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John Armstrong's opinion: Jacinda Ardern's excursion to Nauru a PR disaster

This story was first published on Thursday September 6.

The issue of refugees is dominating the Prime Minister’s visit. Source: 1 NEWS

When Jacinda Ardern comes to write her autobiography, you can guarantee one thing will get little mention.

References to this week's meeting in Nauru of the Pacific Islands Forum will be few and far between.

From go to woe, there has been an over-abundance of the latter commodity in Labour's camp this week.

Instead of shaking off the reverse Midas touch with which has been her unwanted yet constant companion since her return to Parliament from maternity leave, the Prime Minister's overseas excursion seems to have exacerbated the affliction.

The trip had already met all the requirements to be classified as a public relations disaster even before her Air Force Boeing 757 had cleared the runway in Auckland en route to arguably the South Pacific's prime economic basket-case.

The omnipresent visage of Helen Clark in the media in recent weeks might well be cramping Ardern's style.

But the former's adage that in politics it is best to fess up to problems and resolve them and then "move on" is as applicable as ever.

Having been buried under a deluge of publicity which, in her case, was unprecedented in terms of its negativity, Ardern instead indulged in an angst-filled "damned if I did, damned if I didn't" rationalising of the $80,000-plus bill for the extra costs imposed on the Air Force in having the aircraft at her disposal.

The lesson from the brouhaha is simple, but one Ardern appears to be having trouble taking on board in full.

The Prime Minister is making a one-day appearance at the Pacific Island Forum. Source: 1 NEWS

It is impossible to please all of the people all of the time. Putting on sack cloth and ashes as a plea of mitigation was never going to silence her critics. She would have done better to have just ignored them.

Given her Government's refocusing of foreign policy priorities with its "Pacific reset" strategy, she had no choice but to attend the regional summit in order to underline New Zealand’s commitment to the concept. She is the Prime Minister. And that's that. The cost of her getting her to there were very secondary.

Having made it just in time to participate in the leader's "retreat", embarrassment piled on embarrassment.

Ardern was obliged to smile while being serenaded by Nauru's President Baron Waqa.

The latter's self-composed tribute to Ardern and her daughter would have been tolerable, even touching had it been delivered by any of the other leaders of the 18-nation grouping.

Coming from someone whose crackdown on opponents reeks of a police state and whose belief in press freedom is non-existent, the singalong would have been hard for Ardern to stomach.

The song called Jacinda New Star in the Sky clearly delighted the Prime Minister. Source: 1 NEWS

Coming from someone whose country sold its soul to low-life politicians in Canberra to enable the latter to establish a detention centre which is such a hell-hole that its inmates' mental health has been sapped to levels which make death preferable would — to quote one observer — have been stomach-churning in the extreme.

But confronting the host of an international gathering with some very ugly home truths is not the done thing.

Ardern instead found herself defending her failure to meet and talk to asylum-seekers desperate to escape this Robben Island of the South Seas.

The risk would have been that the authorities on Nauru would have served up apologists who would have portrayed life in the detention centre as some kind of variant on Club Med with the bonus of having no bill to pay when there stay is at an end.

For those incarcerated on Nauru, there is no end. There has been hope, however. That hope resides in New Zealand's longstanding offer to accept 150 asylum-seekers for resettlement.

There are just over 100 children detained on the island, and the impact on them is horrific. Source: 1 NEWS

Ardern justified her decision not to meet any detainees on the grounds that she did not want to raise expectations. Those expectations had already been dashed before Ardern arrived in Nauru.

It had been left to Winston Peters to lobby Australia's new foreign minister to change Canberra's mind-set of implacable opposition to resettlement.

That futile task is most likely made even more futile by Winston Peters suddenly pulling the rug from under Arden at the very moment when unity within the Labour-New Zealand First coalition was of paramount importance.

Peters' announcement that his party had not signed up to Labour's commitment to raise New Zealand's refugee annual quota from 1000 to 1500 appeared to catch Labour's ministers unawares.

They quickly regrouped, claiming the Cabinet has yet to make a decision on future quota levels.

The collective ducking for cover left a rather awkward question in its wake, however.

If the increase in the quota had yet to be approved, why had the Cabinet given the nod back in May for the spending of close to $14 million on the construction of new accommodation blocks and other facilities at the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre?

Another far more pressing question lurks in the background, however.

Is Peters' refusal to countenance any raising of the quota a backdoor means of reasserting his anti-immigrant credentials?

Or is his refusal to endorse Labour's pledge a further example of a growing belligerence on New Zealand First's part — further evidenced by Shane Jones ridiculing of the appointment of Air New Zealand's Christopher Luxon to head the Prime Minister's new Business Advisory Council?

The National Party has no doubts. The Opposition party's recurring theme —one that it is endeavouring to lodge firmly in voters' minds— is that Peters is ever more calling the shots in the governing coalition.

In 2013, New Zealand offered to take 150 refugees from Nauru. Source: 1 NEWS

The flip-side of that notion — one that Peters and Jones are deliberately seeking to nurture — is that Ardern is no longer quite the dominant figure as was so vividly apparent during the first few months of her Administration.

The implication is that she is correspondingly weaker. Any hint or suggestion of weakness is something no prime minister can afford to take root, however.

It might prove to be messy. But Ardern is going to have to apply the weed killer to demonstrate in unequivocal fashion that she is still the Boss with a capital "B"— and much sooner than later.