Strength testing: How the mashed-up government is holding firm

by Bevan Rapson / 16 October, 2018

Jacinda Ardern arrives at Wellington Airport with partner Clarke Gayford and their daughter Neve Te Aroha on her return from maternity leave in August. Photo / Getty Images

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Despite its many stumbles so far, the Ardern Government’s inter-partner differences aren’t necessarily a weakness.

For a month or two there, the Ardern Government lurched perilously close to a full-blown omnishambles.

The relationship between Labour and New Zealand First seemed to have descended into open dysfunctionality, with the smaller party refusing to play ball with its coalition partner over policies such as repealing the three-strikes law, raising the refugee quota, industrial relations reforms and the establishment of a Crown-Māori relations agency.

A further suggestion that the tail could wag the dog almost at will was provided by Labour apparently bowing to a demand by Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters that the description “Labour-led Government” be banned in favour of “Coalition Government” or “Labour-New Zealand First coalition government”.


Within her own ranks, Jacinda Ardern was forced to axe two ministers, both in messy circumstances. The first, Clare Curran, was dumped from cabinet after twice failing to declare meetings; after a subsequent bumbling performance in Parliament, she resigned from the ministry entirely, citing “intolerable pressure”. The second, Meka Whaitiri, was stood down in late August after it was alleged she shouted at and manhandled a staff member. Ardern fired her on receiving an investigation report, although Whaitiri disputed details of what happened and remains co-chair of Labour’s Māori caucus. Both cases played into the hands of those critics who claim Labour was woefully underprepared for office, and light on the experience and talent needed to form a competent government.

It should also have played into the hands of National leader Simon Bridges, though his robotic response rather epitomised his own unconvincing start as a rookie leader: “The fact of the matter is the Prime Minister's been very weak on this. It’s leading to a weak Government,” Bridges told Newshub during the Whaitiri saga. “It’s like a rugby team with even fewer players on the field. That leads to actually not just weak leadership [and] weak government, but a weaker country.”

Perhaps “weak” was the Opposition’s word of the month. Maybe opinion polling has told National it’s effective, just as it was likely to be behind the “strong and stable” messaging from Bill English in last year’s election campaign.

The strong-versus-weak worldview holds enduring appeal in the electoral marketplace, and particularly within National, especially among those old enough to look back fondly on the heady days of 1975, when the ultimate political Kiwi strongman, Rob Muldoon, first belittled and then defeated Labour’s Bill Rowling.

Rowling, in retrospect, doesn’t deserve the “weak” label: he held on tenaciously as party leader through two further narrow losses in which Labour actually won more votes than National, and held off for a time the forces of Rogernomics by sacking Roger Douglas from his shadow cabinet and surviving the first leadership challenge from the up-and-coming David Lange.

But his light voice and mild manner paled in comparison with the charisma of Norm Kirk, whose death threw Rowling into the leadership, and with the belligerence of Muldoon, who with the instincts of a schoolyard bully seized on Rowling’s given name of “Wallace” to lampoon him in the House and on the campaign trail.
It’s unclear, however, whether the charge of “weakness” that helped undermine a male Labour prime minister more than 40 years ago will take a similar toll on a woman at the helm today.

An earlier generation of influential female politicians – think Ruth Richardson, Jenny Shipley or Helen Clark – may have cultivated a personal steeliness to help crash their way through the glass ceiling. But partly thanks to those forerunners, Ardern is able to let her personal warmth come to the fore, and include pregnancy and childbirth as part of her prime ministerial term. Is National sure that voters – the young and female, in particular – will be swayed by accusations of weakness levelled against her?

Could it be that Bridges has taken that tack because he’s less interested in expanding National’s appeal than he is in shoring up his own base in the party and caucus? If he wasn’t out there playing the “weakness” card, it might just be used against him by an ambitious colleague – possibly even a woman.

The government’s bungle-fest, which coincided with plunging levels of business confidence, overlapped with a run of more positive headlines.

First, in mid-September, the coalition partners mended their differences sufficiently to appear together as Ardern outlined what she called the “cabinet-mandated Coalition Government work plan”. With real-life motherhood covered, she served up the proverbial motherhood-and-apple-pie version in a list of 12 priority outcomes across the economy, “wellbeing” and government leadership.

Peters, who made the event’s opening remarks, predictably blamed the media for spreading the notion of cracks in the coalition. Ardern preferred to suggest the “little bit of chat” around coalition relations might just be because it was the first government of its kind. “It should come as no surprise, though, that as three distinct parties, we will have different opinions and ideas.”

Stage-managed as it was, the show of unity finally offered a counter to the idea that the government was falling apart, with Peters a law to himself.

Next, Ardern went to New York, proving as much of a hit with the soft media there as she has been on home soil. Can it seriously be argued that having a young, personable, groundbreaking Prime Minister charming her way around the Big Apple is anything but a win for New Zealand’s international image? Her largely deft handling of questions about US President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations showed a growing ease with the demands of international diplomacy.

And finally, New Zealand First celebrated its 25th birthday, giving Peters a platform from which to pour scorn on the suggestions of coalition cracks and launch a counter assault at the “leaderless, moribund and vacuous” National.

Many more headlines were generated, however, by the party conference’s support for a bill to force refugees and migrants to sign up to “New Zealand values”. The idea is almost certainly dead in the water; Ardern has said it’s not something Labour is likely to support. But it pushes a lot of buttons, on both sides of the argument. For at least a couple of days, it helped fill the nation’s talkback schedules and comment boards, allowing Peters and his party to depict themselves as tough on immigration, whatever the hard facts to the contrary.

It was a perfect example of how the partners in this coalition can carve out territory without necessarily having to follow through. Shane Jones’ attacks on the corporate sector – from Fonterra to Air New Zealand and the Australian-owned banks – are in a similar category.

Between them, Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens can promote a swarm of positions and ideas, while the government’s final programme will only be confirmed by that all-important cabinet mandate.

Back in 2008, John Key warned another Labour-led government would be a “five-headed monster”. This version is only three-headed, but that still makes it a fiendishly difficult creature for opponents to get a bead on.
National risks being drawn into fighting on too many fronts, and punching at shadows. An invigorated New Zealand First, with its mixture of real wins at the cabinet table and targeted posturing elsewhere, is a particular handful. Its unreconstructed conservatism and Rob’s Mob roots have the potential to draw out some of National’s own contradictions.

Although Ardern does not have as tight a grip on the levers of power as her predecessors, calling her “weak” seems a misfire, particularly when Bridges was caught up in his own leaks muddle. Even he would have to concede her image is pretty strong, and maybe with this mash-up of a government, that’s the most important kind of strength to have. 

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