Three polls in a row, all saying roughly the same thing. The public is tiring of this Labour government, while its main support party, the Greens, is in the doldrums. If New Zealand First continues the way it is going it will be back in Parliament in 2023, presuming that the ageing Winston survives long enough. If he does play any kind of role after the next election, he’s unlikely to rush to Jacinda Ardern’s side, given the alacrity with which she pushed aside his objections to the Maorification of the country once he was no longer her coalition partner. Jacinda hasn’t got far to slide before Labour could be vulnerable.
Watching Labour handle themselves in this situation reminds me of Peter Fraser’s 1946-49 final term; like him, Jacinda has decided to centralise more and more decision making. But that always has its perils. Very few current ministers are capable of handling their portfolios; many aren’t available for comment when the media call. The Prime Minister’s Office assiduously monitors focus groups and restrains ministers from plonking their feet into cow pats. Jacinda, her deputy, and Hipkins front nearly all the time. Even Andrew Little, Labour’s former leader and now Minister of Health, seldom says much, despite the government facing the greatest health crisis in a century. I sense that the ministry and its handlers won’t be able much longer to cover for all the failures in their ranks without some kind of divine intervention.
Take the problems with seasonal worker permits, and the fast track residency immigration status for professionals whose skills are desperately needed, especially in the Health sector. For months now, the Minister of Immigration Kris Faafoi was in the next best thing to political lockdown until 30 September when he made an announcement. And then there’s Transport minister Michael Woods whose grand schemes for a walking and cycling bridge over the Waitemata Harbour and light rail to the airport have been laughed out of serious consideration. And the influential Nanaia Mahuta whose Three Waters proposals are yet to find a single enthusiast amongst the nation’s most significant mayors. And Poto Williams, Willie Jackson and Peene Henare who convey a sense of calamity awaiting them around the next corner. And then there is the hapless Kelvin Davis, eternally juggling Oranga Tamariki, knowing that most of the at-risk children come from dysfunctional Maori families, but also accepting the argument that Maori problems must be solved by Maori themselves who produced the children in the first place. Sadly, most of us can remember the appalling fate of Nia Glassie at the hands of her 'caregivers' and know there will be more such catastrophes if the ‘by Maori, for Maori’ method of handling dysfunctionality is followed.
Centralising everything puts enormous pressure on the few, which eventually leads to breakdowns, mental or physical. Even Jacinda these days is occasionally beyond her comfort zone. Having authorized the mass promotion of all things Maori, and encouraging or mandating use of the name Aotearoa, up pops a poll showing that while 31% are prepared to contemplate Aotearoa-New Zealand as our name, only 9% of the public (that’s barely half of all Maori) want the sole name Aotearoa, which is Jacinda’s favourite. All the rest want our name to remain New Zealand. John Key got his fingers burnt when he over-played promoting a new flag. Jacinda has gone much further with the country’s name, and had she more experience, she would know it is now time to pull back.
The real question facing us is whether this government will obey the normal conventions and heed the unease coming from focus groups and opinion polls. On this point, there are increasing indications that upholding democracy is not uppermost in ministerial minds. Mahuta still hasn’t got the message that her Three Waters blueprint should be re-thought; she has not ruled out using the government’s majority to force it through the House, thereby risking massive resistance. Her same shifty behaviour is at work over He Puapua, the blueprint that would see the 16% of Maori command 50% of the power in the country. She still hasn’t taken the report to cabinet, preferring instead to enact it by ministerial stealth.
This is the first government in my lifetime that hasn’t worried about money. Borrowing and using the printing press has all the appeal to Grant Robertson of mother’s milk. Our debt mounts, with rising interest rates inevitably going to push up the cost of servicing it. The availability of money, coupled with a completely absent sense of constitutional propriety, appear to offer the divine intervention Ardern and Robertson need going forward. Their gig is to bribe the media in the run-up to the next election in the hope that they will save Labour. This is happening in two ways. First, the direct distribution of cash from the Public Interest Journalism Fund aimed at keeping the media on side until the next election. All the big daily papers have dipped into it already, and applications are now open for a further swag of taxpayer money. The second way the government is trying to keep the media on side is by over-paying them for printing the masses of Covid announcements. I’m reliably informed that the government negotiated none of the regular discounts available to those who advertise on a grand scale in newspapers and TV. The expectation is that none of the media greedies will bite the government hand that feeds them. Or not very hard.
If my information is correct, it is corruption, pure and simple. In normal circumstances there would be rebellion. But in the topsy-turvy world of this pandemic, I’m not sure that anyone any longer cares much about constitutional propriety.