6 Mar 2020

The Week in Politics: Ardern shows she can dish it out

6:28 pm on 6 March 2020

By Peter Wilson*

Analysis - Unusually strong words from the prime minister as she deals with an intransigent Australian government and a rogue New Zealand First minister, National needles her over legislative hold-ups and the economic impact of coronavirus looks set to last longer than initially expected.

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Photo: Penny Bradfield/Auspic

Since she became prime minister, Jacinda Ardern has been a softly spoken leader, but that's changing. This week her reaction to Shane Jones' latest outburst was an unusually strong rejection of his outspoken views on Indian students and it followed her blunt message to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison - "do not deport your people and your problems".

Morrison said there wasn't going to be any change.

Australia's Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton described Ardern's words as "regrettable" and suggested she was playing to her home crowd in election year. There could be a grain of truth in that, National has persistently accused her of being a weak prime minister.

Dutton's comments brought Winston Peters into the game. "There's no way under former Australian prime ministers we would have been treated that way," he told RNZ "I look forward to a night in the future in Australia when we get a fair go."

Peters pointed out that Australia had deported 2032 people while New Zealand had deported 13.

The trans-Tasman spat will probably be soon forgotten, but Ardern's run-in with Jones isn't likely to be a passing problem for the coalition government.

At her post-cabinet press conference on Monday Ardern said his comment that Indian students had ruined educational institutions in New Zealand was "loose and wrong" and she made a point of strongly disagreeing with him.

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Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

The result was Jones "thumbing his nose at the prime minister" RNZ reported. "I speak on behalf of New Zealand First, in an MMP environment, in an election year," he said.

He couldn't have made the situation more clear than that. His party is fighting for its life and as the election approaches it isn't going to be forgotten the way other minor party coalition partners have been.

Were the comments racist? Ardern was asked a straight question about that at her press conference and after thinking about it for a moment replied: "They were wrong."

The Race Relations Commissioner, Meng Foon, said these were racist, and ignorant.

Winston Peters, standing firmly behind his MP, rejected that. How could they be racist when they reflected the views of people in the Indian community, he asked.

Ardern and her ministers are almost certainly going to have to deal with more positioning from NZ First as it distances itself from the Labour Party and plays up policy differences ahead of the election.

National knows what's going on, and in Parliament this week leader Simon Bridges put a string of questions to Ardern. When were there going to be announcements, he wanted to know, on an Ihumatao settlement and the feebate scheme for electric cars. The prime minister said he would hear about them when she was ready. The opposition believes NZ First is holding them up.

NZ Prime Minister meets with Australian PM Scott Morrison.

NZ Prime Minister meets with Australian PM Scott Morrison. Photo: Penny Bradfield/Auspic

The second tranche of gun law reform is also in a delicate position, with NZ First wanting amendments although the bill has passed its second reading. Changes can be made during the committee stage in Parliament, and NZ First's Ron Mark is negotiating with Police Minister Stuart Nash. Mark is in a strong position because the government needs NZ First's votes to pass the legislation. Should NZ First threaten to put up its own amendments, National would very likely back them.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson spent the week dealing with a more immediate problem - the economic impact of the Covid-19 virus outbreak that is now expected to last longer than initially anticipated. He said the government had been planning for three economic scenarios and was now moving into the second phase where the impact would be felt for a year, Stuff reported.

That has serious implications for economic growth right up to election time. Governments like to go into elections with a fair wind behind them but come September it could be blowing in their faces.

In the weeks and months ahead public perception of how the government is dealing with it, and how confident people are about their safety from it, could damage Ardern's chances of winning a second term.

Shane Jones

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says Shane Jones' comments were racist, and ignorant. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

A poll published by Stuff on Thursday put the question: Are you confident or not confident that New Zealand's border protection and quarantine will prevent large-scale outbreaks of the coronavirus in New Zealand? The result was 37 per cent confident, 47 per cent not confident and 16 per cent unsure.

Asked whether the government should ban travellers from all countries where coronavirus had caused deaths, the response was 55 per cent yes, 27 per cent no and 17 per cent unsure.

Those should be worrying figures for the government, because if there are more cases reported people will become increasingly worried about catching it themselves and public concern about the effectiveness of the government's protective measures could grow.

That would be a dangerously negative perception of ministerial abilities, something no government wants in the run-up to an election.

National is doing its best to push that perception along. Leader Simon Bridges described the government's response as sub-par, saying businesses needed to see a clear plan and there wasn't one.

*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.

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