Time for Ardern to confront the elephant

The ongoing drama about the New Zealand First Foundation is rapidly threatening to turn the little brush fire around the edge of the New Zealand First Party into a full conflagration engulfing the whole Government, writes Peter Dunne.

As the revelations about the Foundation continue, the wider focus is shifting from the machinations of the New Zealand First Party to the impact this whole affair is starting to have on the fortunes of the Government as a whole.

While it is far too early to be definitive in this regard, there are already signs that the other parties in government – Labour and the Greens – will not prove up to the task of responding decisively.

The Greens, for example, have had a long and proud history of speaking out against what might be described as cronyism in politics and attacks on personal freedom, including surveillance and other intrusions.

Yet, in this instance, they have forsaken that legacy. They have lost their tongues completely.

Not only is their silence deafening, it is also hypocritical. So often the Greens have been the ones speaking out fearlessly against the oppression of personal freedoms in other countries, in a way which has pricked the consciences of many of us.

But now when the types of allegations they could have normally been relied upon to call out occur within a party of the Government they are part of, they suddenly seem scared into silence. When it comes to criticising similar events elsewhere in the future their moral credibility will look rather moth-eaten.

Labour’s silence is more remarkable. The Prime Minister stated the rationale for silence bluntly on Morning Report when she said, “I had nothing to do with this and I’m not going to stand here and explain it nor defend it.”

While it will be widely understood that what are euphemistically described as “political realities” make it extremely difficult for her to become more directly involved, there is the mounting view that a continuation of this studied agnosticism will prove over the next few months before the election to be just as difficult, and perhaps ultimately fatal, for the Government.

Already, Labour is narrowly – but probably not yet significantly – behind in the polls. More importantly, its two partners are facing their own troubles.

New Zealand First’s support has fallen to the level where the party’s election fortunes seem unlikely to be reversed unless there is some sort of electoral deal with Labour.

The Prime Minister has ruled that out so far and the rising stench is now such that it will be increasingly difficult for her to review that, without damaging her own position.

The Greens are now hovering just above the 5 percent threshold, which must be extremely worrying for them because traditionally they do far better in opinion polls than they do at election time. Without both, though, the Government is dead.

That brings the focus back to the deliberate inaction of the Prime Minister. But it is not as though she is without institutional support to act more strongly, were she of a mind to.

The Cabinet Manual makes it clear that ministers act in a number of capacities: their ministerial capacity, their political capacity and their personal capacity.

It says, “In all these roles and 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. … Ultimately, Ministers are accountable to the Prime Minister for their behaviour.”

While the Cabinet Manual has no legal status, it is, as Parliamentary authority David McGee notes in Parliamentary Practice in New Zealand, a constitutional “source”. He observes that, “Ministers adhere to these directives out of a sense of commitment to public office and their political responsibility to Parliament and public opinion.”

This position was upheld by a Parliamentary ruling from then Speaker Sir Lockwood Smith in 2010 that “… the Prime Minister can be asked about the conduct of his Ministers. Although the Prime Minister is not answerable for statements or actions taken purely in a non-ministerial capacity, the Prime Minister can be asked about how such actions or statements may or may not affect his view of a Minister’s judgement and his confidence in a Minister.” 

Both the Cabinet Manual, McGee and the Speaker’s Rulings affirm that not only are Ministers accountable to the Prime Minister for their overall conduct, but also that the Prime Minister, by virtue of the authority of the position, is ultimately responsible for the conduct of Ministers.

The Prime Minister, therefore, has all the authority she needs to act in this instance. Indeed, there is arguably an implicit requirement that she do so.

But her comment that “No, I don't see these things as being explicit to the Cabinet manual, which is the conduct of how we run the Government (sic)” is as baffling as it is plain wrong. So, the bigger question becomes why she is declining to do so. Many reasons, generally critical, are being put forward as reasons why.

She needs to acknowledge the popular suspicion that throughout the life of this Government so far the Deputy Prime Minister and his party have called all the shots.

Back in 1962, then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan fired one third of his Cabinet in what become known as Britain’s “Night of the Long Knives”.

Speaking many years later about the event he made the telling observation that "It's very unpleasant, especially as it has to be done in this abrupt way. Otherwise there is no authority at the top of government."

The more our Prime Minister dithers or declines to even confront the growing elephant in her room, the more questions will intensify about where authority at the top of her Government actually lies.

Maybe she believes that her overall high personal ratings and international reputation render her immune from such questions?

She needs to acknowledge the popular suspicion that throughout the life of this Government so far the Deputy Prime Minister and his party have called all the shots.

That is why, it is held, conduct from Ministers Jones and Mark, in particular, that has been either outside or at the margins of the Cabinet Manual’s provisions has been consistently ignored.

The Prime Minister’s current inaction just confirms that mounting popular suspicion. Inevitably, that means that, as things stand, if New Zealand First goes down the electoral tubes, the Prime Minister will likely go with them. If the ship of Government starts to sink, her personal ratings and international reputation will not save her.

In the interests of her party, let alone her Government, it is surely time to cut the Gordian knot, and cast aside New Zealand First.

That would put the pressure on New Zealand First to either allow the Government to limp through until the scheduled September election, or risk further public opprobrium by bringing down the Government early.

But it would also show there is clear authority at the top of the Government and reinforce the Prime Minister’s position. Moreover, assuming the Greens can recover their lost voices and principles, it would also allow the Prime Minister to refashion the Government in time for the election as the genuine progressive government of the left the way she has always wanted.

At the election New Zealanders could then show if they agree.   

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