Week in Politics: Peters is putting his party first

1:57 pm on 14 September 2018

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - More coalition policy problems as Winston Peters puts his party first and National MPs demand the release of what they're calling Clare Curran's "secret" emails.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Winston Peters knows the perils of being a minor coalition partner and he's not going to see New Zealand First swallowed by Labour and forgotten by the media.

That, as much as anything, is the reason behind the string of policy problems Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her cabinet colleagues have been faced with.

There was Justice Minister Andrew Little's aborted bid to repeal the three strikes law and then Peters' refusal to support raising the refugee quota to 1500.

This week two more surfaced - NZ First has concerns about the Employment Relations Amendment Bill and caused the last minute postponement of an announcement about the formation of a Maori/Crown Relations Office.

These are not "cracks in the coalition" as they've sometimes been referred to. The coalition isn't in danger and won't be as long as its member parties want the Government to survive.

Mr Peters is putting his party first, and in public, on issues he knows resonate with voters.

He's reminding them that apart from policies locked into the coalition agreement, everything else has to have his party's sign off.

While he's doing this, Mr Peters is carefully playing down the differences and presenting them as business as usual in a coalition government.

So is Ms Ardern as she faces persistent questions in Parliament by National MPs determined to show her as a weak leader, and they're being gifted one opportunity after another to attack her.

Difficulties with the Employment Relations Amendment Bill are unusual in that the legislation is well on its way through the pipeline.

It passed its first reading and was reported back by a select committee with only minor amendments. It still has to go through its second reading, committee and third reading stages. At this point, a government bill would usually be a done deal.

The bill scraps the 90-day trial period for businesses with 20 or more employees and carries a raft of union-friendly changes including collective agreement bargaining and greater union access to workplaces.

Mr Peters hasn't withdrawn his party's support for the bill but says its provisions are "work in progress", which has been taken as an indication NZ First isn't happy with some of the measures in it.

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones says there's no guarantee what will happen.

"I'm entitled to hear the concerns of provincial employers, I'm entitled to hear the concerns of regional leaders."

The only way the bill can be changed is during its committee stage, when proposed amendments go to a vote, and that's a very public way to go about resolving issues between coalition partners.

Unless NZ First agrees to the entire bill, which seems highly unlikely, Labour will have to accept changes and they will be debated. National will have a fine time with that after setting the stage this week with questions from National's Simon Bridges to Ms Ardern such as "can we no longer believe ministerial press releases unless they're signed off by Winston Peters?"

Ms Ardern told him not to be ridiculous.

On Thursday Mr Lees-Galloway indicated he could be open to amending the bill.

"If the Government sees an opportunity to improve the bill during the committee of the whole (the committee stage) it will take it," he told Parliament.

The postponement of Kelvin Davis' Maori/Crown Relations Office announcement was badly managed. Media were called to the upcoming announcement in the Beehive, arrived and set up their gear, and waited. And waited. It didn't happen - NZ First had raised last-minute objections.

It seems Mr Davis was ahead of the game - what he was going to announce hadn't been signed off by Labour's coalition partner.

Apart from taunting the prime minister over her alleged weakness, National used its questions in Parliament this week to rake over the coals of Clare Curran's resignation and demand the emails from her personal gmail account.

The former minister has confirmed she used that account for ministerial matters, and National wants to know what she was up to.

MPs are suspicious about her dealings with tech entrepreneur Derek Handley and think she quietly promised him he would become the Government's chief technology officer.

On Wednesday National's Nick Smith directly asked State Services Minister Chris Hipkins about that - was Derek Handley offered the position?

Mr Hipkins said he wouldn't comment on the appointment process "while it is still live".

It was Ms Curran's failure to record or reveal a meeting she had with Handley that caused Ms Ardern to sack her from the Cabinet.

Ms Curran set up the meeting through her gmail account and has said "there may be some more" between herself and Mr Handley.

They're the ones National wants but it's going to have to wait until all Curran's ministerial emails are extracted and archived in the proper way.

At that point, they can be sought under the Official Information Act.

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