, National might prefer to take advantage of the chaos to try to convince voters that a stand-alone National majority government was the best option in ensuring the restoration of political stability.

These factors will likely make the current governing arrangement far more robust than might appear to be the case.

The danger lies in the parties accidentally ending up in circumstances which make it impossible for them to back down or back off over some issue where they are in serious disagreement.

Avoiding such a scenario requires discipline. That commodity would seem to be in increasingly short supply, however.

Ardern needs to read the Riot Act to Peters and Shaw. She also needs to take heed of it herself.

She let herself down while clearing up the mess created by Peters’ botched handling of the Russia problem. And badly so. 

Her claim this week that New Zealand had been ahead of the international pack in declaring Moscow was behind the attempted murder of Skripal was as outrageous as it was audacious as it was patently incorrect.

She made reference to a statement issued under Peters’ name which condemned the “totally repugnant” use of chemical weapons as a tool for assassination.

Peters’ statement, however, offered not a word on whether responsibility for the assassination attempt could or should be sheeted home to Moscow.

In marked contrast, Britain’s other allies showed no hesitation in laying the blame for the nerve agent attack squarely at Russia’s door.

It took a couple more days for New Zealand to fall into line and declare via a joint statement issued under Ardern’s and Peters’ names that “Russia has serious questions to answer”.

No-one who has kept tabs on how events unfolded will be fooled by the Prime Minister’s blatant and shameless attempt to rewrite history. 

She will get away with it on this occasion. The conduct of foreign policy is not something the public cares that much about.

Ardern would be well-advised not to make a habit of playing fast and loose with the facts, however. Her patter might be silky smooth. But she cannot expect to talk her way out of every predicament that she finds herself enmeshed in. 

Sooner than later, she will be caught out. 

Voters have invested much hope in her being a politician who can be trusted absolutely. To make fools of those who have shown such faith in her would be to invite a backlash truly terrible in its scale and vitriol.