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John Armstrong's opinion: Jacinda Ardern must stop the rot in 'drunken sailor' Government

Stop the rot. And stop it quickly. That has to be Jacinda Ardern’s absolute priority on her return from overseas.

The incumbent three-party governing arrangement was displaying all the coherence and co-ordination of the proverbial drunken sailor long before the Prime Minister left for the relative sanctuary of a Winston Peters-free New York.

The unwieldy contraption has since appeared to be even more sloshed in her absence as its components stumble from one mini-crisis to the next minor scandal with such regularity that you can almost set your watch by it.

This three-headed hydra needs to go on the wagon — and pretty darned soon.

Viewed in isolation, each blunder or botch-up has not amounted to very much in the grand scheme of things. Even the sacking of two ministers has not been quite as earth-shattering as the Government’s opponents would have you believe. In both cases, neither was a figure of much import. Furthermore, no prime minister should have to be expected to anticipate an MP’s capacity for foolishness unless that is blindingly obvious prior to that underling’s appointment as a minister.

Viewed in total, however, the various mishaps and miscues add up to a fair-sized catalogue of catastrophe.

Voters will soon forget the details of who was involved in each episode of woe and what happened and when.

What will stick in their minds from this epidemic of embarrassment will be the hard-to-erase impression that Ardern’s regime is riddled with incompetence.

It will leave the public wondering whether Ardern has lost control. That is where the damage is really being done.

The onus is on her to display leadership in its most raw fashion — even more so given National’s efforts to portray her as weak are all about reducing public confidence in Ardern’s leadership of the country.

From her vantage point this week of the headquarters of the United Nation, the hubbub back home will no doubt have seemed piffling in comparison to the enormity of matters on that organisation’s agenda.

The intrusion of domestic politics will likely have been even more annoying for someone from the wing of the Labour Party which still worships in the United Nations as a Temple for Peace rather than conceding it is the venue where the growing world disorder is on constant and vivid display.

Enjoy it while you can, Jacinda. It is going to be the grim and the grindstone back home from now until Christmas.

From the moment she touches down back in Auckland, Ardern must draw a line under the happenings of recent weeks and demonstrate that her government is not “Dysfunction Junction” —the apt phrase dreamed up by Winston Peters and one he might have been wise to have kept to himself.

There is much that needs inclusion on Ardern’s emergency “to do” list, but here are eight things for starters.

1. Issue a loud and ear-piercing wake-up call to Labour MPs that the margin between victory and defeat in the 2020 election is likely to be narrow in the extreme. To put it bluntly, the current shambles in the Government’s camp is fast becoming something akin to a death-wish. Being disciplined — both personally and party-wise — comes first, second and third in priority. The Labour caucus might take satisfaction from what the Government has so far achieved in its first year in office. Thinking that is an open invitation to a most unwelcome guest — complacency.

2. Reinforce that message by reading the modern-day equivalent of the Riot Act to Labour’s ministers both inside and outside the Cabinet. If she has not done so already, Ardern needs to flag to them the likelihood of a reshuffle of portfolios in the not-too distant future — and that those who have not shaped up risk being shipped out. Her ministers need to shift their mindset away from blaming everything that has gone wrong in their portfolios on the previous government. A year on from the election, that no longer washes.

3. Stop mouthing sweet nothings about running an open and transparent Government when it is glaringly obvious that is far from being the case.

4. Stop being an apologist for Peters. Ardern needs to dispel the perception that New Zealand First is now “running the show” as the common parlance puts it. When push comes to shove, she has the sheer weight of numbers to call the shots. Peters and his MPs have nowhere else to go but to stick with Labour — at least for the foreseeable future.

5. Don’t pretend there is coalition unity where this none. Requiring Andrew Little in his guise as Justice minister to defend the New Zealand First-driven legislation banning MPs from party-hopping was demeaning to him and confusing for the public.

6. Highlight the health of the economy. Last week’s economic growth figures have cut the ground from under the doomsayers in the private sector who have been using the drop in business confidence as a Trojan horse to try and water down Labour’s roll back of National’s anti-worker industrial relations laws.

7. Kill off any thought that Labour will endorse the likely recommendation from the Tax Working Group that a capital gains tax become part of the country’s tax structure. As the song goes, you can’t get everything you want. As much as such a tax is long overdue and as staunch as Ardern might be about “doing the right thing”, she would be well advised not to hang that albatross around her neck. As the saying goes, Oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them.

8. That said, Labour needs to start taking Simon Bridges seriously. National’s leader might still come a long second to Ardern in any popularity contest. His job is to build the respect which will enable him to speak and act with real authority in the run-up to the next election. Right now, Ardern and company are giving him opportunity to do so which stretches way beyond generous and much closer to the truly stupid.