• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: BIANCA DE MARCHI / POOL / AFP

Pressure weighs in on Jacinda Ardern over Shane Jones' immigration remarks

Power Play by RNZ's Political Editor Jane Patterson.

It's an uncomfortable position for a coalition Prime Minister - having a minister go rogue but having only two stark decisions: risk collapsing the government or tolerate open defiance.

Comments from Shane Jones about Indian students have been condemned as racist, including by one of his own Cabinet colleagues.

Jones has doubled down after saying Indian students have ruined academic institutions, insisting he was speaking as a New Zealand First MP, not a government minister.

Therein lies the rub for the Prime Minister and Labour Party leader, Jacinda Ardern.

New Zealand First has taken a strong line on immigration for years, so the position taken by Jones should surprise no-one.

But his stance on Indian immigration has now attracted accusations of racism from the Race Relations Commissioner and members of his own government.

Cabinet minister Shane Jones. Photo: RNZ / Dan Cook

Greens co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw said while he "didn't want to give it the oxygen", he thought the comments were "racist".

Jones' Cabinet colleague, Immigration Minister Iain Lees Galloway initially hedged his bets, condemning the comments and saying "if you were in the Indian community you would feel they were racist".

But sitting through question time hardened his position and he was happy to state his belief that he too saw the comments were racist, speaking to reporters afterwards.

Furthermore, Lees-Galloway said the only ones who should be talking about immigration were him and the prime minister.

The view expounded by Jones has caused him no problems with his leader Winston Peters, who says his MP is just reflecting concerns from the Indian community itself.

He is the only person who could rein in Shane Jones - if he so wished.

Peters has always given his MP a huge amount of latitude and this time is likely to be no different.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

New Zealand First is actively pushing itself away from Labour in election year and will be touting itself as a moderating influence on a potential Labour-Greens government.

But those incensed by Jones' comments are looking to Ardern for leadership.

The line everyone's currently running is Jones is in a different party, therefore she has no responsibility for him.

Furthermore, Ardern's message is if you don't like what Jones is saying - punish New Zealand First at the polls, not Labour.

"We are in different parties so from time to time we will disagree with each other, and sometimes we'll disagree strongly ... but that is MMP, people have a decision to make at election time over who they vote for, and those different perspectives."

The argument of the "hats" is a well-known political phenomenon.

Different rules and responsibilities apply to politicians depending on whether they are speaking as an MP, or as a minister.

The prime minister is responsible for ministers, and party leaders for MPs.

National Party leader Simon Bridges said it made no difference, and Ardern should act.

National Party leader Simon Bridges. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

"Just tut-tutting and then saying 'look he's in another party' just doesn't cut it... Shane Jones is in a different party but he is her minister."

All of the pressure is on Ardern.

She has to make the call whether it is worth it to take a hard line against Jones - and his views that directly clash with her own personal brand - or absorb the criticism of keeping him in her Cabinet with no consequences.

It's a win-win for New Zealand First.

It gets its message out to those voters who object to the flow of migrants into New Zealand - who may not lean towards Labour.

And it has diverted attention away from unanswered questions about the SFO and its scrutiny of the New Zealand First Foundation and political donations.

This article was first published on Radio NZ.