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John Armstrong's opinion: Ardern's making a royal hash of distancing herself from Peters and NZ First drama


It might not add up to much of a strategy for tackling the pressing matter at hand.

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The funding scandal enveloping New Zealand First continues. Source: 1 NEWS

It will likely slammed for being an example of political pragmatism of the most arch and self-interested kind.

It will almost certainly be judged as a failure of leadership.

In that vein, it may even end up being classed as an abdication of responsibility — prime ministerial responsibility to be more exact.

If so, then that is just tough — at least from the Labour Party’s point of view.

Jacinda Ardern’s endeavouring to put as much distance as possible between herself and Winston Peters has not been pretty to watch.

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If the resort to such a gambit is required to avoid the Prime Minister being tainted by the rancid stench of something rotten in the state of New Zealand First, then so be it.

Ensuring Labour’s most valuable, nay priceless electoral weapon does not suffer serious collateral damage from the furore over party donations and expenses in which Winston Peters has become embroiled is Labour’s current priority first and foremost.

It is the bottom-line of all bottom-lines.

That said, Ardern is making a right royal hash of putting distance between herself and Peters.

That reached absurd proportions yesterday with Ardern deliberately avoiding standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Peters.

Her claim that she and the leader of New Zealand First did not do joint stand-up press conferences was exposed as bogus thanks to 1 NEWS taking the trouble to look through its library files of film clips.

It turned out that there was no shortage of examples of Ardern and Peters alongside one another responding to questions posed by journalists.

Ardern was relying on nobody bothering to check the veracity of what she had said.

She was caught out. It is not the first time she has deliberately distorted the truth in such fashion in confident expectation that she would get away with such deception.

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And it won’t be the last. Sooner or later, she is going to come an awful cropper.

That is by the by for now. It might seem trivial, but Ardern’s reluctance to be captured in the same camera shot as Peters spoke volumes for the impact of New Zealand First’s self-inflicted woes.

She has been at pains to argue that Labour and New Zealand First are distinct entities. She accordingly has no right to interfere with the internal workings and business of her coalition partner.

It is not as simple as that. Peters, of course, is also the Deputy Prime Minister.

Ardern is obliged to back him or sack him. If she doesn’t think he is at fault, she should say so. If she thinks he is at fault, she should say so.

The punishment could be restricted to a stern telling of by suggesting he put his party’s house in order.

In doing nothing and trying to distance herself from Peters, she risks looking like she is running away from the problem. She risks looking weak and feeble.

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'That's for them' - Ardern distances herself from funding scandal enveloping NZ First

The upshot is that we have witnessed a new modus operandi on Ardern’s part: one of muddle along in order to hopefully muddle through.

It is for those reasons that anyone hoping that this week’s brouhaha might have generated a wave of public indignation that would sweep across the nation, thereby forcing Ardern to take some unspecified action against Peters was always going to be sorely disappointed.

Such has been the public apathy which greeted revelations regarding the existence of a New Zealand First Foundation and accompanying allegations as to its true purpose that Ardern is not going to be obliged to do anything.

So resigned have voters become to Peters’ fake belligerence and feigned outrage that they are now largely immune to his theatrics.

Nevertheless, Ardern has rarely, if ever looked as uncomfortable as she does now.

That is down to the fear of the unknown. It is the worry as to what else lurks within New Zealand First’s Augean Stables which — should it come to light —cause further angst and consternation.

For all her efforts to disassociate Labour from Peters’ party, there is no erasing the fact that she is tethered to him.

Ardern’s discomfort was obvious in her abject hand-wringing at her post-Cabinet press conference on Monday afternoon.

It was apparent that she is going to maintain the shameful charade which has her pretending to turn a deaf ear to the diatribes spouted by Peters, along with the similarly toxic drivel which dribbles from Shane Jones’ lips.

It was also clear Ardern intends to continue hiding behind the excuse that the dictates of coalition politics render her powerless in influencing Peters’ choice of words and actions.

The latter consideration is not strictly true. As already stated, there are various ways and means by which she could express her displeasure.

It is a matter of coming up with the right language. She could also send a coded message is the media which left him in absolutely no doubt as to its real meaning.

There is risk for Ardern, however, in giving her coalition partner a dressing down no matter how deserving Peters might be of being given such admonishment.

He might merely ignore any such lecture, thereby making her look even weaker than has already been apparent in recent days.

There is another reason why the best course of action — or rather inaction —might well be to muddle along as presently is the case.

Parliament is not far off rising for the Christmas-New Year break. When MPs return to Wellington in late January, their minds will largely be focussed on fixated with the pending general election.

A “do nothing” approach has major downsides, however.

If Ardern opts not to read the Riot Act to Peters, he might take that as giving him further licence to create even more havoc in order to maintain New Zealand First’s profile at a level far above what its representation in Parliament entitles it to claim.

The unfortunate truth facing Ardern and her Labour colleagues is that the likes of Peters and Jones are feeding the media with what is becoming a non-stop diet of the conflict-ridden material which the nations’ newsrooms crave.

It has to be assumed that Jones’ contribution to coalition dynamics —usually in the form of an oversized spanner chucked into its workings — has as much if not more to do with leadership succession in New Zealand First as being a constant pest to Labour

That offers no solace to Labour, however.

The impact is to marginalise reportage of Labour’s announcements.

For a political party which promised 2019 would be its “year of delivery”, belong shut out of the picture is something that Labour does not have the luxury of affording.

The pertinent question to be asked now is how much longer can Ardern afford to tolerate this now seemingly constant attention-seeking behaviour being indulged in by its coalition partner.

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The Electoral Commission is looking into a foundation that’s bankrolling New Zealand First. Source: 1 NEWS

The answer is probably just as long as the opinion polls suggest Labour is not suffering collateral damage from standing too close to Peters.

If there is no damage resulting from his confrontation-based style of politics then Ardern and Labour can carry on pretty much as usual.

If there is damage — and responsibility can be sheeted home to New Zealand First — then, as likely as not, it will not be showtime in the Beehive.

It will be show-down time.