Bryce Edwards: Labour-led Government is suffering from “first-term-itis”

Bryce Edwards: Labour-led Government is suffering from “first-term-itis”

Any new government is going to have some teething problems in its first year. And this is especially likely when there are a lot of new ministers – and, indeed, a prime minister – without experience in government. Jacinda Ardern’s government is currently facing a number of difficulties which can easily be put down to “first-term-itis”.

The important thing is how Ardern as prime minister deals with the curveballs being thrown at her. They are a test of her leadership, and of the coherence and stability of her government.

Some commentators allege the wheels are already falling off the government. Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking looks today at the government’s problems and comments: “Labour can’t run a summer camp, they can’t control ministers, they’ve got a former leader barking advice and the economy is in trouble. It’s time to step up and get their act together” – see: Labour’s a shambles and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern haunted by weakness. He says that the Government looks “ill-disciplined, sloppy, incoherent, and led by a woman who doesn’t want to be tough.”

Hosking believes that Ardern is not displaying the type of strong leadership shown by her predecessor, Helen Clark, and needs to rise to the occasion: “She has to harden up and start actually being a proper leader. The honeymoon is over. All that charm, smiles, and gushing that so transfixed the media into the opening months of ‘gooey could do no wrong’ headlines are gone. Charm takes you only so far, the rest is discipline, focus, and a backbone.”

In contrast, another Newstalk ZB talkback host, Heather du Plessis Allen, has been arguing the opposite case on radio this morning, saying the Prime Minister has handled the current Meka Whaitiri crisis decisively and properly, and that the public is likely to credit her for this. What’s more, she thinks that “Labour’s turned a corner” and has generally taken back control of the political agenda since Ardern has returned from maternity leave. They’ve been releasing plenty of strong new initiatives and policies, dealt well with the business confidence problems, and now “the party looks like it knows what it’s doing in government”.

I’ve been on TVNZ’s Breakfast this morning to say that Ardern has had mixed success with challenges she has faced recently and, in terms of the Meka Whaitiri controversy, will be under pressure to take a strong approach – see 1News’ Jacinda Ardern to be tested over Meka Whaitiri incident after ‘soft’ Clare Curran punishment, political commentator Bryce Edwards says.

In this interview, I say “I can’t remember two ministers being lost like this within one week before in New Zealand politics. For the government and for Jacinda Ardern it becomes a test for how well Jacinda Ardern handles this”. But it’s not all negative for Ardern, though: “A prime minster just can’t have control of her ministers in this way, so I think people might even have a bit of sympathy for Ardern having to deal with all these difficulties”.

Former Labour Party president Mike Williams also refers to the problems of “first-term-itis” in explaining some of the Government’s recent problems – see Newstalk ZB’s Investigation into Meka Whaitiri believed to involve ‘shoving’. This reports that Williams “says one of the issues is the lack of training for ministers”. Williams is quoted saying: “I think it’s probably lack of supports, ministerial services don’t seem to think it’s their job to give these new ministers basic instructions on staffing”.

The Meka Whaitiri controversy is covered well by RNZ’s Craig McCulloch, who reports: “Sources have told RNZ the inquiry is into an accusation that the former minister pushed the woman, who had recently started as press secretary, after a heated argument on Wednesday. Police would not say whether they had received a complaint or if they were investigating. Sources have told RNZ Ms Whaitiri was difficult to work with and point to a high staff turnover in her office. The press secretary role had been vacant for months” – see: Labour MP accused of ‘manhandling’ press secretary.

He also quotes Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters: “Allegations are not fact. They’re allegations. Let’s see whether they’re meritorious or not.” And, of course, the Leader of the Opposition Simon Bridges claims that this incident adds up to the fact that the Government is “coming apart at the seams”.

A news report on Stuff provides further details, worth quoting at length: “Stuff has been told relations in Whaitiri’s office are toxic and she is understood to have been through an entire rotation of staff in the short time she has been in the job. People who are close to the situation told Stuff on Thursday Whaitiri can be unpleasant and difficult to deal with, but it’s understood Ardern’s actions relate to a specific incident involving a single staff member. The investigation follows allegations of shouting during which it is understood there was physical contact. Stuff has been told the nature of the allegation is that the staff member was pushed out the door.  Police are not involved. There have been a growing number of questions asked about the number of her staff going through Whaitiri’s office. Stuff has been told of bullying behaviour and incidents of staff leaving without notice” – see: PM stands Minister Meka Whaitiri aside over staffing issue.

Analysing all of this, the Herald’s Audrey Young says that the Government’s reputation is being “brought into disrepute” at the moment, and this has “now been compounded by the Whaitiri investigation” – see: Meka Whaitiri had high turnover of staff, was difficult to work for.

Young suggests that Whaitiri does not face a “bright future” given that, the latest investigation aside, she is “considered difficult to work for” and has other staffing difficulties. But she also points out that “Being difficult to work with has never been grounds for dismissal from Cabinet – otherwise people like Murray McCully would never have survived.”

A blog post on the Government-aligned website, The Standard, makes the case that the Labour-led Government is handling ministerial problems better than previous administrations: “when the allegation was made, Meka Whaitiri went immediately to the PM, explained the situation and offered to stand down. That offer was accepted and the matter was made public. The significance of this sequence is that the Ardern led Government has higher standards than the Key led Government. Key dealt with a series of scandals behind closed doors” – see: Facing Meka.

This blog post also makes the case for Ardern carrying out an early reshuffle: “Most Ministers seem to be doing an excellent job, quietly getting on with their work. However, re-assessing the team and making early changes, if needed, sets the Government on course for re-election. The simple fact is that the role of Minister is difficult, stressful and demanding. Better to move on those that aren’t coping sooner rather than later.”

Finally, the Labour Summer Camp Report was released this week, prompting more questions about party leadership. This caused former leader Helen Clark to come out and say that heads would have rolled if the scandal had occurred under her watch – see Alice Guy’s Former Prime Minister Helen Clark addresses summer camp scandal, Donald Trump and gender diversity.