Across the prime minister’s Monday morning broadcast interviews, there was one overwhelming theme: the behaviour of NZ First and Winston Peters, who happens also to be the deputy prime minister.
With turmoil engulfing government coalition partner NZ First and deputy PM Winston Peters, the logical next person to ask for a view was Jacinda Ardern. After all, he is her deputy.
Last week she had refused to comment on the matters in question – in particular the strange admission and subsequent denial of Winston Peters of having any involvement in how photos of journalists meeting former NZ First president Lester Grey ended up on a Whaleoil-linked blog.
But every Monday morning, the questions need to be faced head on. The week for the prime minister begins with interviews with the biggest morning TV and radio news shows in the country: RNZ’s Morning Report, TVNZ 1’s Breakfast, the Mike Hosking Breakfast on Newstalk ZB, and the AM Show on Three.
Two clear patterns emerged. The first is that Ardern is trying to limit her exposure to the scandal by arguing that it is a matter for the leader of NZ First (the political party) rather than a matter for her as the boss of the government. The second theme is a repeated point about finding such blogs distasteful, and that she would not want the Labour Party to have any involvement with them.
It’s a very delicate position to balance. Do the prime minister’s answers bear scrutiny? Here we transcribe three of those interviews (the AM Show recap doesn’t yet appear to be online) so you can judge for yourself.
Radio NZ: Morning Report
Susie Ferguson: If we can move to the photos of Guyon Espiner and Matt Shand that appeared on the BFD website. Winston Peters said last week, quote, “We took the photos.” Is it acceptable for your deputy prime minister to be involved in this – photos of journalists which end up on a blog associated with Whale Oil?
Jacinda Ardern: Again, these are ultimately questions – actually his most recent statement, most people would have seen, was publicly made, to claim that a supporter did. So just to clarify that.
But actually these aren’t matters for me. Ultimately these are matters for New Zealand First. I run –
They are, though. They are matters for you. This is your deputy prime minister.
Yes, indeed. I’m the prime minister of the government. I do not run three separate political parties. So I don’t think it’s unfair or unreasonable to say these are matters for New Zealand First, not for me. Yes, I have a personal view on blogs like that. They’re not something that I –
What’s your personal view?
– Choose to engage with, or would have the Labour Party engage with. I don’t believe in them, I think they tend to engage in, you know, mud-slinging. And that’s not how I do politics.
Is Winston Peters upholding the highest ethical standards, as outlined in the Cabinet Manual?
Again, this is not relevant to the role he plays as minister of foreign affairs, and that is where my role lies –
Minister of foreign affairs. He’s deputy prime minister. He’s a member of the cabinet. I’m asking you directly about the Cabinet Manual.
You are, and, no, he maintains the role he needs to maintain appropriately, as minister for foreign affairs. You’re asking questions of him as leader of a political party, and Susie –
No I’m not. I’m asking questions of him as a member of the cabinet that you run.
Again, these are matters for him. I don’t even have clarity over who took them, how they got on a blog –
So have you had no conversations with Winston Peters since this story broke about this? You have no clarity about this?
Susie I can hear that this is obviously something very personal for Radio New Zealand, but these aren’t matters that I have any responsibility for. I’m the leader of the Labour Party. I have nothing to do with it. I’m not going to stand here and explain it or defend it. It’s not for me.
So despite the fact that he’s in your cabinet, despite the fact that he’s the deputy prime minister, he stands in for you when you are not here, this is not a matter for you?
I’ve already made my position on this utterly clear. This is not a matter for me. It is not something I hold information on. It is not conduct I’ve been engaged in. No, I don’t see these as things being explicit to the Cabinet Manual, which is the conduct of how we run the government. Ultimately in an MMP environment I will have separate political parties. They are in charge of their own conduct as parties and party leaders –
What’s your view about whether it has a chilling effect on democracy or not, prime minister?
– I cannot run both a government and three political parties. I’ve already made clear my view on blogs of that nature and their use in New Zealand. That is my view, and my view as the Labour leader. But for the rest, you need to speak to Winston Peters.
So he is safe in his portfolios, then?
Yes, he is.
Hayley Holt: The Electoral Commission announced that it believed some of the donations to the NZ First Foundation should have been declared … It is an election year, when showing leadership is imperative. Why have you decided to stay silent?
Jacinda Ardern: Oh, well certainly I haven’t stayed silent. I’m pretty sure I may have even been asked by your reporters about this issue a number of times. And I’ve been very clear that yes it has been referred to the Serious Fraud Office, in the same way that we’ve had the same process for the National Party in recent times. But no final decision on whether there’s been any offending here has been made. And so I don’t want to be premature, and I don’t want to get in front of even decisions made by the independent agency who are here to make these decisions. They need to determine what’s gone on here, and whether there’s been an offence, and if so, who committed it. Anything in front of that would be premature.
Well you don’t have to allege criminal conduct in order to comment about whether you thought donations should have been declared. Are you holding back because you know that you need –
Hayley, I’m just going to stop you there, I’m just going to stop you there, because you haven’t completed what the Electoral Commission then went on to say. They then said they haven’t been able to determine whether that constituted an offence. That’s why they’ve handed it over to someone else to have a look at, so you’re asking me to apply a moral judgement here without an evidence base, and I don’t think that’s entirely fair.
Is it also though because you know that you need NZ First in order to form a government after the election?
Nope, OK, great answer.
It’s one of the shortest answers I’ve ever given you.
Yes, you’ve also been sort of very diplomatic, should I say, or short on questions around NZ First flip flopping over their involvement in covertly taking photographs of journalists who are working on this story. Do you think you could have asked Winston Peters for a full explanation?
Oh actually on that, I’ve only been asked about that this morning. It’s the first time I’ve been asked questions on it. And so from my perspective, look I’ve seen the things he’s put out publicly on that. Keeping in mind, the only time I’ve seen him since that time was at a distance at a funeral. Look ultimately what he has said here is that a supporter took a photo. Beyond that, I’m not familiar with the details, but nor do I see that as my role. The distinction here – I run the government. Individual party leaders need to be responsible for their own management of their own political parties.
He’s also a government minister –
I have a personal view on the blog here in question. It’s not something that I favour the use of. I don’t like those blogs, I don’t think they add anything to New Zealand or politics. But those are decisions for political party leaders, and so questions for Winston Peters. Yes he is a minister. My job though in the maintenance of the cabinet manual is the conduct of ministers in their portfolios. And so these are questions for a political party leader.
There’s also a section about ministers upholding and being seen to uphold the highest ethical standards at all times. Do you think it could have been worth a phone call at least to Winston Peters?
So, look, in an election year – in an election year, we’re going to have a number of these kinds of situations. There’s going to be some mud-slinging back and forth. My job is to make sure I run the government, that I do that well. Political parties and their leaders need to be responsible for the management of their own parties. So, yes, you have questions around how that photo ended up on that blog, but that is a question for the leader of NZ First, not for me.
Newstalk ZB: Mike Hosking Breakfast
Mike Hosking: Is Winston taking photos of journalists of concern to you in any way shape or form?
Jacinda Ardern: Well, I’d add this disclaimer here that these questions go to him himself. Of course I did see –
Having trouble reaching him at the moment? He seems to have gone to ground funnily enough.
I did see, I did see or at least a report of his last tweet on this which clarified that it was a party member, or a supporter I believe. I think was the turn of phrase that he used.
Are you concerned about the turn of events in your coalition partner though?
No, look, ultimately, I am in charge of the government, I do not take the personal responsibility of the conduct of different political parties, that would just be an overstep, and nor the expectation of what I would have of running the government. But ultimately, I do have a personal view on those blogs. I’m not a fan. I certainly would have no expectation that the Labour party would have any use of them, but those are matters for New Zealand First.
But he does fall under the auspices of your control, as deputy prime minister, doesn’t he?
Yes, but ultimately, that’s the conduct under which he’s maintaining his portfolios. A job he does as minister of foreign affairs and so on. This is a matter with the NZ First party, their ex-president, and conduct around that, and it would simply not be the expectation of taxpayers that I’d manage three parties as well as the government.