Week In Politics: Policy problems and woeful performances

1:01 pm on 11 September 2018

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis -Winston Peters gives Labour another policy problem, Clare Curran's woeful performance in Parliament raises questions about her future, and National gets serious about identifying the leaker.

Clare Curran answering questions in parliament, 5 September 2018

During question time on Wednesday Clare Curran was questioned by National's Melissa Lee about using a personal gmail account] for official business. Photo: Screengrab / inthehouseNZ

Labour Party policy is not government policy - unless Winston Peters says it is. That brutal reality was again demonstrated this week when the New Zealand First leader and deputy prime minister said his party had never agreed to doubling the refugee quota to 1500.

Labour campaigned on it as a flagship policy and the Greens want an even higher quota, but they're not going to get it.

"We've got 50,000 people homeless and I can show you parts of Northland with people living in degradation," Mr Peters said on Tuesday.

"We have to fix up their lives as well before we start taking on new obligations of the level that some people would like."

On Wednesday the issue reached Parliament's debating chamber, where National MPs hounded Acting Prime Minister Kelvin Davis, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway, and Acting Foreign Minister David Parker.

All three said it was not government policy and still had to go through Cabinet.

"We're not yet across the line on that," Mr Parker told the House.

Mr Lees-Galloway said he remained personally committed to increasing the quota to 1500.

National's senior MPs are describing it as a fundamental foreign policy issue on which Labour and its coalition partner are out of step, and more important than the disagreement over abolishing the three strikes law which Justice Minister Andrew Little wanted but New Zealand First didn't.

There's going to be some hard bargaining before they are across the line. Peters may compromise but almost certainly won't agree to 1500 and he'll want something in return.

"Labour will fold and it will be 1000," said National's Amy Adams.

She could be right.

But there isn't likely to be an agreement any time soon, and by saying what he did at this time Mr Peters hasn't done Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern any favours.

She'll soon be going to New York where she'll speak at the United Nations, and the global refugee crisis is a major issue for member nations.

Mr Peters has put her on the back foot, writes Stuff's Tracy Watkins: "Unless Peters changes tack, Ardern will land in New York with even less to say about her Government's response to one of the most pressing problems of our time."

New Zealand's quota, on a per capita basis, is below most other developed countries, including Australia.

Clare Curran's astonishingly inept performance during question time on Wednesday had to be heard to be believed.

The broadcasting minister, who lost two of her portfolios and was sacked from Cabinet over her failure to diarise or reveal meetings, was questioned by National's Melissa Lee about using a personal gmail account for official business.

Flustered and excruciatingly uncertain, Ms Curran replied: "To the best of my recollection, um, ah, ah, I haven't used my, um, I've answered um OIA, ah, ah, OIA responses and personal, um, and parliamentary questions correctly."

Ms Lee later told RNZ she didn't know what Ms Curran was talking about, and there were clearly issues of data security and transparency that had to be cleared up.

"If she's used that email account to do official business, government business, then she needs to be very clear as to what she has done, what correspondence she's actually had - she needs to declare it and she hasn't," Ms Lee said.

Ms Curran's inability to explain herself must have horrified her Labour colleagues, and the prime minister, who wasn't there, won't have been left in any doubt about that.

Media reaction has been intense. "Curran no longer passes the test as a minister," said Newshub's Duncan Garner.

"Her credibility, crucially, has gone. She can't be trusted and she's a liability for the Government."

Ms Lee wanted to question Ms Curran further on Thursday but the minister wasn't in Parliament.

If Ms Ardern doesn't send Ms Curran to the back benches after this, National will ramp up its accusations of weak leadership.**

National is getting serious about finding out who leaked details of leader Simon Bridges travel expenses.

The party has appointed PWC and Simpson Grierson to carry out the inquiry and its 56 MPs have signed privacy waivers.

RNZ reports that no MP has denied they would have to hand over their laptops and mobile phones.

The cost of Mr Bridges travel was revealed by someone claiming to be a National MP, and there was a subsequent email pleading for Mr Mallard's inquiry to be called off because of the impact it would have on the sender's mental health.

It's a strange task for PWC and Simpson Grierson - they're looking for someone whose identity is already known to the police, who won't tell Mr Bridges.

*Peter Wilson is a life member of Parliament's press gallery, 22 years as NZPA's political editor and seven as parliamentary bureau chief for NZ Newswire.

** Ms Curran resigned on Friday afternoon.