Comment

Sam Sachdeva: Hat-switching a worrying sign

Shane Jones' attack on the Fonterra chairman was defended by his boss on the grounds he was speaking in a personal capacity. The Government may want to think twice about that approach given its aversion to John Key's hat-switching in the past, as Sam Sachdeva writes. 

“The man of many hats is back,” Megan Woods proclaimed in 2016.

The Labour MP wasn’t reciting a Dr Seuss book, but excoriating John Key for using the question of ministerial responsibility to dodge questions about his connection to foreign trusts.

Key’s choice of different “hats” during his time in power - prime minister, Helensville MP, husband putting out the cat - was a subject of frequent irritation for Opposition politicians seeking to hold him to account.

Yet unsurprisingly, those same MPs are enjoying some flexibility with their headwear now they’re in Government.

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones - no stranger to a dashing hat on the marae - was gifted a new addition by his boss Jacinda Ardern.

After Jones called for the head of Fonterra chairman John Wilson over the company’s poor performance, the Prime Minister defended his comments by claiming they were made in a “personal capacity” and not as a minister.

That’s enough of a stretch for the location of the original comments, made during a Chatham House event at Fieldays on Wednesday but subsequently leaked by an audience member.

But it is nigh on impossible to accept he wasn’t speaking as a minister when he repeated those remarks to media at Parliament later that afternoon, saying Wilson “should in quick order catch the next cab out of town”.

“The way that we were taught constitutional law, and again when we first became ministers, was that ministers are always ministers and when they speak, wherever they speak, they speak on behalf of the Government.”

The fact that National was allowed to grill Jones about his comments during Question Time the next day suggests Speaker Trevor Mallard accepted the premise that Jones was speaking as a minister.

Mallard in fact provided a laudable stance on the issue in 2010, when protesting the removal of a ministerial hat during Question Time.

“The way that we were taught constitutional law, and again when we first became ministers, was that ministers are always ministers and when they speak, wherever they speak, they speak on behalf of the Government.”

That may not always hold - there are occasions when it’s legitimate for a party leader to speak in that role and not as a  minister- but it’s a vastly preferable starting point to one where ministers can mouth off at will, then disavow any official responsibility for their remarks.

It’s not the only recent case of questionable headwear choice, either.

Last week, Stuff revealed Grant Robertson spoke at a series of $600-a-head Labour fundraisers billed as the Finance Minister, only for party president Nigel Haworth to suggest Robertson attended as a party member.

There was a clear sense of hypocrisy given Labour’s prior criticism of National’s “Cabinet Club” fundraisers, and reaching for the hats defence only made it feel more grubby.

At least in Jones’ case there is a clear political calculus.

Jones’ righteous crusade against the supposed corporate greed of Fonterra and Air New Zealand, as the self-proclaimed “champion of the country”, seems catered to the provincial audience who want the party to fight for the little guy.

There are some in New Zealand First who see Jones as the only minister clearly looking out for their voters’ interests.

The party has had to swallow a few dead rats, such as the TPP trade deal, while Winston Peters’ big bucks for MFAT - valuable in its own right - was not exactly a high priority on the campaign trail.

In this light, Jones’ righteous crusade against the supposed corporate greed of Fonterra and Air New Zealand, as the self-proclaimed “champion of the country”, seems catered to the provincial audience who want the party to fight for the little guy.

That it breaches the conventions of ministerial behaviour seems secondary to the headlines it generates for a party already dipping below their election result in the polls.

Jones’ behaviour is more problematic for Ardern and her Labour ministers, who find themselves forced to defend remarks tailored for a different audience.

What’s good for New Zealand First and for the coalition are likely two very different things.

Ardern may want to think more carefully before changing Jones’ hat for him next time.

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