Guyon Espiner: Can the govt recover its lost luggage?

9:28 am on 5 September 2018

Analysis - Momentum, clarity and cohesion are essential check-in items for a happy travelling government but right now they are three items of lost luggage for the Labour-led government.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones. Photo: RNZ

A crisis? No. Recoverable? Certainly. But the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern faces a cluster of challenges from her coalition partner and from within her own party.

New Zealand First continues to clip Labour's wings in what is now becoming a trend.

First it was the Three Strikes Law. Justice Minister Andrew Little told everyone it would be repealed. Then, when it was about to go to Cabinet, and as the prime minister was preparing to go on maternity leave, Winston Peters pulled the plug.

Now it's refugee numbers. Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway told everyone the quota would increase from 1000 to 1500. In June media reported the minister was preparing a paper for Cabinet.

Then, from the Pacific Islands Forum in Nauru, where the major issue is refugee policy, and with the prime minister just about to join him there, Mr Peters pulls the plug.

Labour will now be scrambling to get NZ First agreement to make good on its promise for an intake of 1500 refugees. But given the strength of Mr Peters' stated opposition, that now looks doubtful. Or it will come at a price.

Media exploring the distance between the coalition partners on these issues are sometimes met with a loud riposte: They're different parties! It's MMP, stupid!

They have a point. But it's a point Labour and NZ First must absorb themselves. Either Labour ministers are carelessly promoting plans which don't have full government support or NZ First is reminding Labour where the real power lies.

NZ First MP Shane Jones seems to be relishing these moments. He attacks Air New Zealand, the prime minister bats back by appointing the Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon to head her new Business Advisory Council, established amidst a collapse in business confidence. Then Mr Jones bites back, dismissing Mr Luxon as a celebrity appointment.

Volatility from NZ First is particularly unhelpful for Ms Ardern right now because her own crew are creating turbulence too.

Clare Curran, formerly Open Government Minister, makes the same mistake twice: Failing to properly declare meetings with high profile players in media and communications. She is demoted from Cabinet but remains a minister.

Why does she lose Open Government and keep Broadcasting, where the same offence was committed? With her future unresolved, Ms Curran remains an opposition target.

Minister Meka Whaitiri is also in limbo, accused of "manhandling" her new press secretary. Rather than cutting her loose Ms Ardern has set up an inquiry which could drag on for weeks. Meanwhile leaks dribble out about what actually happened.

Ms Ardern won't have to face questions in Parliament on the issue for the rest of the week as she flies out to the Pacific Islands Forum. That too proved a distraction with media interest in the Royal New Zealand Air Force plane making a special return trip to pick her up, a cost estimated at $80,000.

Perhaps only a few partisans will begrudge Ms Ardern making these arrangements to accommodate her new family but it does rather draw the sting from criticism of the Opposition leader Simon Bridges for spending a similar sum on his regional tour.

Ms Ardern's flight out to the forum will be largely empty, with her and maybe a smattering of staff rattling around in that plane. It might be a good time to figure out what's gone missing in the past few weeks.

Someone needs to find the lost luggage and the flight plan. The government needs to regain momentum, clarity and cohesion. It needs to look like it knows where it's going and assure people that the moving parts are travelling in the same direction.

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