When is Jacinda Ardern going to stop displaying all the backbone of a spineless jellyfish and start reminding Winston Peters who is the boss?
Rarely has the current prime minister looked quite so feeble as was evident during yet another turbulent week for her pockmarked, patchwork administration.
It was another week which witnessed Peters at his frustrating, selfish, perfidious and domineering worst.
In a perfect world, it would have been a week which ended with him having been relieved of the title of Deputy Prime Minister, if only temporarily.
So damning was the verdict of the Electoral Commission on the propriety of the activities of the highly-secretive New Zealand First Foundation that any other minister finding themselves on the receiving end of such a judgement would have been stood down forthwith.
The commission’s view was that donations to the Foundation should have been treated as party donations to New Zealand First and had not been properly transmitted to the party and not disclosed as required by the Electoral Act.
That verdict on its own is a damning indictment. Once it it became public that the commission’s findings had been passed to the Serious Fruad Office, Peters’ relinquishing of his status of Deputy Prime Minister ought to have been a mere formality, if only a temporary measure while the SFO determined whether everything was above board or whether prosecutions should follow its investigation.
Peters, however, has clearly concluded that he is somehow exempt from the rules covering the disclosure of the source of political donations.
The arrogance is breathtaking — especially from someone who has previously suffered the ignominy of being censured by his parliamentary colleagues.
Such is his track record, however, that most politicians would do everything possible to erase the shame on their reputations. Peters seems to revel in it.
Ardern’s problem is that Peters is Deputy Prime Minister. She cannot thus wash her hands of him no matter how embarrassing his statements and actions might be for her or the wider Labour Party they might be.
Neither can she sit blithely to one side and pretend that Peters’ very obvious agenda to undermine the Electoral Commission is not happening.
Ardern needs to read the riot act to Peters — and not just to remind him of his constitutional obligations.
Failure to do so makes her look weak. In dragging her down, he is dragging Labour down too.
Ardern is not the first leader of a party who thought he or she could tame Peters. Throughout the lifespan of the Labour-New Zealand First coalition, the Prime Minister has sought to project a
“Happy Families” image of coalition unity by being frequently pictured standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Peters.
She may well wish she had kept more distance. Endeavouring to tame Peters is like cuddling a porcupine.
With his party’s poll rating dropping the floor and Simon Bridges neutering New Zealand First by declaring National won’t be forming any kind of government which includes Peters’ outfit, he is currently a more prickly customer than ever.
He hasn’t got a lot of options. It would seem to be an opportune time to remind him of that. He is hardly in a position to pull down the Government.
That makes Ardern’s failure to talk tough appear even more gutless.
It is possible that Peters’ belated flagging of a review of New Zealand First’s arrangements for accepting donations was the result of her putting the heat on him.
It might have been at his initiative. Regardless, such a move should have been adopted some months ago when the damaging leaks which poured light on the shadowy foundation first surfaced.
Ardern could really have put the screws on Peters once the SFO entered the picture.
She could have insisted that Peters follow the 2008 precedent which saw him stepping aside as a Cabinet minister in Helen Clark’s Administration while the SFO investigated the channeling of donations to New Zealand First through the Spencer Trust, a forerunner of the New Zealand First Foundation.
Ardern’s insistence that the circumstances of what happened in 2008 cannot be compared with what is happening in 2020 is pure sophistry.
Sure, the circumstances might be different. The stench from something going rotten in the country’s electoral system is just as strong in 2020, if not more so.
It is incumbent on the Prime Minister to be seen to be doing something that demonstrates that she is treating the current and still unfolding episode with the utmost seriousness.
Ardern instead kicked for touch by suggesting a thorough review of the law on party funding and donations take place following September’s general election.
No-one would argue against that happening.
Given the public’s “plague on all your houses” view that politicians of all persuasions try their darnedest to find ways of avoiding revealing the sources of donations, such a review is a matter of the utmost priority — and in the form of a royal commission of inquiry no less.
That is something which is irrelevant to the here and now, however.
Ardern ought rather be dealing to Peters — not dealing in distractions.
Her standing him down from the post of Deputy Prime Minister
would indicate she is serious about rebuilding public confidence in the electoral laws. Arguably, she would not necessarily have to sack him from the Cabinet altogether and could retain him as foreign minister.
The bizarre chain of events which unfolded on Thursday only reinforced the case for Peters losing the title of Deputy Prime Minister.
The revelation that he was party to the covert photographing and filming of journalists whose investigations of the New Zealand First Foundation have uncovered much to embarrass him and his party is a clear breach of the provisions in the Cabinet Manual covering the conduct expected of ministers of the crown.
To quote that handbook: “At all times, ministers are expected to act lawfully and to behave in a way that upholds, and is seen to uphold, the highest ethical standards. This includes exercising a professional approach and good judgement in their interactions with the public and officials, and in all their communications, personal and professional”.
Having by his own confession confirmed his failure to meet such high standards, Peters then issued a denial that he or his party had anything to do with any such dodgy behaviour.
It might be news to him, but Peters does not command a salary of close to $330,000 plus expenses for the purpose of making fools of the rest of us. Or himself for that matter.
This farce — which will likely see further twists and turns — will almost certainly continue until Parliament rises for the election and Labour is released from its unseemly tryst with New Zealand First.
That is unless things get so bad that Labour’s poll rating becomes infected by Peters’ shenanigans and starts to decline markedly as a result.
There is no sign of that happening — at least not yet.
In the meantime, inaction will be Ardern’s preference regardless of how weak, messy and ugly that might look.
Quite simply, in this instance, it might be wise to do nothing than doing something. That still adds up to a major cop-out on the Prime Minister’s part, however.