One of the most highly rated members of Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet is under pressure over assurances given in relation to an immigration case. How bad could it get, asks Toby Manhire.
There has never been a New Zealand prime minister more engaged with contemporary homegrown musicians than Jacinda Ardern. She’s forever bigging them up, giving them prizes, playing their heavy metal ditties to her baby. And this is how they repay her.
After the Vodafone Music Awards in 2017, she confided in Tom Sainsbury, who had earlier introduced her onstage, that Donald Trump at a recent summit had mistaken her for Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s wife. Sainsbury went ahead and repeated the morsel on the radio, in doing so creating a minor diplomatic incident.
At the same awards this year, Auckland hip hop artist Tom Scott won album of the year, and took the opportunity to upbraid the prime minister for her failure, so far, to visit Ihumātao. A few days later, Scott published private messages he’d exchanged with Ardern about the armed police trial in South Auckland.
Both of those examples were inconsequential, however, when compared with the latest musician-based bum note to befall the harmony of Ardern’s government.
As revealed by Newshub, cabinet minister Kris Faafoi had been involved in some questionable discussions – which look like they could breach the Cabinet Manual – with Jason Kerrison, whose CV includes an unsuccessful local body election candidacy, enthusiasm for arks, and mostly famously, being lead singer of the band Opshop.
Faafoi, an old friend of Kerrison, reportedly told him, “I’m on it bro”, in connection to an offer to help with a family member’s declined immigration application. He also offered to “talk to the people that speed things up”. Faafoi, who is minister of broadcasting, asked for the immigration file number, said he couldn’t put things in writing and rounded off an exchange with “Whanau whanau brother.”
Faafoi told Newshub that he was not offering to interfere, saying: “I understand his personal situation to be genuine and I think he did have a case, which is why I offered to speak to his local MP.”
The prime minister’s people will be urgently scouring the paperwork to discover whether or not Faafoi actively interfered. If he did, a cabinet sacking is a real possibility. Didn’t, after all, Nick Smith resign – albeit after some dragging of heels – from the National cabinet in 2012 after it was revealed he’d been lobbying ACC for a friend?
For Ardern, losing Faafoi would be a big double-blow. There would be the immediate and obvious impact of a resignation. But on top of that Faafoi, who was only promoted into cabinet-proper six months ago, is universally admired for his ministerial competence and intellect. He’s respected across every area he covers – including commerce, consumer affairs and social housing. As well as the portfolio that may turn out to be not just a hot potato, but also a poisoned chalice: broadcasting, communications and digital media.
The best case scenario from here for Faafoi and therefore for Ardern is that a thorough examination of the files reveals a few words of assurance were as far as it went. That he was simply telling his old friend what he wanted to hear, and never had any intention of sticking his nose in beyond alerting the relevant constituency MP. Assuming that’s the sum of it, the issue will melt into the summer. But all the same, you’d expect Ardern to publicly rap her star minister over the knuckles: to say that even a whiff, an appearance of inappropriate involvement is unacceptable, and she expects better.
And apart from immediately ceasing written communications with all musicians (as appears to be the prime minister’s commendable policy with kickboxers), the government might want to put on repeat the words of Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall, who welcomed delegates to the Labour Party conference in the city last weekend with a warning.
He said the Ardern-led government had chalked up massive achievements in their first two years.
“But all these disappear if a minister makes a poor decision, or an MP misspeaks or if a scandal emerges,” he said.
“So a year out from the election, I’ll give you three words. Discipline, discipline, discipline.”
Meanwhile, Jason Kerrison plays tomorrow night at the Toad Hall Backpackers in Hastings, as part of his “I Will If You Will” tour.