It takes a large dollop of brazenness — and perhaps desperation — to deny reality quite as readily as Jacinda Ardern was willing to do last Tuesday, but the Prime Minister did not resile from the task.
When Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper asked her why the three waters (fresh water, storm water and waste water) had suddenly become five waters (with the late addition of coastal and geothermal water) in the amended Water Services Entities Bill, Ardern flatly denied that was the case.
Denying observable facts is typical of very young children before they understand that bending the truth beyond breaking point is an art that requires at least a modicum of plausibility to avoid ending up deeply and shamefully embarrassed.
Ardern’s denial reminded me of a three-year-old niece who, when asked why her name had appeared on the wall of her bedroom written in red crayon, claimed a visiting friend had done it — even while she was clutching a red crayon in her own hand. Her young friend had yet to learn to write.
While this might be seen as an amusingly naive ploy in a child anxious to avoid the consequences of being caught red-handed, such behaviour is plainly alarming in an adult — and especially when that adult happens to be the Prime Minister.
Ardern told Soper — in a strained voice: “The reference [to coastal and geothermal water] in the legislation does not change the scope of Three Waters. It’s only about the drinking water, waste water and storm water.”
Soper: “It extends into coastal and geothermal, if you read the legislation, which I’ve done this morning.”
Ardern replied, with such stilted diction it sounded as if she was reading from a press statement: “I have read the legislation. It does not change its scope… However, I can see, based on your questions, that it has caused, potentially, some confusion. So we’ll ask the drafters whether there’s a way to make it much clearer…”
“So you’re going to have it changed, are you?” Soper asked.
Ardern: “No, [I’m] just going to ask the question whether or not it could be drafted with more clarity because it’s obviously created some confusion.”
In fact, the clause Soper was referring to is perfectly clear. Confusion has only arisen because the Prime Minister decided to argue black was white.
Her attempt to blame Parliament’s legal staff alongside disputing a common-sense reading of a clause smacks of desperation, no doubt because she knows her government is in deep trouble over its underhand move to fulfil Māori aspirations to control all the water in and around New Zealand — via granting iwi the exclusive right to issue Te Mana o te Wai statements that are binding on the four Water Service Entities.
Helping achieve this aim by quietly slipping a highly contentious amendment into a bill that was shortly to have its second reading — and after public submissions had closed and been considered — has to be ranked as one of the most deeply cynical and dishonest manoeuvres in the history of modern New Zealand politics.
Yet, even after her government had been caught out in such a dishonourable move to extend the bill’s coverage beyond three waters, the Prime Minister was keen to pretend it hadn’t actually happened.
As Newstalk ZB’s Heather du Plessis-Allan put it to The Country’s host Jamie Mackay: “This is a new thing [the government] is doing. They just deflect and pretend it’s not a fact. So it’s the three waters already and then they chucked into the legislation — which is available online for anybody to read — geothermal and coastal, which makes it five waters, doesn’t it?”
Mackay: “Yeah, it’s five waters by my count. With [the seabed and] foreshore coming back to bite us on the backside.”
By denying that adding coastal and geothermal water will boost the number of categories of water covered by the bill to five, Ardern was gaslighting the nation in a way that makes a quote from George Orwell’s 1984 entirely apposite: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
The Prime Minister has always had difficulty dealing straightforwardly with dissent or criticism and is clearly allergic to admitting she is wrong — let alone getting around to apologising. She is also not above making stuff up to defend the indefensible.
However, denying that a clause in legislation means what any reasonably intelligent person — or lawyer — would accept its meaning to be is a new and worrying expression of that deep character flaw.
One of the more bizarre tactics she has employed to ward off criticism during her five-year tenure is accusing opposition MPs of “politicking” or “playing politics” — as she has done when debating issues such as co-governance with iwi or the management of Covid.
When you are immersed in the business of politics, as she is, accusing others of “politicking” is absurd — yet she does it without any apparent awareness of how risible it is.
Ardern certainly didn’t welcome Soper’s impertinence in pointing out what are undeniable facts in the amended legislation. Quite possibly she thought it was an example of a journalist “politicking”.
In an essay on free speech published last month, former District Court judge David Harvey assessed the Prime Minister’s character: “Ms Ardern is possessed of a high sense of the righteousness of her cause. She does not debate ideas. She rejects them or refutes the premises of opposition without engaging in debate. She therefore avoids confronting the uncomfortable reality that she may be wrong. And by rejecting and refuting she adopts an air of superiority that views dissent as evil.”
Ardern’s self-righteousness and propensity to bend the truth into weird and unaccustomed shapes was, of course, signalled early in her tenure as the leader of the Labour Party.
During one of the leaders’ debates in 2017, when moderator Patrick Gower asked what she would do if she were to be “caught in a lie or caught intentionally misleading the New Zealand public”, Ardern piously replied, “Politicians make mistakes but a true mark of leadership is whether you front those mistakes [and] be as transparent as possible with the public when you make them.”
She also said she believed “it is possible to exist in politics without lying”, and claimed she’d never told a lie in politics.
Only someone with a high degree of self-regard and self-delusion could say anything quite that preposterous with a straight face and expect not to be jeered at but Ardern believes so deeply in her own goodness she managed to carry it off.
Some of the audience actually clapped — presumably believing they were in the presence of a latter-day saint who had a miraculous ability to float above the tawdry, everyday business of politics.
To so outrageously deny political reality — and human nature — was, however, a step too far for then Prime Minister Bill English. When he was asked the same question about the possibility of surviving in politics without lying, he couldn’t in all honesty agree.
When you ride a very high horse, as the Prime Minister does, falling off can be painful and spectacular.
As the wheels of her government continue to wobble alarmingly — as they are in education, health, crime, and cost of living, to name just a few of the disasters Ardern is presiding over — watching how she reacts to the relentless criticism inevitable in an election year will bring its own horrified fascination, both for supporters and opponents alike.
If her bizarre burst of laughter last month when a journalist asked about the “hiding” Labour had taken at the local body elections and now her denying the obvious, common-sense interpretation of a legislative clause is any guide, the year ahead is going to be quite a ride for those who follow the Prime Minister’s fortunes.
Graham Adams is a freelance editor, journalist and columnist. He lives on Auckland’s North Shore. This piece was first published at The Platform