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Ardern’s partners start to jockey for position

The return of intra-coalition dissent, on the speed of New Zealand’s move out of lockdown and freshwater policy measures, is a useful reminder that National is not the only party with political headaches, Sam Sachdeva writes

For a politician who often trumpets the importance of due process when he wants to avoid commenting on a matter, Winston Peters can take a surprisingly laissez-faire approach to the Cabinet Manual.

Ministers are told not to breach the confidentiality of Cabinet discussions, and to adhere to collective responsibility for its decisions - but Peters flirted with both as he told Newstalk ZB it was past time for New Zealand to move to Alert Level 1, in the process offering some insights into discussions behind closed doors.

"The Prime Minister has actually admitted that, at the Cabinet meeting she said it, there was serious concerns from New Zealand First that this was taking too long," he said.

The decision to air such a public disagreement between the two coalition parties struck some of Peters’ critics as an attempt to distract from RNZ’s latest reporting on the New Zealand First Foundation.

That could be true, but there are some broader political machinations at play.

Also on Wednesday, an article on Politik credited New Zealand First with watering down freshwater quality reforms set to be announced on Thursday - an assertion disputed by those on the Labour side.

Last year, some on the red side of the Government identified the 2020 Budget as the likely tipping point for coalition unity - one last collective push before the parties started to split off and make their unique pitches to voters.

So it has transpired, even with Covid-19 throwing a spanner in the works by stoking a public appetite for political unity and less overt partisanship.

Ardern’s omnipresence on the airwaves during lockdown, while Peters fished (and worked) in Whananaki and Greens co-leader James Shaw held virtual town halls, helped to direct most of the government goodwill towards Labour rather than its junior partners.

You could in fact argue that the pandemic has heightened the need for New Zealand First and the Greens to differentiate themselves.

Ardern’s omnipresence on the airwaves during lockdown, while Peters fished (and worked) in Whananaki and Greens co-leader James Shaw held virtual town halls, helped to direct most of the government goodwill towards Labour rather than its junior partners.

The duo of political polls were obviously nightmarish for National, which made it easy to miss the grim news for New Zealand First and the Greens: the former was below three percent and out of Parliament in both, while the latter was either just above or just below the magical five percent threshold depending on your preferred poll.

Of course, pre-election numbers do not always align with the final outcome, a point made by Peters as he somewhat petulantly refused to field a question from TVNZ’s political editor Jessica Mutch-McKay on Tuesday.

But the underlying facts - that minor parties in a coalition government often suffer electorally, a trend seemingly exacerbated by Ardern and Labour hoovering up so much oxygen during the pandemic - are undeniable.

Hence the renewed efforts from Peter and Jones to both claim the credit and apportion the blame.

There are some fundamental philosophical differences at play: Regional Development Minister Shane Jones has advocated for farmers and the rural community as the self-proclaimed “champion of the regions”, while New Zealand First has often sought to pull the Government towards a more business-friendly position this term.

But there are more base political motivations underlying the public nature of their dissent.

Greens co-leader Marama Davidson took a jab at Labour over its approach to the welfare system. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

The Greens are making similar moves too, albeit in the more muted fashion that has irritated some of their more passionate supporters.

After the Government announced a new short-term payment for people out of work due to Covid-19 - double the usual benefit, a move that led critics to decry a two-tiered welfare system - Greens co-leader Marama Davidson accused Labour of failing to deliver on a joint commitment to overhaul the welfare system.

Some of its 2020 candidates have gone further: Ricardo Menéndez March, standing for the Greens in Maungakiekie, has had some pointed digs at Ardern’s claims to more compassionate politics over the Government’s treatment of both beneficiaries and migrants.

“Is it kind to keep benefits at a level where people can’t afford to cover basic expenses such as rent? Asking for a friend,” he posed rhetorically on social media.

Such jockeying for position is entirely natural. After all, there is an election looming ever closer on the horizon.

For her part, Ardern expressed public ease with Peters’ lockdown comments, suggesting polite disagreement was natural on some issues and he had not disclosed anything from Cabinet which the Prime Minister herself had not already covered.

But the three coalition partners still face a difficult balancing act, highlighting the area where they differ without devolving into fully-fledged splits and divisions.

All in all, it is a useful reminder that National is not the only party with political headaches in need of swift resolution.

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