Week in Politics: Prickly end to year in Parliament

3:01 pm on 17 December 2022
Jacinda Ardern and David Seymour

Jacinda Ardern and David Seymour. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Analysis - Labour gets a thrashing and a warning from Hamilton West, ministers are told to take a hard look at which of their costly projects can be put on hold during election year and the prime minister gets international headlines for a remark she didn't think anyone heard.

The Hamilton West by-election result was, as expected, a bad one for Labour - but the abysmal turnout of 31 percent made commentators cautious about reading too much into it.

It was a sound thrashing - National's Tama Potaka won 46 percent of the votes cast, against Labour candidate Georgie Dansey's 30 percent.

And that was without the Greens being there to take any centre-left votes, although former MP Gaurav Sharma gained 8 percent, which could be considered Labour votes.

ACT carved out 10 percent from the centre-right, which would probably have gone to National.

"The turnout was so low that either Labour's supporters didn't bother to vote - or they are no longer there at all," said the Herald's political editor Claire Trevett.

"If that by-election does turn out to be a sign of what's to come in 2023, Labour is in line for a walloping."

Luke Malpass, Stuff's political editor, said the result was the capstone on a very good year for National.

"It was the by-election Labour never wanted to have and quietly expected to lose," he said. "As a broader indication for National, it was ultimately a good one."

It has to be said that Dansey was really up against it. She campaigned amid the cost of living crisis, ram-raids, the fatal stabbing of dairy worker Janak Patel, Sharma's chaotic resignation and a horrible few weeks for the government which included the entrenchment debacle.

New MP Tama Potaka with National Party leader Christopher Luxon

Tama Potaka and Christopher Luxon. Photo: RNZ / Andrew McRae

After taking a beating in Hamilton West, Labour was then faced with another opinion poll showing National and ACT well placed to form a government if a general election was held now.

Conducted by Curia for the Taxpayer's Union, it showed Labour falling 2.2 points on the previous month to 33.1 percent while National rose 1.8 points to 39.4 percent. With ACT on 10.4 percent, the two parties would have a total of 64 seats in Parliament, a comfortable majority.

The findings were in line with the two recent polls released by TVNZ and Newshub.

It's worth noting that Curia polled the by-election and got it very nearly right - it gave Potaka 46 percent, the same as the result, and Dansey 33 percent. She got 30 percent.

'Such an arrogant prick'

It was Parliament's last week, with the usual burst of urgency as bills were rushed through, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stole the show with five words.

"He's such an arrogant prick," she muttered, apparently to Grant Robertson, as she sat down after answering questions from ACT leader David Seymour.

She didn't know her microphone was still on, and she could be faintly heard. Hansard picked it up and reported it in the official record of the House.

Ardern sent Seymour a text message apologising and saying she shouldn't have said it, which he accepted and wished her Happy Christmas.

The next day, when she discovered it was in Hansard, Ardern stood in the House to formally apologise and withdraw her remark.

"It was a rare slip of the prime minister's mask, an insult glorious for being so succinct," said the Herald's Trevett.

"Seymour will take pride in it, as was evident from his joy in talking about it afterwards - the prime minister had made it obvious he was getting under her skin and he wanted people to know."

Ardern's comment, so unusual for her, was widely and enthusiastically reported in New Zealand and the Herald reported it had made headlines around the world.

The Guardian said Ardern had become the latest leader to fall victim to a hot microphone.

It recalled that in January US President Joe Biden thought his microphone was off when he called a Fox News reporter "a stupid son of a b…." for asking questions about inflation.

And South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol, after speaking with Biden at the UN, was caught saying "how could Biden not lose face if these f…… do not pass it in Congress".

He was referring to an attempt to increase the US contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

The Telegraph described her comment as a "colourful turn of phrase" while the Associated Press said it was a rare blunder for a leader known for her skill at debating and calm, measured responses.

There was a happy ending. Ardern and Seymour signed a framed transcript and it went on TradeMe with proceeds going to the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

David Seymour and Jacinda Ardern pose after signing a Hansard transcript for charity.

David Seymour and Jacinda Ardern pose after signing a Hansard transcript for charity. Photo: David Seymour / Trade Me / Supplied

"Standing up for pricks everywhere," Seymour quipped. "It's a great Kiwi ending."

Newshub reported that just hours after going up on Trade Me, bidding had passed $40,000.

Garage comments prompt barrage of complaints

National's leader Christopher Luxon also had a problem this week with something he said.

It was during an interview with Christchurch-based Chris Lynch Media when he said gang members had all the money, all the bling and flash cars.

"If you're sitting in a garage in South Auckland with your two brothers and you're thinking about life and where you're going, consciously or unconsciously, the gang life looks pretty attractive," Luxon said.

It upset Labour's Mangere MP and Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio.

He told Morning Report Luxon engaged well with "our communities" and wasn't ignorant.

"I just felt he was using this same old, same old political rhetoric, the dog whistle politics, I just thought you can't do that as a leader," Sio said.

"That kind of politics is very divisive… we don't all speak the same language and we don't all live in the same world - he's got to be better than that."

Others piled in, including the prime minister, and RNZ reported the backlash prompted Luxon "who owns seven properties and once infamously used a Mercedes to drive across the road from his apartment to Parliament" to respond.

"Sorry if anyone was offended," he said, refusing to apologise for what he referred to as "serious, substantive conversations" about the causes of crime.

National's deputy leader Nicola Willis [phttps://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/480698/national-party-deputy-leader-nicola-willis-defends-luxon-over-south-auckland-comments defended Luxon], saying "a lot of great things happen in the garages of South Auckland" and her boss did not mean to offend. He "did not disrespect anyone with his comments in the way that's being read into it".

Labour MP Willie Jackson

Willie Jackson. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Ardern caused a flurry of speculation this week when she said she had asked ministers to take a careful look at their legislative agendas during the summer break because she wanted to trim back and ensure the economy was the government's top priority next year.

"Going into 2023 we do need to make sure we are totally focused, we prioritise, and that we will be making sure where we need to pare back, we will," she said

That could mean she wants to kick for touch on troublesome, expensive and unpopular projects during election year, issues on which the opposition could create a lot of noise during the campaign.

National quickly picked up on the RNZ/TVNZ merger, which it has vowed to "demerge" if it wins next year, and which polls have shown is unpopular with voters.

Broadcasting Minister Willie Jackson's "trainwreck" interview last week didn't help.

Willis said Ardern had "sounded the death knell" on the $370 million merger.

It was an "ideological project" that should never have been put on the table, she said.

The Herald published an editorial, saying the merger had been "something of an albatross around the neck for Labour".

"It has been carried by three broadcasting ministers who have each struggled with questions over the need for it, the latest being Willie Jackson," it said.

"Indeed, the current economic headwinds give the government valid cause to 'pare back' on this drawn-out project. Ditching the scheme has a cost but might be small change compared with the potential blank cheque the government has been redrafting for the past five years."

The Herald said times had changed since the idea was first floated.

"This month, RNZ reported radio audience has increased compared with the previous survey and TVNZ OnDemand continues to set new record benchmarks," it said.

The government has said the merger is necessary to ensure the long-term future of both networks.

Something else Ardern might want on the sidelines is the work on co-governance, which threatens to be hugely controversial, and there are already strong indications that it's being prepared for the backburner.

Jackson, who is Minister for Māori Development, has confirmed he's "leaning towards" putting it on hold, RNZ reported.

The work forms part of New Zealand's implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

Jackson said he thought the first draft could be signed off by cabinet before Christmas, before going out for public consultation, but there was more work to do.

"We're way off in terms of timelines," he said.

"We've consulted with some Māori but other people haven't had an opportunity, Pakeha people, ethnic people. That's a lot of work to do."

Jackson said the work would continue over the next 12 months.

That takes it safely past next year's election.

Ardern was closely questioned at her post-cabinet press conference on what projects were likely to be put on hold or scrapped altogether, but she refused to be drawn.

She said she wasn't ruling anything in or out and wasn't going to pre-empt what came out of the reviews ministers would undertake.

Just before Parliament adjourned for the summer break, Finance Minister Grant Robertson announced the 25 cents a litre petrol discount would be phased out from the end of February and end on March 31.

Half-price public transport fares would end on the same date, although they would continue for community card holders.

Watch out for the opinion polls after that happens.

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