MAX HAYTON. Inexperience in government brings problems for smiling Prime Minister.

Inexperience, arrogance or ignorance among members of the administration are causing problems for the New Zealand government of Jacinda Ardern.  After nine years in opposition, too few members of Ardern’s cabinet have previous experience as ministers and some prefer to follow their own path, leaving the Prime Minister sometimes exposed un-briefed and even misled. 

The new Leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, elected to lead the conservative National Party on 27 February, has been settling in to his new job and watching the government lurch from one embarrassment to another.  Bridges has a post-graduate law degree from Oxford and was a prosecutor before turning to politics.  He’ll be taking notes as the government struggles to find its feet.

An example of a stumble is the meeting held between the Minister of Broadcasting, Clare Curran, and Radio New Zealand’s Head of Content, Carol Hirschfeld.  Hirschfeld has long been a dazzling and competent current affairs producer, interviewer and presenter. The two met at a café in Wellington one Tuesday morning last December. It is not known what they discussed, but the government is considering the possible expansion of Radio NZ’s role to become a commercial free public service TV channel.  That day in December the minister talked to a Radio NZ executive behind the backs of its CEO and Chairman.

Later when asked about her meetings in a Question for Written Answer in Parliament, Curran omitted to mention the meeting with Hirschfeld.  She claimed it was an unofficial meeting of little consequence. Worse was to come.  Radio NZ’s CEO and Chairman had asked Hirschfeld about her meeting with Curran.  Hirschfeld told them she and the minister had met by chance at a café as she was returning from the gym.  This too was disastrously incorrect. The CEO, Paul Thompson, and Chairman, Richard Griffin, later repeated to a Parliamentary Select Committee that it was a chance meeting of no consequence.

About two months later it emerged that Thompson and Griffin had been misled and in turn they had inadvertently misled the Select Committee. Far from being a chance meeting, the appointment had been arranged during an exchange of thirteen text messages between Curran and Hirschfeld and was recorded in the minister’s diary.

It was more than embarrassing.  Curran has had to apologise to her boss, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, for not coming clean about the meeting in her answer to a parliamentary question, and broadcasting executive Carol Hirschfeld has lost her high flying job for misleading her CEO and Chairman. Last Thursday (5 April) Radio NZ’s CEO, Paul Thompson, and Chairman, Richard Griffin, returned to the Select Committee to apologise for inadvertently misleading the MPs.  Griffin said “we both feel very foolish”.

Ardern also looked uncomfortable defending her minister’s evasion.  Curran is after all Minister for Communications and Open Government.

For Ardern it is one of a string of embarrassments in recent weeks. Too much alcohol caused problems at a Young Labour weekend summer camp.  At a Saturday night social, a drunk 20 year old thrust his hand where it had no right to be.  His victims were two sixteen year old boys and two sixteen year old girls.  It is not clear whether this was drunken high spirits or sexual assault.  No-one told the police or the parents while the organisers attempted to handle the situation discreetly.  They said this was out of concern for the teens involved. Ardern hadn’t been briefed so it was another awkward moment when she was confronted by questions about the alleged sexual assaults.

The dazzling Prime Minister’s smile was waning but more difficulties were ahead. Jenny Marcroft is a first time New Zealand First MP and a back-bencher in the coalition government.  She met Opposition MP Mark Mitchell at a surf club on a Saturday afternoon, probably 24 March.  Mitchell said the junior back-bencher threatened him.  He said Marcroft told him funding for one of his pet projects in his electorate would be refused unless he stopped asking questions in Parliament about the project and unless he stopped complaining about the Minister of Defence using Defence Force aircraft to take him to official engagements. The burly ex-policeman Mitchell complained of being bullied by Marcroft who she said was acting for a minister in the coalition. Again the Prime Minister was taken by surprise.  She surveyed the New Zealand First ministers in her cabinet.  All denied instructing Marcroft to bully Mitchell.

Of more concern to Ardern and perhaps the nation is Winston Peters, the leader of the coalition partner New Zealand First.  He is the Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. As a minister he prefers to think for himself.  Recently he has been accused of being soft on Putin and soft on Trump’s tariffs which he said were understandable because of unfair trade policies by other countries.

New Zealand has called for an evidence-based approach to the nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Britain and has not expelled any Russian diplomats.  The government said it couldn’t find any unregistered spies.  This reflects Winston Peters’ and the government’s reluctance to join the international rush to judgement over the nerve agent attack. Peters took a similar position when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over the eastern Ukraine.  He said that a Russian-made missile was used but “who was responsible for setting it off?” He said the facts were not clear. He supports a free trade agreement between New Zealand and Russia.

Britain and the EU have pushed back, with threats, against a trade deal with Russia and the Prime Minister appeared before cameras to say a Free Trade agreement with the EU is a much higher priority than a deal with Russia. She said the government has never operated outside the sanctions against Russia.  She again condemned the poisoning in Salisbury and as a result the government won’t resume Free Trade negotiations with Russia.  She said New Zealand would have expelled unregistered spies if any could be found and there is a travel ban on Russians expelled by other countries.

It was another case when Ardern had to take a grip on the helm and steady the ship but she said these are small matters compared with the big issues that concern her like child poverty, education, health and housing.

Despite the stumbles Ardern continues to enjoy approval and popularity at home and abroad.  She has been described as ‘Helen Key’, a reference to two popular former Prime Ministers.  Helen Clark was more than able to shake off criticisms and minor skirmishes and Sir John Key successfully relied on a ‘let’s move on, nothing to see here’ approach.

Ardern’s Government’s policies appear to be sound, researched and progressive, and the optimism which surrounded her when she became Prime Minister remains strong.

Max Hayton is a New Zealand journalist with parliamentary and international experience. 

 

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