Jacinda Ardern’s greatest challenge may be the egos in her own cabinet

The Labour PM has her work cut out for her with a pair of senior cabinet ministers hardly given to toeing the line, writes Toby Manhire.

Jacinda Ardern spent her Monday morning hosing down the glowing embers across the lawn. No big deal there, particularly: fire-fighting is part and parcel of the breakfast-interview round with which the prime minister begins the week. It is less typical – and presumably therefore all the more annoying and enervating – when the fires were cheerfully lit by someone in your cabinet.

The someone in this example is Shane Jones, the Labour MP turned National-government-appointed ambassador turned New Zealand First MP and touted successor to Winston Peters. In his capacity as minister for regional economic development, the baroque-tongued Jones arrived on the TVNZ Q&A sofa on Sunday to talk up his plan for a work for the dole programme.

Not that he’d be calling it work for the dole, though, right? “I’m calling it Work for the Dole,” Jones told Corin Dann.

Did he not realise that this might be problematic for the senior coalition partner? “I’ve been counselled by my friends in Labour. They don’t like the term Work for the Dole, and it’s probably going to be called Work Ready. They probably have a slightly different view of the incentives that should be used, but I’d be nothing other than honest if I didn’t say to you that’s the quality of my advocacy.”

Straight shooter! “I’m sick and tired of watching the ne’er-do-well nephs sitting on the couch doing nothing,” he said. “There will be no more sitting on the couch.”

Yet Jones’s uncouching solution would be misnamed as Work for Dole, given, as he explained, those employed in the planting of pine trees or railways would be paid at least the minimum wage.

Still, it meant that Ardern had to spend those Monday interviews – with Newstalk ZB, Three’s AM Show, RNZ’s Morning Report and Breakfast on TVNZ 1 – explaining that Jones was of course referring to the Ready for Work programme, and there would be payment of a minimum working wage, which is “the really important distinction”. Any other complaint, Ardern told RNZ’s Morning Report, was “quibbling here over two different names”.

It wasn’t just about the names, though. Jones is clearly keen on beefing up the compulsion. “They’ll be made to go to work,” he said. Ardern fudged when asked about that – refusing even to state her philosophical position on the issue, when questioned by Jack Tame. It had to go to cabinet first, she said. “I’m not going to pre-empt a decision that has to be made by a whole group of people.”

Shane Jones with a former political candidate. Feature image: Jacinda Ardern counts things on The AM Show

Apart from the policy particularities of all this, however – and it bears noting that “work for the dole” has all the populist appeal that it lacks in empirical foundation – the question is: why is a cabinet minister blindsiding his prime minister, lighting little fires?

Is it that Jones, a long-time loather of the Green Party, is trying to put a wedge between them and Labour? The Labour-Green confidence and supply agreement, which points to a loosening, rather than a tightening of the benefits sanction regime, includes as a priority: “Overhaul the welfare system, ensure access to entitlements, remove excessive sanctions.”

Is Jones beginning to position himself for a post-Peters leadership? It’s not as though he was caught out on Q&A: he was eager to assert himself as the fearless matua, the outspoken, independent spirit. (Though to be fair he did acknowledge, in his Jonesian way, “despite my tendency for rhetoric from time to time, the reality is we are a coalition government, and where we strike issues where we have to wend our ways through the political labyrinth, we’ll do so.”)

Maybe it’s something to do with the super moon.

Whatever it is, the early weeks of the coalition suggest that Ardern is going to be spending a lot of time accounting for and correcting her NZ First cabinet colleagues. Not that she’ll expressly correct them, if she can help it – more of the what he was trying to say was variety.

On RNZ this morning, after she’d finished explaining what Mr Jones was trying to say, Ardern sought to explain, as she’s been trying to for the last week, what Mr Peters was trying to say about the mysterious shrinking coalition agreement, or is it guidelines, or is it notes. The dead sea scrolls of the 2017 coalition, which are apparently in the NZ First leader’s safe (though surely he’ll also have a set in his famous tardis-like car boot), have come to the attention of the ombudsman, who has given Ardern five days to explain why she refuses to release the papers under the Official Information Act.

Given their proclamations about transparency and free information, this is an early embarrassment for Ardern’s government, and one the opposition can justifiably hammer away at.

It must be infuriating for Ardern’s camp, however, that the embarrassment began with the deputy prime minister – that being the same deputy prime minister who is, remarkably, seeking monetary damages from two journalists – who told the press all about it just over a month ago.

For the big beasts of NZ First, Peters and Jones especially, keeping schtum and toeing the line do not come easy. If the first few weeks of the three-part government are a guide, Labour’s challenge in 2018 will be in part mollifying the rigid idealism of the Greens, and in part taming, or managing at least, the big egos of New Zealand First.

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