Are ministers in Jacinda Ardern’s coalition beginning to live in a dreamworld of their own, distant from the one where ordinary New Zealanders live?
In Parliament, in answer to patsy questions from their own backbenchers, they congratulate themselves on their extraordinary ( as it seems to them) achievements. They appear supremely unconscious of or oblivious to the world most New Zealanders inhabit. And this week they were doing their best to ignore the raging furnace torching NZ First.
It’s possible they were yawning because they had heard it all before.
But other NZers found the allegations of financial shenanigans inside the structure of NZ First disturbing.
Stuff reports the NZ First Foundation received 26 donations of $325,900 in just a five month period, adding:
“Donors to the foundation include food manufacturers, racing interests, forestry owners and wealthy property developers.”
You might regard reports like this as part of a conspiracy by the media to unhorse the deputy Prime Minister, and hence the coalition.
Here’s the insight of left-wing commentator Chris Trotter, who says:
“Once again, the enemies of Winston Peters are manoeuvring to eject him and his NZ First Party from Parliament. Once again the primary vector for their attack is the news media. And, once again, Peters is making it easy for them…
“If this is errant political behaviour, then there is something quaintly patriotic about it… Twelve years ago, Winston Peters was still robust enough to come back from the political crucifixion which his political and media enemies had prepared for him.
“In his seventies now, the chances of a second resurrection are slim.. We should, therefore, prepare for the last gasp of Old New Zealand’s very Kiwi corruption”.
The Electoral Commission launched an investigation on Tuesday in an apparent response to the initial reports of donations being funnelled into the NZ First Foundation. Peters insists it will find nothing untoward – the party has acted within the law at all times.
But NZ First’s 1996-98 coalition with National ended after Peters was fired as Treasurer and the 2005-08 coalition with Labour ended when Peters was suspended as Foreign Minister over what became known as the Owen Glenn affair.
Those who don’t learn from history are forced to re-live it, to paraphrase a philosopher of an earlier era.
The risk for the PM now is that the latest NZ First chapter of political pyromania will smoke out all but the most fervent Jacindamaniacs.
The damage is not just to NZ First but to the coalition. The PM sidestepped questions in Parliament about whether she had confidence that NZ First’s leader (and deputy PM) had been acting within the law at all times.
As NZ Herald political editor Audrey Young pointed out, to answer “No” would have been unthinkable. To answer “Yes” would have been untruthful when she has no way of knowing.
“So instead of answering the questions Ardern did in the House what she had done with reporters on her way into the House: answer a question she was not asked”.
Ardern declared it would not be proper for one political party, Labour, to inquire into the practices of another, NZ First.
Dancing on the head of a pin like that may mollify her followers, but it won’t fool the average voter.
She is the Prime Minister – that’s the critical point – and it is the integrity of her government which is at stake.
As Prime Minister, Ardern is responsible for the conduct of her Ministers. The Cabinet Manual spells out the rules:
“A Minister of the Crown, while holding a ministerial warrant, acts in a number of different capacities:
“a. in a ministerial capacity, making decisions and determining and promoting policy within particular portfolios;
“b. in a political capacity as a member of Parliament, representing a constituency or particular community of interest; and
“c.in a personal capacity.
“In all these roles and at all times, Ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. This includes exercising a professional approach and good judgement in their interactions with the public and officials, and in all their communications, personal and professional. Ultimately,Ministers are accountable to the Prime Minister for their behaviour”
So let’s look at the assessment of a politician who witnessed the history at first hand, Peter Dunne:
“As today’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern contemplates the allegations swirling about the NZ First Foundation, she should be mindful that, on the basis of her predecessors’ fates, she would appear to be damned if she does (in the Shipley fashion) or does not (in the Bolger and Clark approach).
“While her current instinct seems to be to follow the Bolger/Clark line, she must surely know that could become increasingly untenable, as this situation drags on, which seems highly likely. After all, the one certainty from history, is that events of this type are seldom as straightforward or easily clarified as NZ First continues to suggest.
“There are likely to be more twists and turns, enmeshing NZ First further in the mire, before a measure of clarity emerges.
“While there is scant evidence this row is doing the Labour Party collateral damage at the moment, it is really only a matter of time, unless things are quickly tidied up. But the PM’s problem is that by then it may be too late for her. Already, she is being lambasted in some quarters for being too laid back in her dealings with NZ First ministers and some of their more egregious behaviours, although this does overlook some of the realities of holding a coalition government together.
“Nevertheless, it could become increasingly difficult for her to maintain a dignified silence on this issue without looking weak and ineffectual, as is already being suggested – the last thing she would want as she heads into election year. Either way, the next few weeks are not going to be easy for her and her government”.
We note that these are the observations of a seasoned politician with a flare for holding ministerial posts as a safe pair of hands and for being a reliable coalition partner.