Graham Adams: Ardern’s nightmarish weekend

Graham Adams: Ardern’s nightmarish weekend

Criticism of the government funding gangs and the media followed hard on the heels of nationwide protests by farmers


It should have been a weekend of media adulation to further burnish the Prime Minister’s international reputation as a consensus-builder. Late on Friday night, Jacinda Ardern hosted a virtual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting attended by the world’s most powerful politicians — including Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin (and Xi Jinping via a recorded message).

But news of that illustrious event was completely overshadowed by a massive protest by farmers and tradies earlier that day that took in more than 55 towns and cities the length of New Zealand. Organised by lobby group Groundswell NZ, the Howl of a Protest against the government’s environmental regulations — including the “ute tax” — saw convoys of tractors, trucks and utes rumble through main streets from Kaitaia to Invercargill.

The fact the protesters were well behaved and the protests had such a huge turnout made it impossible to dismiss them as the actions of a small number of radicals or perennially disaffected farmers. It was a big swathe of grassroots New Zealand on the move.

A very subdued Ardern spoke directly to voters on Friday evening on her Facebook page. She opened by euphemistically referring to the day’s protests as “activity around the country that broadly relates to our farming community and our primary sector”.

Defending her government policies, she asserted that “We can’t stand still” in implementing commitments to climate change and freshwater because our trading partners demand it of us. Of course, farmers are not asking to “stand still” but rather believe that the changes are happening too quickly and they are not being adequately consulted.

As part of her preamble to discussing the day’s “activity”, Ardern oddly asserted New Zealanders’ legitimate right to protest — as if that was ever in question. Perhaps her need to offer such reassurance can only be explained in the context of her wish to impose hate speech laws that would restrict what people are allowed to say without risking a visit from the constabulary and three years in jail.

On Saturday morning, Ardern woke to a column in the NZ Herald by Labour’s highly regarded former deputy prime minister Sir Michael Cullen that lambasted the troubled Auckland light rail project as an example of “monument building”.

“The enormous cost and disruption of the proposed single-line, light-rail project in Auckland is airily dismissed by its more enthusiastic supporters as of little consequence. It seems they arrived at the solution well before properly analysing the problem,” he said.

This can only be seen as a stinging rebuke to Ardern given the light-rail project was the first policy announcement she made as the new leader of the Labour Party in 2017.

Things didn’t get a lot better over the rest of the weekend in media discussions of her government’s policies. On Sunday, RNZ’s Mediawatch tackled the question of whether the government’s $55 million Public Interest Journalism Fund would “skew reporting of political issues” given that, among other requirements, its eligibility criteria includes viewing the Treaty as a “partnership”.

Extraordinarily, Raewyn Rasch — head of journalism at NZ on Air, which is administering the fund for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage — seemed unable to understand why anyone would criticise such a government-directed editorial stance. In fact, she took “offence at some of those [critical] comments,” adding: “I do not see how encouraging and incentivising our media to understand our founding document and provide better engagement with all New Zealanders is a bad thing.”

She claimed: “The fund does not editorialise on how they cover issues or what they say in their coverage. But it does require that they understand Te Tiriti principles. So if you understand those and you want to be critical of those, then all well and good.”

Yet, even a quick glance at the eligibility criteria shows she is either being deliberately disingenuous or rewriting the rules of engagement on the spot. They state unequivocally that successful applicants must agree to “actively promoting the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection under Te Tiriti o Waitangi [and] acknowledging Māori as a Te Tiriti partner“ as well as showing a “commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to Māori as a Te Tiriti partner”.

The vast majority of people reading the eligibility criteria would interpret “promoting the principles of Partnership, Participation and Active Protection” as leaving absolutely no room for criticising them. And “promoting” the principles is clearly not the same as merely requiring an “understanding” of them.

At one point in justifying the controversial criteria, Rasch revealed her hand: “Many media organisations do not understand Te Tiriti and the conversations they are curating run the risk of being biased, racist and not delivering to the Te Tiriti partner — Māori, or tangata whenua.”

It was an astonishing admission. Rasch might as well have used the term “a basket of deplorables” for those “biased racists” who clearly need re-educating. Unfortunately, she would have to include David Lange in that group, given he said in 2000 that the idea of a Treaty partnership was “absurd”. Sir Geoffrey Palmer has also said that describing the Treaty as a partnership is “misleading”.

In fact, nothing Rasch said on Mediawatch would have convinced listeners that the recent characterisation of the fund by Wellington journalist Karl du Fresne as the “Pravda Project” was unfair.

To round off the ghastly weekend for Ardern, just a few hours after the Mediawatch segment aired a breaking news banner rolled across screens: “Jacinda seems to trust me. Why wouldn’t you?”

The person being quoted was Harry Tam. Tam, of course, is the man behind the controversial $2.75 million Mongrel Mob-led drug rehab programme, Kahukura, in Central Hawke’s Bay. A lifetime honorary member of the Mongrel Mob, he had appeared on TVNZ’s Q+A earlier on Sunday morning to explain why gangs needed rehab managed by like-minded people they could trust and relate to.

Tam was a very articulate advocate and Jack Tame was a very respectful interviewer, who began the segment by warning viewers that Tam had refused to be questioned about the “mechanics of the Kahukura programme itself”.

Tame gave Tam plenty of room to expound his views on how society has created gangs through generations of neglect and abuse — particularly in state institutions — with very little interruption.

Tam’s view of gangs could easily have been summed up with Ardern’s famous words about the Muslim community after the March 15 massacres: “They are us” — although Ardern probably wouldn’t have appreciated Tam summarising his pitch this way.

Any more, in fact, than she would have appreciated hearing Tam say that the influence on the gang scene of the deportees from Australia — the 501s — is “played up more than what it it really is” or him telling the nation that she trusted him.

Predictably, that last assertion opened a door for Collins to amble through. She tweeted: “The National Party doesn’t trust Harry Tam. What a shame the PM does.”

She also retweeted a clip posted by Simon Bridges of a very different Harry Tam than the one he presented on Q&A, where he showed himself to be a very articulate man with a subtle intellect. Filmed addressing a gang meeting when Bridges was Leader of the Opposition, Tam encouraged his audience to vote at the general election because Bridges was “ganging up on us. He’s talking about the Raptor Squad… about armed patrols… he talking about harassing us from the beginning of the day to the end of the night…

“If that [mofo] gets in, your life is going to be hell!”

Yet on Q&A he recommended that police should station officers in cars “outside the meth house with a cardboard cut-out cop if you like” to deter would-be buyers as a way of cutting demand.

To cap off the disastrous weekend for the Prime Minister, Collins also grasped the opportunity to tie the protests by farmers to the cash grant given to Mongrel Mob associates.

She retweeted a photo of what was possibly the funniest placard among the many displayed at the protests — a black-and-tan farm dog sits in a steel crate on the tray of a mud-spattered ute beside a sign that reads: “You can buy my mongrel for $2.75 million.”

Unfortunately for Ardern, the nightmare may soon have a sequel. Groundswell has promised further action will be undertaken if the government doesn’t respond adequately to their concerns by August 16.


Graham Adams is a journalist, columnist and reviewer who has written for many of the country’s media outlets including Metro, North & South, Noted, The Spinoff and Newsroom

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.