Au­drey Young

Weekend Herald - - News -

For some time now, Na­tional has been try­ing to char­ac­terise the new Gov­ern­ment as chaotic and dis­or­gan­ised. Most of the time the crit­i­cism has been ex­ag­ger­ated — or at least ex­cus­able for a Gov­ern­ment still set­ting up its min­is­te­rial of­fices.

But on some oc­ca­sions, Na­tional has had a le­git­i­mate point. Two such oc­ca­sions this week have in­volved a rather large gap be­tween what Labour says and what New Zealand First leader Win­ston Peters says — the snag over the coali­tion prom­ise to ap­ply a roy­alty to ex­ports of bot­tled wa­ter, and the hid­den coali­tion doc­u­ment.

Gaps in them­selves are not dan­ger­ous. Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens all have points of di­ver­gence and agree- to- dis­agree con­ven­tions.

The prob­lems are the un­man­aged dif­fer­ences. Peters and David Parker’s re­ac­tions to ex­port tax on bot­tled wa­ter could not have been more stark.

At the same time, on op­po­site sides of the same foyer of Par­lia­ment House on their way to the de­bat­ing cham­ber they gave op­po­site views of what the Gov­ern­ment would do in the face of ad­vice from Mfat that trade agree­ments would be breached if they taxed ex­ports.

Peters said it would be plough­ing on, and ques­tioned the ad­vice of his own of­fi­cial — one of Mfat’s su­per­stars. Parker agreed with the ad­vice and said the Gov­ern­ment had to take care not to breach trade agree­ments and would look at al­ter­na­tives.

Clearly nei­ther Peters nor Parker had spo­ken to the other af­ter news re­ports of the breach ear­lier in the day. Both were at fault be­cause both were le­git­i­mately asked about it.

At is­sue is not a roy­alty on wa­ter ex­ports ( al­though the very use of the term “roy­alty” opens up a mine­field over own­er­ship of wa­ter), but what it tells us about coali­tion man­age­ment.

If it were the last Labour Gov­ern­ment, He­len Clark would have banged min­is­te­rial heads to­gether. She was in her third term as PM, Peters was es­sen­tially be­ing given a sec­ond chance in an MMP Gov­ern­ment.

In this Gov­ern­ment, such is Peters’ sta­tus that it would be un­think­able to ad­mon­ish him.

He is be­yond be­ing re­proached pub­licly or pri­vately.

Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern barely knew him be­fore he in­stalled her as Prime Min­is­ter. They got to know each bet­ter three weeks ago dur­ing their trip to Asia and Peters treated her very re­spect­fully.

But the Ardern- Peters re­la­tion­ship is clearly more a part­ner­ship of equiv­a­lents than the Clark- Peters re­la­tion­ship and Labour will have to rely on Peters’ own dis­ci­pline to man­age the New Zealand First side of the coali­tion.

As Deputy Prime Min­is­ter and in­side Cabi­net, his per­for­mance will have far greater im­pact on the rep­u­ta­tion of this Gov­ern­ment than the last Labour one, and wing­ing it won’t al­ways work.

The fact that Peters held a short me­dia standup at Par­lia­ment to deny al­le­ga­tions he in­sulted Dame Su­san Devoy ( a few decades ago) sug­gests he may be more mind­ful of his pub­lic re­la­tions re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to the Gov­ern­ment.

It per­haps would have been help­ful if the finer as­pects of the coali­tion re­la­tion­ships were ad­dressed in the con­fi­den­tial coali­tion doc­u­ment — the other glar­ing ex­am­ple of un­tidy coali­tion man­age­ment. But alas, even among the vary­ing de­scrip­tions of what the doc­u­ment con­tains, coali­tion eti­quette is not among them.

The on­go­ing saga around the doc­u­ment has the po­ten­tial to be more dam­ag­ing than two min­is­ters say­ing wildly dif­fer­ent things be­cause Ardern’s rep­u­ta­tion is at stake.

The coali­tion doc­u­ment will re­main a sub­ject of fas­ci­na­tion for the me­dia, if not the pub­lic, for as long as Ardern wants it kept un­der lock and key. The more ir­ri­tated she is about it, the more fas­ci­nat­ing it be­comes.

Make no mis­take, al­though Na­tional calls for its re­lease day in and day out, the last thing it pri­vately wants is for the doc­u­ment to be re­leased.

Sit­ting as it does in var­i­ous safes in the Bee­hive, it is an em­blem of closed Gov­ern­ment.

Na­tional can also make far more mis­chief by not know­ing its con­tents and by spec­u­lat­ing about them, as Bill English did this week about the level of in­flu­ence it gives New Zealand First within the Gov­ern­ment.

That said, the level of in­flu­ence New Zealand First might have in the Gov­ern­ment is not ex­actly juicy spec­u­la­tion.

In this Gov­ern­ment, such is Peters’ sta­tus that it would be un­think­able to ad­mon­ish him.

Given that New Zealand First had the power to choose the Gov­ern­ment and sits in Cabi­net, get­ting to ap­prove the Bud­get would hardly be an over­reach. Even the Greens have an im­plicit veto right over the Bud­get with their con­fi­dence and sup­ply agree­ment.

More se­ri­ously, New­stalk ZB’s Barry Soper sug­gests that the pri­vate doc­u­ment con­tains a plan for Peters to take over the Prime Min­is­ter­ship in the un­likely event of Ardern be­ing in­ca­pac­i­tated — which Peters would nei­ther con­firm or deny yes­ter­day.

Ardern has de­scribed the doc­u­ment as “notes” and Peters has de­scribed it a “di­rec­tive to min­is­ters”.

It ap­pears to be New Zealand First’s notes of the dis­cus­sions dur­ing coali­tion talks of the next set of is­sues to be sent to min­is­ters for more work.

There is no clar­ity yet on the level of agree­ment be­tween the par­ties on the wish­list.

But if the in­stinc­tively se­cre­tive Win­ston Peters orig­i­nally wanted it re­leased and the in­stinc­tively open Ardern wants it to stay hid­den, it is a safe bet that it will show New Zealand First in a good light at the ex­pense of Labour.

The vis­i­ble frus­tra­tion that Ardern is show­ing over the is­sue and the en­ter­tain­ing an­swers Peters is giv­ing about the doc­u­ment will guar­an­tee it re­mains a fo­cus for Na­tional in many Ques­tion Times to come.

Na­tional has all the time in the world to con­tinue bed­ding in the no­tion of a hid­den agenda. By the time Na­tional has fin­ished, Ardern may be hop­ing that the Om­buds­man de­cides to re­lease it.

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