Bryce Edwards: The vastly different perspectives on the Government

Bryce Edwards: The vastly different perspectives on the Government

What a contrast there is at the moment between international media coverage of Jacinda Ardern and the heat being applied by local media over her handling of current government problems. In the weekend, the British Guardian newspaper published a glowing feature story on New Zealand’s Prime Minister by Eleanor Ainge Roy – see: Meeting Jacinda Ardern: ‘She makes the extraordinary seem ordinary’.

Here’s how the article opens: “The last time I interviewed Jacinda Ardern, she was in between breastfeeds, had just launched a plastic bag ban, negotiated an end to a strike by nurses and announced a new mental health hospital for acute patients. But, as usual, the prime minister of New Zealand was warm, frank and engaging.”

Ardern’s combining new motherhood and running the country is the key focus of the article. It says that the situation is extraordinary, yet at the same time has become “the new normal”, which is a progressive outcome for the country. Ainge Roy observes: “She made mothers and women and fathers and men all around the country look to the highest office in New Zealand and see themselves, and a version of their lives.”

The article contrasts the social, economic and political turbulence occurring around the rest of the world to calmness under the Ardern-led government. Problems are noted, but seem small in perspective: “Business confidence is down and climate change is lapping at our shores, but Neve Te Aroha is healthy, and so, largely, is the country.”

Another British newspaper, The Independent, also published a positive profile of the PM in the weekend – see Amy Nelmes Bissett’s From plastic bag bans to tackling poverty, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern makes progression look like child’s play. Jacindamania is explained: “It was all down to that clear vision, wanting to revolutionise politics by ‘bringing kindness back’, and her affable manner. It appears that a large part of that kindness is the restructuring of the country’s failing welfare service.”

Has Ardern been too soft on ministers’ misdemeanours?

In stark contrast, New Zealand’s weekend papers offered up very mixed reviews of the performance of the PM and her government. The most scathing was from Duncan Garner who pronounced the Government’s last week in politics to be “Disastrous. What a bloody mess” – see: Labour goes from charm offensive to utterly useless in 72 hours.

Garner is particularly unimpressed by the uneven talent amongst ministers: “Labour’s ministers are struggling. Not all of them. They have a handful who get it. The rest are pretenders and threaten the stability of the Government itself. They are not match-fit and simply lack the experience or smarts to be players in the big dance.”

Clare Curran is Garner’s main target: “Her sneaky approach to being the Minister of Open Government reeks of entitlement and arrogance. She should be on the backbench. She has failed the transparency test and kept information from the public, Parliament and the prime minister. How on earth can she be trusted or believed as broadcasting minister?”

The Prime Minister is thereby implicated by not sacking Curran: “her lax treatment of Clare Curran was weak and makes her look like a prime minister who is afraid to be too tough on her own. Helen Clark was never afraid to bare her teeth especially if it meant eating alive one of her own. Ardern is far less hungry and confident on that front.”

Unsurprisingly, this is the line also being pushed today by the leader of the opposition, Simon Bridges. He told Garner this morning that Ardern should have dealt with Meka Whaitiri more swiftly and decisively, rather than just passing the matter over to an investigation – see: Jacinda Ardern ‘weakened’ by Curran, Whaitiri – Simon Bridges.

Bridges argues Ardern should have sorted it out straight away: “I can tell you what Key or Clark would have done – it’s pretty simple… I would have thought it’s a pretty simple conversation between Prime Minister and minister, and it should be able to be resolved pretty quickly… If Meka Whaitiri can’t tell the Prime Minister what’s happening, that’s enough as well because a Prime Minister needs confidence in her.”

In contrast, most commentators and politicians have argued that Whaitiri deserves a fair investigation before her fate is decided. Not necessarily, according to Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins: “Ardern doesn’t need to follow natural justice principles when it comes to her ministers – just as they are not required to follow the usual natural justice rules when it comes to hiring and firing their own staff. Ardern’s only concern is whether she is being forced to burn some of her precious political capital on ministers who aren’t worth it” – see: Jacinda Ardern’s first term hex.

Watkins is also highly critical of the wider Labour leadership and government bureaucracy who might have prevented this latest controversy from even occurring. Here’s her argument: “allegations relating to Whaitiri’s relations with her staff date back even to Opposition days – and that should raise some serious questions not just for Ardern, but parliamentary and ministerial service bosses. First for Ardern –  how could the Labour hierarchy not know about Whaitiri’s reputation among parliamentary staff? And if it was a known issue, was Whaitiri ever challenged to explain before being put in charge of an office with a large number of people working under her? Was she offered staff training before taking up her role? Parliamentary Service and Ministerial Services must also explain whether, as good employers, they ever escalated the matter or raised concerns.”

Any idea that ministers simply need more training or support is dismissed by a New Zealand Herald editorial, which argues that Whaitiri already had plenty of experience: “It sounds like Whaitiri has failed at the very least to maintain the standards of professionalism and decorum needed in a ministerial office. Training is the suggested panacea for just about every workplace problem these days but political parties and Parliament are the training grounds for ministers of the Crown” – see: Two ministers down suggests ill-preparation.

But not all commentators are pronouncing Ardern weak, or suggesting that the Labour-led Government is in trouble. Heather du Plessis-Allan wrote in the Herald on Sunday that, although there’s a problem with Curran and Whaitiri (“Labour clearly has a talent problem if those two numpties are good enough to be ministers”), and Ardern should have fully-fired Curran, in general Ardern has “acted decisively and nipped the problems in the bud” – see: PM gets tough and shows true leadership.

She argues that since Ardern returned from maternity leave, the coalition has “morphed into a real government”, especially in dealing properly with the business community. What’s more, there have been plenty of populist announcements and clever politics from the prime minister.

Herald political editor Audrey Young also see progress being made, but says Ardern has had the misfortune of having to deal with curve balls from the likes of Helen Clark and Shane Jones. Young argues that, although the Prime Minister displayed “weak leadership” over the summer camp controversy, this was “the only glaring example” and “Ardern can’t be faulted in her management of the Whaitiri case so far” – see: Jacinda Ardern vulnerable to accusations of weakness.

Perhaps the PM’s kindness is one of the reasons she gets accused of being weak, according to Young: “Ardern is vulnerable to accusations of weakness by dint of her sheer pleasant personality and overall niceness.”

A Government re-shuffle on the cards?

In her column, Tracy Watkins says “An early Cabinet reshuffle either before Christmas or early next year is now looking not just likely, but unavoidable. A year down the track Ardern has a better handle on which ministers are performing and which aren’t up to it”. She argues for promotions for Kris Faafoi, a minister outside of Cabinet, and Kiritapu Allen, a first-term backbencher.

There’s an important identity politics element to all of these ministerial issues. This is explained well by RNZ political editor Jane Patterson: “During the election campaign, Ms Ardern talked about getting a 50/50 gender balance into the caucus and then potentially for the executive, comprised of ministers both inside and outside of Cabinet. At the moment there are 10 women in the 28 strong executive, however after Ms Curran’s demotion there is one woman fewer around the Cabinet table. If Ms Whaitiri loses her ministerial position, the goal of having at least 14 women in the executive slips further away” – see: PM’s hectic week: A crash course on damage control.

Therefore, in these personnel decisions, Patterson points out that “Ardern has plenty to lose if she is not seen to be upholding the values preached by her own party.”

In the case of potentially replacing Whaitiri, there will probably be a need, not just for a woman, but for a Maori woman to be promoted. This is easily done, suggests Maori caucus colleague, Peeni Henare, who says: “We have a pool of options in our party. For example, Willow-Jean Prime and Kiritapu Allan, who would make excellent ministers. There’s plenty who could do the job and this could be an opportunity for them” – see Lucy Bennett’s Willie Jackson defends Meka Whaitiri remaining co-chairwoman of Labour’s Māori caucus.

Blogger David Farrar suggests the process could be fraught: “Filling these could be challenging due to Labour’s fixation on demographics. There are basically few female options for them to promote” – see: Reshuffle options for Ardern.

Here’s Farrar’s suggested reshuffle: “The vacancy inside Cabinet should go to an existing Minister outside Cabinet. This means Faafoi, Henare, Jackson or Sio. None are women but all are Maori or PI. I’d say the obvious candidate would be Kris Faafoi. He is popular and moderate and seen to be doing a solid job in his portfolios. The vacancy outside Cabinet should go to Michael Wood, a current Under-Secretary.”

Finally, Steve Braunias examines the messes the Prime Minister has had to clean up in The Secret Diary of Jacinda Ardern.