Week in Politics: National's joy and Labour's woes

3:10 pm on 9 December 2022
National Party leader Christopher Luxon and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

National Party leader Christopher Luxon and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ

Analysis: National could be poised to take Labour's Hamilton West seat and it's still on track to win next year's general election, the latest polls show. The government removes the hugely contentious entrenchment clause from Three Waters legislation but the row rages on as National calls on the prime minister to sack Nanaia Mahuta, and Willie Jackson's "trainwreck" interview about the RNZ/TVNZ merger.

There could hardly be a stronger contrast between National's week and the government's.

It began with two polls, and they were both bad news for Labour.

A Taxpayer's Union/Curia poll in Hamilton West, reported by Stuff, showed National's Tama Potaka well clear of Labour's Georgie Dansy, 46 percent to 33 per cent, with ACT's James McDowall running third on 12 percent.

That's a strong lead going into Saturday's by-election, although 28 percent of the 400 respondents were undecided and the margin of error was high at 4.9 percent.

National leader Christopher Luxon continued to insist it was going to be "incredibly difficult" for his party to win.

He told Morning Report the race was "actually really close" and he was worried about a poor turnout.

The run up to Christmas was a difficult time for a by-election and many people were "frankly unaware" it was even happening, Luxon said.

He described the electorate as a "big stronghold" for Labour, although National easily held it from 2008 until the 'red tide' election in 2020 which gave Gaurav Sharma the seat.

He was standing as a representative of his newly-formed New Zealand Momentum Party after resigning following his expulsion from Labour, but gained only 4 percent in the poll.

RNZ described the by-election as a litmus test for next year's general election.

Then there was the big picture shown in the nationwide One News Kantar poll, which followed the trend of Labour losing support and National gaining.

It gave National 38 percent, up one point, while Labour was down one to 33.

ACT gained two points to 11 percent.

Translated into seats in Parliament, National and ACT would have 64 if an election was held now, a comfortable majority, while Labour, the Greens and Te Pati Maori would have 55.

The only comfort Labour could take from it was that Jacinda Ardern was still the preferred prime minister - 29 percent to Luxon's 23 percent.

These results came out as the government began what was going to be a really bad week.

It had to put the Water Services Entities Bill, the Three Waters legislation, back into its committee stage so it could remove the hugely contentious entrenchment clause that Labour and the Greens voted into it.

National wasn't letting it go. "We have a grovelling backdown but the stain on our democracy, the damage to our constitution, will remain," said National's deputy leader Nicola Willis.

Ardern had a torrid time in Parliament.

National had got hold of a cabinet minute from May which said it had been decided there would be no entrenchment in the Three Waters legislation.

Luxon said that meant that when Nanaia Mahuta, the minister in charge of the bill, had spoken in support of the Greens' amendment she had gone against a cabinet decision.

He wanted to know why Ardern wasn't going to sack Mahuta.

Ardern replied that Mahuta hadn't broken the rules because it was a Green Party amendment.

That wasn't a convincing response and as the media delved further into the entrenchment fiasco it was reported that the Labour MPs in the chamber that night did know what was going on.

Mahuta backed the Greens' entrenchment amendment, saying those who opposed privatisation of water assets had a "moral obligation" to support it.

Labour's Greg O'Connor, in the chair, explained how many votes were needed to get 60 percent entrenchment through, which was 72. Labour and the Greens mustered more than that, and the clause was put into the bill.

Stuff reported there was no shock-horror after the vote, no surprise was shown, and Associate Local Government Minister Kieran McAnulty "could be seen smiling at the successful vote".

Amid these revelations, Ardern continued to refuse to explain precisely what went wrong. She said she didn't know about the vote until after it had happened and hadn't seen the Greens Supplementary Order Paper (the amendment).

Mahuta appeared to try to escape blame, or at least share it, when she said anyone who had read the select committee report on the bill, a public document, would have known the Greens' view had been "identified".

She said the Labour MPs on the committee which produced the report would also have known about it.

She's right about the Greens' view being there - one paragraph within 200 pages - and it says: "The Green Party disagrees that entrenchment should only be used for constitutional matters and considered entrenchment with a 60 percent majority (given the lack of support from National for a 75 percent majority) would be appropriate as a check on future privatisation of water infrastructure."

Saying that 60 percent entrenchment would be "appropriate" is not the same as producing an amendment and putting it to a vote in Parliament.

Newshub reported that Mahuta didn't let the caucus know the Greens were going ahead with a 60 percent proposal.

Ardern's repeated response to questions from the media and the opposition was that it was a "team mistake" and the team had fixed it.

Stuff's Thomas Manch said that in a sense she was entirely correct. "No one person made the mistake, the Labour caucus as a whole has stuffed up, either through hubris or ignorance."

Newshub's political editor Jenna Lynch said the prime minister's refusal to explain how it happened left the government "wide open to accusations that this was a deliberate move, that they wanted this entrenchment, they got found out."

The Herald's Thomas Coughlan said it was Mahuta's responsibility to proactively inform her colleagues what they were voting for, and suggested she might not survive.

"Mahuta is likely to leave cabinet soon and possibly by involuntary means," he said.

Commentator Bryce Edwards, writing in the Herald, said Mahuta appeared to have conspired with the Greens to bring in the last-minute amendment.

She had "seemingly defied the prime minister and cabinet, and breached the cabinet manual - normally all sackable offences," Edwards said.

His conclusion as to why she hadn't been sacked was that Labour's Māori caucus was large and powerful - 15 MPs and six out of 20 cabinet ministers.

"Insiders say that they have incredibly strong leverage over Ardern and her fellow ministers," Edwards said.

The bill passed its final stage, the third reading, on Thursday.

The Greens withdrew their support because they didn't think there was sufficient protection against privatisation since their entrenchment provision had been removed.

The legislation has caused the government serious problems, it wasn't popular and National has vowed to repeal it.

The entrenchment controversy "added a sour taste to an already bitter brew," RNZ reported.

Amid all this, the controversy around Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson's chaotic interview with Jack Tame on TVNZ's Q&A last Sunday was light relief.

The interview was about the merger of RNZ and TVNZ into a single entity.

When he was questioned over the editorial independence of the new entity and the transparency of the establishment board, Jackson repeatedly resorted to questioning the motives and bias of Tame and TVNZ, RNZ reported.

Jackson was duly roasted by the media and Ardern said she had spoken to him about it.

"Some have taken issue with some of the comments," she said at her post-cabinet press conference on Monday.

"I can see how people may have taken issue with some of them."

Jackson gave a partial apology but played down the criticism, saying it came largely from the media.

"Clearly, given the response from the media it was a misstep," he said.

"So, you know, it wasn't one of my greatest interviews - a lot of our supporters I have to say really enjoyed the interview…. but I accept what some of the media are saying."

National Party broadcasting spokesperson Melissa Lee described the interview as a "trainwreck".

"The way he talked on Q&A is a clear sign he intends interfering with the culture, operations and decisions of the new entity while having political influence over it," she said.

Lee again committed National to "demerging" RNZ and TVNZ if it wins the next election, regardless of how far it had progressed.

It didn't end there for Ardern, who really wasn't having a good week.

Questioned about the merger on Newshub's AM Show, she talked about the risk of RNZ "collapsing" without the merger.

Luxon picked up on that, asking her in Parliament on Tuesday: "Why did she claim that Radio New Zealand would collapse if it's not merged with TVNZ, when Radio New Zealand is 100 percent funded by the taxpayer?"

Ardern said she had been referring to the general issue of listenership and viewership.

"We know that since 2014, for instance, daily audience share for television has dropped from 83 percent to 56 percent. We know for radio it's dropped from 67 percent to 47 percent," she said.

"Public Service broadcasting is important to New Zealanders, no matter what, we need to change the way that we are funding these services because, particularly for TVNZ, their revenue is declining."

Luxon wanted to know her reaction to Stuff's political editor Luke Malpass, who had said of the merger "it has no clear rationale, no clear plan, and no obvious problem it is willing to fix".

Ardern said the business case was produced by Deloitte and showed change was required.

The Herald's political editor Claire Trevett said Jackson had provided more entertainment this week than the two public broadcasters put together.

She wondered whether he would survive the next cabinet reshuffle.

"If Jackson actually likes the broadcasting portfolio (and he may not after this week), he couldn't have picked a worse time for all of this," Trevett said.

"The PM is clearly not amused."

Trevett said the names of Jan Tinetti or Carmel Sepuloni were circulating as possible replacements to see the merger through.

The week ended with Ardern giving a glimpse of the year ahead in an interview with RNZ's political editor Jane Patterson.

A newly-prioritised spending plan and a fresh ministerial line-up are part of the landscape.

*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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