John Armstrong's opinion: Jacinda Ardern’s refusal to reprimand Winston Peters is nothing short of disgraceful

John Armstrong
Source: 1News

Jacinda Ardern’s craven refusal to reprimand Winston Peters is nothing short of disgraceful — and utterly and incontestably so.

The Prime Minister’s adoption of a "do nothing" stratagem which has her turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the chaos which otherwise goes by the name of "New Zealand First" is both reprehensible and indefensible.

Above all — and perhaps most intolerable of all — Ardern’s insistence that the constant and never changing diet of trials, tribulations and troubles afflicting Labour’s coalition partner have nothing to do with her and are for New Zealand First and New Zealand First alone to rectify amounts to an abdication on her part of the responsibilities that come with occupancy of the highest office in the land.

Ardern’s apologists argue that the Prime Minister’s silence over the past two weeks when questioned about the furore that erupted over New Zealand First’s handling of financial donations — and more specifically what happened to funds channelled through the clearing house of the New Zealand First Foundation — was motivated by her wish not to be dragged into what has been a raging political bushfire.

Sure, it is understandable that Ardern wants to put some distance between her party and Peters’ outfit in the countdown to September’s general election.

Sure, it is understandable that she do that without compromising the stability of her governing Administration in the interim.

Her imposing a "hear no evil, see no evil" blanket ban on her saying anything at all about Peters’ behaviour and that of his party is quite remarkable, however.

Jacinda Ardern said when she last spoke to the Foreign Affairs Minister he was in “good spirits”.

It is also foolhardy. It constrains her flexibility to respond to further crises which — and you can bet your bottom dollar on it — will erupt and embroil New Zealand First this side of the election.

Such a stance will likely to be taken by Peters as license to cause more mayhem. It makes Ardern look feeble. By not exercising her authority, she is allowing Peter to drain it.

Even if inaction might prove to be politically convenient for Ardern, that does not make it right.

In fact, it is very wrong. Like it or not, Ardern is automatically dragged into Peters-generated firestorms by virtue of her status as "Prime" Minister.

It has long been a convention under New Zealand’s unwritten constitution that Cabinet ministers are accountable to the prime minister of the day.

That includes whomever happens to be deputy prime minister— the post which Peters enjoys.
When the deputy prime minister’s own party is potentially under investigation for possible financial irregularities, the Prime Minister cannot pretend it is not happening.

Now that the Serious Fraud Office has confirmed that it is proceeding with an investigation, Peters should have stepped aside or been stood aside until that investigation confirms whether or not he met the provisions of the Cabinet Manual, the handbook which details the conduct expected of ministers of the Crown.

The manual is crystal-clear. Whether acting in political capacity as an MP or in a personal capacity, Cabinet ministers must act lawfully and behave in a way that "upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards".

That obligation makes a nonsense of Ardern’s assertion that the crises and controversies afflicting New Zealand First are none of her business and, moreover, that she is justified in having nothing to say about them and has absolutely no intention of doing anything about them.

That obligation on ministers to meet those standards also meant she could not ignore Peters’ claim and then denial that he had been party to the covert filming of journalists who have been investigating the New Zealand First Foundation.

The public deserved an explanation at the very least. The buck stopped with her to get one.
Of course, she will get away with what is tantamount to a failure of leadership of quite staggering proportions.

She will get away with it because the longer she keeps repeating that canard that what happens in Peters’ party is nothing to do with her, the more people will assume that it is true.

The overwhelming majority of voters will never have heard of the Cabinet Manual, let alone be aware of its content.

Ardern, of course, is well aware of the manual’s existence. So much so that she urged that other New Zealand First thorn perpetually in her side — one Shane Jones — to read a copy while Parliament was in recess last October.

More is the pity she did not follow her own advice and do likewise.