Week in Politics: A big week for the government - and nothing went wrong

7:20 pm on 14 June 2019

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis: The government was on the move this week, announcing the troop withdrawal from Iraq, the biggest military spend-up in New Zealand's history, changes to the "Hobbit law" and intense efforts to end the teachers' strike.

Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's government has a week where nothing went wrong, according to Peter Wilson. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

And nothing went wrong.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern began the week by announcing at her post-Cabinet press conference that all New Zealand's troops would be withdrawn from Iraq by June 2020.

Labour in opposition was firmly opposed to sending them in the first place and the decision wasn't unexpected.

It could have been controversial but Ms Ardern and Defence Minister Ron Mark managed to sell it as a carefully considered move which had raised no problems with allies, particularly Australia, whose troops were working with ours at Camp Taji to train Iraqi forces.

The prime minister had spoken to her Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, and there was "absolutely no issue".

It was a big week in the news for the Defence Force, listen to RNZ Political Editor Jane Patterson's in depth look at how it played out in this week's Focus on Politics.

During the press conference both Ms Ardern and Mr Mark appeared to indicate Australia would soon be engaged in a similar exercise, describing the withdrawal as a carefully planned exit strategy "alongside partners".

They quickly backed off when questioned about that. National, which sent the troops in when it was in government, didn't raise serious issues with the withdrawal.

National's defence spokesman Mark Mitchell said the decision was the right one - if it really was in line with New Zealand's partners, especially Australia and the United States. Ms Ardern said she was unaware of any problems with the US.

Defence Minister Ron Mark

Defence Minister Ron Mark. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The defence minister, in the finest hour of his tenure, announced the cabinet had signed off on a $20 billion military shopping list out to 2030 with five new C-130J Hercules aircraft the first big buy.

They'll be top-tier aircraft with the latest equipment for their main peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations, replacing those of the same make that were delivered in 1965 - when Mr Mark was 11, as RNZ pointed out.

This time there was no quibbling from National, with Mr Mitchell saying his party would have done the same if it was in power.

The long-term plan includes increasing military personnel and equipping them with new planes, ships, drones and tanks. The need to respond to the impact of climate change underpins much of it.

"We have accepted responsibility to support smaller Pacific Island nations to respond to the sorts of disasters which befall them," Mr Mark said.

That's firmly in line with Foreign Minister Winston Peters' Pacific reset policy, which envisages closer engagement in the region.

Workplace Relations Minister Iain Lees-Galloway announced changes to what became known as the "Hobbit law", introduced by National in 2010.

Iain Lees-Galloway, Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, ACC, and of Immigration.

Iain Lees-Galloway. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The legislation, fiercely opposed by Labour and the union movement, meant film production workers were independent contractors and could not collectively bargain. It also significantly increased subsidies for big productions.

The then government feared the big movie studios would quit New Zealand because of the threat of strikes, and there had been heavy pressure on ministers. Labour accused National of breaching New Zealand's sovereignty by selling legislation.

Mr Lees-Galloway's changes return the right to collective bargaining, but the production workers can stay as independent contractors if they want to. He claimed it was actually a better deal for them than repealing the law, which was what Labour had vowed to do.

The announcement didn't make waves, and actors welcomed it.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins could also be in line for one of his finest hours after personally intervening in the teachers' strike.

Minister of Education Chris Hipkins is quizzed by MPs on the Education and Workforce Committee as part of the Estimates Hearings.

Education Minister Chris Hipkins Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

It's taken him a long time, but getting both teacher unions at the table together for intense sessions may have broken the deadlocked negotiations. Secondary teachers called off future strikes, describing the talks as "very productive".

On Friday morning Mr Hipkins announced a new offer was on the table and unions would recommend they be ratified. The new deal will increase most teachers' salaries by about $12,000 over three years.

The Treasury hacking controversy didn't move much during the week and will need a major development for the media to again become fascinated with it.

The government finally published a timeline of events which showed the statements claiming Treasury's website had been hacked were issued before the GCSB told ministers it hadn't been.

National maintained its outrage as Ms Ardern told Parliament the government never accused it of anything because at the time it didn't know who had done it or what had really happened. That's true, but despite that Finance Minister Grant Robertson managed to issue a statement with the words hack, National Party and police in the same few paragraphs, with obvious implications.

And, finally, the amazing weekend opinion polls.

TV One's Colmar Brunton poll and Newshub's Reid Research poll delivered such starkly contradictory results that nothing could be seriously interpreted from either of them. Either Labour was so popular it could govern alone if an election was held now, or it was in trouble and National was in the ascendancy.

Given that the polls are the only indication the public and the media have of the popularity of parties and their chances in the next election, this doesn't bode well for the future.

Either one of the polls is very badly wrong or reality is somewhere in the middle.

Trust in polls took big hits when the Brexit result was wrongly forecast, Hillary Clinton was the strong favourite to win the US election and Australia's Labor Party should have easily defeated the government.

Hopefully, ours will start to make sense in the coming months.

*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.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs