John Armstrong's opinion: Ardern's ‘deft, yet ruthless piece of politics’ left Shane Jones, Winston Peters humiliated

Enough is enough? The Prime Minister has most surely had more than enough of one Shane Geoffrey Jones. Enough to last several lifetimes, in fact.

Composite image of Winston Peters and Jacinda Ardern. Source: 1 NEWS

At long last, she has done something about it. This week in a deft, yet ruthless piece of politics as you are likely to witness, Jacinda Ardern took the knife not only to the self-anointed “Champion of the Regions”. She similarly and simultaneously plunged the stiletto into Winston Peters.

That was justified. Try as Jones might to appear to be performing strictly as a soloist, no-one is fooled. Everyone knows that when it comes to the Peters and Jones Show, one half of the duet chooses the song sheet.

There is no prize for guessing which half. It is the stuff of organ grinders and their monkeys. There is not much point in targeting only the guy in the gorilla suit.

Jones also doubles as the ventriloquist’s dummy; the mouthpiece who can spout the things which off-limits for Peters by virtue of him being deputy prime minister and the responsibilities that carries to promote coalition cohesion rather than reducing it.

It is all part of Peters’ cunning game plan for New Zealand First not merely being the minor partner in a ruling coalition. But that the party actually survive the experience.

That New Zealand’s political landscape is littered with the graves of political parties which entered government in a chariot and exited in a hearse gives some licence to do things differently.

Your playlist will load after this ad

Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway says the initial rule change was made by Immigration NZ without his knowledge. Source: 1 NEWS

It is not carte blanche for the extremes which Jones has gone to in order to maintain New Zealand First’s identity.

Jones endlessly proclaims himself to be a “retail politician”. That is debatable. “Retail politics” is all about kissing babies, shaking hands and talking to voters face-to-face.

It is more than just liking the sound of your own voice.

That Labour is sick of Jones’ voice was evidenced by Ardern’s ambush of both he and Peters and which left the pair humiliated.

That heist by the Prime Minister was the net result of her intervention in what was initially a relatively minor conflagration which had New Zealand’s Indian community squaring off against Immigration New Zealand.

Ardern was obliged to quell the growing fury in a segment of the electorate which Labour has carefully nurtured for a long length of time.

Ardern’s fiat to Immigration New Zealand ordered the agency to reverse its recent tightening up of eligibility for the granting of “partnership” visas and return to the previous status quo.

What was not appreciated by Ardern and her fellow Labour MPs was the blatant bid by Jones to exploit Labour’s difficulties in order to pick up votes from the anti-immigration brigade — as evidenced by his urging of those who were unhappy with Immigration New Zealand’s new and far less flexible handling of applications for partnership visas to “catch the next flight home”.

That was prior to Ardern’s issuing her edict that Immigration New Zealand execute a U-turn — and pronto.

Jones breached the unwritten rules of coalition relations.

New Zealand First’s dog whistle to the bigoted was par for the course. Piggybacking on Labour’s problems for his party’s profit veered into the territory of the unacceptable.

Almost from the moment nigh on two years ago that Jones signed the warrant that accorded him the power, privileges and perks that come with the job of Cabinet minister, the New Zealand First MP has been a thorn in Ardern’s side.

The abiding suspicion is that he also signed a Faustian pact with Peters which has Jones creating havoc within the coalition in return for securing the leadership of New Zealand First when Peters eventually quits politics.

As deputy prime minister, Peters faces limits on what he can say or do to preserve his party’s identity from being swamped and submerged by Labour.

Were he to indulge in the antics, altercations and attacks on a scale similar to Jones, the coalition would be at risk of becoming more and more unstable — and eventually collapsing.

For her part, Ardern’s tolerance of Jones has been a case of patience to a fault. Not that she has much choice in the matter.

It would require some blunder or malfeasance of extraordinary proportions by Jones for her to exercise the power which resides in the office of prime minister to sack a Cabinet minister regardless of his or her party label.

In other words, Peters would have to agree that dumping Jones could not be avoided.

Don’t hold your breath in expectation of such happening.

Unable to be shot of Jones, Ardern has done her best to put as much distance between herself and the Minister of Regional Economic Development.

Her reluctance to confront him has made her look weak and feeble, however.

That was until this week. Her exercising of prime ministerial prerogative ought to go a long way towards erasing that perception.

Her announcement on Wednesday that she was reversing Immigration New Zealand’s policy switch making it much harder for those in arranged marriages to secure a visa to bring their spouse to this country pulled the rug from under Peters and Jones.

Her going over the head of the deputy prime minister would have been especially galling for Peters.

He had endeavoured to claim credit for Immigration New Zealand taking a tougher stance on the granting of partnership visas.

In one swoop, Ardern shredded that claim into tiny meaningless pieces. It is not clear whether the Prime Minister informed her deputy prior to her announcing the U-turn. If she did consult Peters, she clearly took no heed of what he had to say.

If she chose not to contact her coalition partner, it tells you a lot about the functionality of the coalition — none of it positive.

In making a unilateral decision without first talking to Peters, Ardern would have technically been in breach of the “no surprises” provisions in Labour’s coalition agreement with New Zealand.

Ardern won’t be losing any sleep over that.

The question now is whether Peters will retaliate — and, if so, what that will mean for the stability and ultimately the longevity of the current ruling coalition.

There is also the no small matter of whether Jones will be chastened by what happened this week. He has been running amok. He has become a law unto himself — at least in his mind.

He has not heeded Ardern’s gentle advice of some months ago that sometimes, "no news is good news".

Ardern subsequently asked Jones to take a copy of the Cabinet Manual to read while on holiday in order to get a better grip on the constitutional obligations which are part and parcel of being a Cabinet minister.

Once in Thailand, he put down the manual and picked up an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle of the kind which he, along with other MPs in the governing coalition, voted to ban post-March 15.

Who knows what he might do next. Except to say it is almost guaranteed that it won’t do Ardern and the wider Labour Party any favours.