John Armstrong: More than a touch of irony if Andrew Little becomes Jacinda Ardern's Mr Fixit

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It would surely be more than a touch of irony were Andrew Little to become Jacinda Ardern's Mr Fixit.

The Prime Minister says it’s an important step in addressing climate change.
Source: 1 NEWS

This week's somewhat shambolic announcement of the Government's decision not to grant any further offshore oil and gas exploration permits had Labour's former leader unwittingly auditioning for such a role, however.

No matter what shade the Administration, sooner or later a prime Minister finds himself or herself relying on a Mr Fixit or Ms Fixit to put things back together when the wheels fall off part of the government machine.

Jim Bolger had Sir William Birch. Helen Clark had Sir Michael Cullen and Sir John Key had Steven Joyce.

In the case of Ardern's three-party Administration, the safe money is on the sooner when it comes to finding her Mr Fixit - the sooner the better for her sake.

As much as she might wish to try, Ardern cannot do everything. She has been handicapped by the dismal failure of Kelvin Davis to step up as Labour's deputy leader and take some of the ever accumulating pressure off her shoulders.

Ardern carries many burdens. She carries those which prime ministers have always had to carry. Likewise the burdens of being the leader of a major political party. She carries the burden of running the most complicated governing arrangement in the country's history. She carries the burden of having to deal with a politician who takes pride in being difficult. She carries the burden of being a conviction politician who is in a big hurry to get things done. She carries the huge expectations of voters that things do get done. 

The upshot is that the day-to-day management of the myriads of issues that come across the Prime Minister's desk do not get the priority they demand.

In politics you can get 100 big things right, only to find yourself being crucified for getting one tiny thing wrong.

Thursday morning's announcement of the halt in deep water exploration was testimony to the holes in the Government's political management strategy.

Making such a "feelgood" declaration to a lecture theatre at Wellington's Victoria University filled with applauding students was political imagery of the most potent kind.

Jacinda Ardern spoke to a huge rally on climate change in Wellington today, after launching her historic oil exploration ban.
Source: 1 NEWS

Not so clever was the Government's absence from the place where the announcement really mattered.

By Thursday afternoon, the flak was flying in New Plymouth, New Zealand's oil capital. Ardern dispatched Little to Taranaki post-haste. That she chose a minister whose portfolios have zero connection to the world of oil and gas exploration - rather than Energy Minister Megan Woods - was a tacit admission of her need to have someone to call on when the going gets rough.

Little has the authority that comes through being a Cabinet minister.

He enjoys the respect that comes from having long worked the back rooms where a major political party makes its decisions. 

He possesses the mediation skills and problem-solving experience that comes from a long career at the front-line of employee and employer relations. 

It is unlikely that Ardern gave a moment's thought to calling on the person she effectively deposed as Labour's leader to front for her.

Little would not have hesitated for a moment in helping out.

His riding instructions were very clear. He was not being sent to Taranaki to pacify the ire of locals. He was being sent to underline the absolute intransigence of the Government's position.

The lady was most definitely not for turning. There was still a whiff of panic surrounding Little's trip, however. That is not surprising. The difference between Labour being in government or not being in government comes down to how well the party performs in the provinces.

Ardern deserves credit for sticking to her principles and delivering something of real substance in the struggle to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

She also deserves praise for managing to forge an agreement with Labour's partners in government which produced compromise on all sides and a meaningful end result.

In that regard, the episode has witnessed some real maturity on New Zealand First's part. Winston Peters and his party have a tradition of having been consistent. They have consistently refused to admit to compromise in government mainly, it would seem, for fear of that being regarded as weak.

Shane Jones' willingness to admit in public that while his party did not agree with a permanent ban on the issuing of new exploration permits, it had acceded to the wishes of Labour and the Greens, ought to be regarded as a sign of strength.

His being upfront about the stance New Zealand First had ended up taking probably saw him get far more media exposure than the Greens managed to scrape together. Clever man.

What we don't know is whether Peters was accepting of this stance.

Jones claimed his leader had gone to great lengths to ensure existing permits remained intact. Their cancellation was never on the table, however.

To have wiped them would have exposed the Government to hugely-expensive breach-of-contract litigation which it would have lost.

We also don't know whether New Zealand First has extracted any compensating concession from Labour or the Greens which has the latter pairing agreeing not to block some matter which is precious to Peters.

The obvious candidate is the legislation currently before a parliamentary select committee which will result in MPs who indulge in party hopping being thrown out of Parliament.

The Greens are vehemently opposed to this measure. If they were forced to choose between doing something which tackles the most pressing matter of our times or blocking legislation which may theoretically pose a threat to freedom of speech, however, there is really only one choice. 

We will likely have to wait a while before being able to assess whether Peters is really on the losing end of the decision to halt future deep sea oil and gas exploration. 

It is easier to cast judgement on Labour, however.

There appears to have been little or no consultation with the oil and gas sector. The Government might have had no inclination to change its mind, but it should have displayed a willingness to talk about it.

The industry appears not to have been given the courtesy of advance notice of the announcement and its contents.

The reluctance to talk will have further eroded the limited trust business has in the Ardern Government. It will increase business suspicion of an Administration whose direction the commercial world is struggling to come to grips with.

Of particular concern is the failure of the Government to address a crucial aspect of the ban on offshore exploration. How does the role of gas as a "transition fuel" in the shift to a low carbon emissions economy square with New Zealand's depleting gas reserves?

When it came to providing answers to the really big questions, however, Ardern and her Administration were too busy basking in the glow of self-satisfaction when preaching to the converted.

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