With the Prime Minister about to leave the building and become incommunicado with the public for the next six weeks or so, you might have thought her Cabinet colleagues would have started exercising caution in the extreme.
You might have thought they would be running the ruler very carefully over everything they intend saying, doing or announcing while their boss is on maternity leave.
There are two reasons why such a premium needs to be suddenly put on precaution. First, the Voice of the Government will be voluntarily silent.
Jacinda Ardern has followed the practice of recent prime ministers like John Key and Helen Clark in being almost constantly available to the media. This ensures the Prime Minister is controlling an argument - not his or her opponents.
In Ardern’s absence, Winston Peters will have to conduct that role as Acting Prime Minister. It will be tricky. He will be well able to speak for the Government as a whole. But he will be on difficult territory if he remarks on the performance of individual Labour Party ministers. He won’t be able to tick them off when things go wrong.
The second reason for caution is that no minister would want to provoke a crisis which would force Ardern to break her leave.
How much all this has sunk in with her colleagues is a very moot point.
It must have been somewhat galling for Ardern that she had to spend time during her final working day in Wellington clearing up a mess created by the bungling of one of her most senior, capable and hardworking ministers.
It seems incomprehensible that someone as politically astute as Andrew Little would have expected New Zealand First to sign up to legislation abolishing the Three Strikes law.
Ardern’s announcement that she will spend the remainder of the time until the birth of her child working from Auckland was a reminder that she and her colleagues are about to enter some very uncharted waters. - John Armstrong
It is more likely that the Justice Minister thought he could persuade Peters and the latter’s other MPs that the highly contentious law was not working in that it risked leaving the Government no option but to build more prisons -something opposed by New Zealand First, which wants alternatives, such as hard labour, introduced.
Little’s gaffe was to go public in stating that he would be taking a proposal to the Cabinet this week to axe Three Strikes and thus clear the decks prior to the development of fresh sentencing proposals by an independent advisory panel to be appointed shortly, and progressed in August at a Criminal Justice Summit.
New Zealand First was unlikely to back repeal - and even less so given that party’s current basement-level opinion poll ratings.
But once National made it clear that it would not only vote against any measure put up by Little to abolish Three Strikes, it would reinstate the policy when it got back into power, Peters and his parliamentary colleagues had no option but to block abolition.
Little’s gaffe was to ignore long-established procedures that any policy or piece of legislation is not made public until such a measure has been run past governing partners and allies to ensure there are the required numbers on board to get it passed by Parliament.
Keeping it confidential means no-one ends up losing face.
If you cannot get the numbers then the haggling never happened.
Simon Bridges’ verdict on Little’s backdown was predictably scathing. National’s leader described it as “amateur hour”. That assessment was absolutely spot on.
That should worry Ardern. Her absence will leave a vacuum in Labour which no-one else in the party’s caucus bar Grant Robertson has the authority to fill. Kelvin Davis, Labour’s deputy leader, has so far failed to perform adequately and rise to the level of his ranking. His refusal to answer or at least attempt to answer questions put to him by a parliamentary select committee in his capacity as Tourism Minister has damaged his credibility quite severely.
Despite all the notice, despite all the months of planning that will have gone into making things work for everyone who matters in the coming weeks, Ardern’s announcement that she will spend the remainder of the time until the birth of her child working from Auckland was a reminder that she and her colleagues are about to enter some very uncharted waters.