The birth of a child is almost always a joyous event, but it's especially so for a government that desperately needs the time-out to re-set itself and rediscover its discipline and competence 

As Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters stand poised to fulfill very different dreams, neither of them will be terribly happy with where the government stands on the brink of this wee bit of history.

The three-party government that promised to be transformational is not without runs on the board, but its successes has been muddied by a series of recent SNAFUs and blunders that play right into the Opposition's hands.

Some may be down to bad explanations, others more serious signs of incompetence, but either way they leave the government exposed and in desperate need of the 'pause and reset' the new Ardern baby offers.

Looking back over recent weeks, the list of fumbles is not insignificant. Phil Twyford took his smart move of bringing Sir Peter Gluckman into the meth house debate and mangled it, spending days unable to clarify what happens next and failing to deliver accountability for people kicked out of their state houses.

In trying to clean up the mess left at Middlemore Hospital by the previous National government David Clark has made one of his own, looking to stop the Health Boards from answering important questions of what happened and when. While over at Police, Stuart Nash has been left arguing that significantly more police officers won't mean more prisoners; a position with lots of losing sides and little to gain.

Then to top it off, Andrew Little and Kelvin Davis bumbled their justice reforms last week. For one, Davis announced a prison to be built via a Public-Private Partnership with half the cells double-bunked, two things Labour has been critical of in the past. To make matters worse, Davis couldn't remember how many of the cells would be double-bunked, froze and had to be rescued by Corrections CEO Ray Smith.

The most serious foul-up though, was Little's long-promised repeal of the three strikes law falling over because New Zealand First maintained its support for the legislation... as it always has. While we can only assume that Little had received some sort of assurance of support from his coalition partner before going public, it seems inept on all sides that the governing parties ended up defeating themselves.

It suddenly seems a long time since the government deftly handled the M Bovis culling decision. To quote Bruce Bayliss from arguably New Zealand's greatest folk song, frankly, "Fred, it's a mess".

What will worry Labour most is that, Davis aside, these mistakes have come from senior ministers in big portfolios who in the opening months of government were considered the most able. It's been the party's safe pair of hands dropping the ball.

The urgent question for Labour now is whether those MPs can quickly find their feet again, while attention is centred on the Prime Minister's new baby. The fear must be that they are paying for their sins committed in Opposition.

While the previous National government did any number of controversial back-flips and took at times unpopular stances on issues, the Key-English-Joyce powerbase gave the party an air of competence that held for the best part of three terms. In Opposition, Labour never really looked able to compete on the competence front, running through leaders (and senior staff) and arguing amongst itself, often about issues that few New Zealanders felt strongly about.

It meant Labour did not do the detailed work it might have in its years in Opposition.

So last year the party came to power under-prepared, propelled by the popularity of a young, talented and optimistic new leader. While the policies Labour had worked out lacked some details, they were popular, offered new solutions and responded to public sentiment. National warned it was "stardust" without the substance, but New Zealand made its choice.

In policy terms, Labour has delivered quite a lot, while somehow seeming determined to disguise the fact. But its "transformative" rhetoric is increasingly at odds with its cautious reality and each stuff-up allows National to point to its pre-election warnings and say 'told you so'.

So this government, whether it likes it or not, is now under close observation to see whether National's dire predictions of chaos might yet come true. A couple of bad weeks is undoubtedly a long way from "chaos", but if Labour doesn't see the red flags raised in the past few weeks, it needs to start paying more attention.

Given the time wasted in Opposition, the most pressing question for Labour now is whether it can do the work quickly and well enough to make up for that lost time. And can it do it under pressure and in a disciplined manner.

It won't be easy in the short-term because it now faces six weeks with Winston Peters as Prime Minister. They will be six weeks of uncertainty, simply because it's new territory.

Having said that, this could also be this government's biggest opportunity. For one, Peters, whatever his other sins, is a determined constitutionalist. So I suspect he will behave scrupulously in this role. Quite apart from his respect for the office, he will enjoy being able to show his statesmanlike side and later being able to say 'I told you so'.

Perhaps that's why he and his party have got their maverick tricks out of the way last week. Shane Jone's outburst on Fonterra's leadership, New Zealand First's ankle-tapping of Little over 'three strikes' and Peters' own farcical decison to file court papers suiing his own government just days before he becomes Prime Minister did nothing to undermine this government's air of incompetence. But at least for the next six weeks Peter's partners can expect him to settle down and behave, buying them some time to rebuild the government's respectability.

The other great benefit for the government over the next six weeks, of course, is that, while Ardern won't be Prime Minister, she will be the single biggest story in the land. If National was wary of her "stardust" previously, they ain't seen nothin' yet. The arrival of the Prime Ministerial child is an historic event that will shine nothing but light on her. Even a currently bumbling government can't help but get caught in its glow.

Still, the Cabinet will want to make the most of its good fortune and spend this short window figuring how it can start to live up to its own spin, speaking more honestly and directly to voters and running the country with a renewed air of competence. It still has plenty of time before Election 2020, but it needs to stop the rot and fast.

Comments (14)

by Kat on June 21, 2018

You make it sound as if the way you comment is the way it is. Fortunately for the govt the opposite is more reality. It is the opposition that is in crisis, is it not.

by James Green on June 22, 2018
James Green

That fact that Labour got nothing ready after nine years in opposition is really telling.

by Ian MacKay on June 22, 2018
Ian MacKay

Not impressed Tim.

Your assessment of the failures of the Government puts me in mind of a picky critic who notices an uneven shoelace on an award winning soldiers boot, while ignoring the sum of his achievements. Or on inspecting the completed vacuuming cleaning complain that the cord is not properly coiled. Your way would be for the Government to initiate nothing but keep the status quo to avoid the risk of a comment being misplaced and having Tim and his mate Bridges make a mountain over it.

Thus should Andrew Little leave the prison population as it is, or risk condemnation?

Go Andrew!

by Charlie on June 22, 2018

Good post Tim - to the point of almost stating the obvious.

You forgot to mention (in no particular order)

> Clare Curran's debacle with RNZ (which would have easily got her fired in National)

> Shane Jones running off at the mouth about Fontera and others

> A billion trees (snigger)

> The Labour Youth camp 

> The destruction of the Taranki oil & gas industry

> The Greens self destructing over a water bottling plant

> Collapsing business confidence

> Jacinda's relentless virtue signalling over Manus Island

All this and not even a year in power!

Most of this, just as you say, was self inflicted, but I wouldn't underestimate the destructive behavior of Winston in the months to come. Observing him from a distance one could be forgiven for thinking all he's interesting in is grabbing what he wants and damn the coalition and damn the country. And what he wants is the PM job ticked off his bucket list and utu against all & sundry.

So if, by some miracle the coalition suddenly becomes competent, there is always Winston there to ankle-tap them, just out of spite.

by Nick Gibbs on June 22, 2018
Nick Gibbs


The prison population is where it is because the justice system could not provide Judge David MacNaughton with a proper mental health assessment of Akshay Chand during his bail hearing. Nor was the judge informed that Akshay lived just 300m from Christie Marceau whom Chand was currently on remand for kidnapping and sexually assaulting. (bit of a failure of imagination on the judges part here however. Where did he Chand lived? and what did he think Chand would be doing by himself all day when his mother was at work. Not questions I guess the law is interested in.)

Chand would go on to murder Marceau one month later. Therefore because the Justice system couldn't provide what must be considered essential information, parliament passed a bill to lock up lots more people.

Andrew Little has stated he will remedy this lack of information sharing. However, surely he should do this first before allowing all and sundry out of prison. No one wants another tradgey like Christie Marceau.

by Tim Watkin on June 23, 2018
Tim Watkin

Kat, I offer my analysis here. I hope it gives you something to think about, but it’s entirely up to you to agree or take another view.

Ian, that’s an interesting take and entirely not what I meant. My criticism is not of what is being done, but how it is being done. If you’re going to try to resolve the injustices around meth houses, have a plan for what happens next and make sure you hold people accountable. If you’re going to announce a prison that includes so much double bunking when you have spoken out against it in the past, be prepared to explain why you’ve changed your mind. And at least know how much double-bunking there is, for crying out loud. Does that say ‘comeptence’ to you? 

The problem is not the odd mistake, but a run of them that points to a lack of preparation.  

I didn‘t write a word about the policies and actually think the evidence thus far suggests Little is on the right path. The increase in the number of people on remand seems to be doing more harm than good. But if the govt can’t take the public with them by explaining clearly and looking like they know their business, then they will have problems.

by Tim Watkin on June 23, 2018
Tim Watkin

It seems I’m not the only one unimpressed with Labour’s political management. This is a tweet from Peter Davis making similar points to mine:

”Unfortunately the government is not doing well enough in managing business of the house, both in the chamber and out. And I don't mean denying the opposition basic rights. The narrative laid out is one of an incompetent govt introducing legislation for which it has no mandate.”

by Ian MacKay on June 24, 2018
Ian MacKay

Thinking on Tim, I always wondered how keen Key supporters could be so blind to the "obvious" flaws in his administration. Now I can see defensively how it all works.

Still pretty optimistic though that Ministers will become more careful in their wording, gear up to take the people with them and make a real difference. I guess an 18month evaluation would be more apt.

by Kat on June 26, 2018

Tim, I say your analysis is incorrect rather than my just "taking another view". Do you really want me to post a long contrary list of the present govt "failures"..and just what has been achieved in the first nine months.

by MJ on June 28, 2018

This is a bit of a miserable take I think. It has elements of truth, but the narrative of it has made Charlie froth and get excited: it is exactly what the opposition want to say, snow flakes! Don't let him read Guyon's column saying there's is no significant foreign investment in the housing market (I paraphrase). 

There is a range of competencies in the government. 

Andrew Little had been a safe pair of hands, and this public set back has taken that shine off. Him, Parker and Twyford are crucial to this government's success. Twyford is working hard. The test will be if he makes the same mistake again. I don't think you can blame Kelvin for having been handed a mess of a portfolio, yet. Clark and Nash very much have trainer wheels on. Hipkins is talented and well liked, but new and over worked. What I said for Twyford applies to him in the house too. 

I think though this should be another post. It's not so much government failure, but the way NZ First is making a pitch for National's turf, possibly with an aim of being a part of a future right government. That is the Fonterra jaw boning, the Air NZ jaw boning and the knocking of Andrew Little on the nose: marketing NZ First, now with the PM as standing up for the little farmers, for the rural and provincial air travellers and for the tough on crime mob. 

It remains to be seen how much is actually worth Charlie's splooge of delight and how much is true evidence of actual failure. 

It could be that NZ First could chip off some of National's support and have no interest in changing the government at all. 

by MJ on June 29, 2018

Also, the narrative here is competence v. incompetence, which is a fine narrative for an opposition to tell, but it ignores another one which to me is important. 

The previous government was an amoral and immoral one in many of the things that they did. 

Even those who had a moral conscience and believed something to be a moral failure did not publically campaign for it to change. 

They are happy to work for cigarette companies which cause cancer and happy to run private military operations which profit from war, misery and chaos. 

They allowed a government department to invent science, the public service, to use completely bogus science in order to evict those with the working class affliction. 

They allowed a large segment of the population to become in essence disenfranchised and reduced, but blocking their path to home ownership. 

They ran trusts which allowed people to hide their money in New Zealand. 

They actively demonised parts of New Zealand and ignored them. 

What did National tell us so?

That there was no housing crisis, no poverty, no need for public housing and a need to put 5 year olds through exams. That there wasn't a need to investigate migrants work arrangements or a need to have health and safety standards in forestry or farming or to pay caregivers or to worry if teachers, nurses and policeman couldn't afford to live in Auckland. There was no need for farmers to register their animals properly or follow national water quality standards. 

That is a mess to me, but it never got pinned to National's chest. And 40 odd % still believe this to be fine.  

This is a generation growing into its power. While we are as critical of our new representatives as any, it is because we want their attention and hard work, something which we have not received for some time from our government. Please don't help Charlie back into the top job just yet!

by Anne on June 29, 2018

Thank you, thank you MJ. Enjoyed both comments. Feel invigorated that someone has the guts to... tell it like it really is.

by Ian MacKay on June 30, 2018
Ian MacKay

Yes MJ. Well said.


by KJT on July 08, 2018

Far better Labour/ Greens trying to head in the right direction, however imperfectly, than National competently, featherbedding their retirements, vandalising our infrastructure, destroying the environment and demolishing our formerly egalitarian society


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