Week in politics: Ardern under pressure as Peters fuels opposition attacks

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Although level 1 is potentially just days away, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spent the week resisting demands for an immediate move and fending off Opposition attacks over the government’s “fractured” message.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as they head to the House to present the 2020 Budget.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Cabinet will meet on Monday and is widely expected to announce that the move to level 1 will take place on Wednesday. That’s not early enough for the National Party, and new leader Todd Muller used every opportunity to demand a “captain’s call” from Ardern.

The prime minister made it clear that wasn’t going to happen but she didn’t get any help from her deputy.

Winston Peters continued to call for an immediate move and that played right into Muller’s hands. “What’s happening now is a shambles that is creating huge confusion for the country,” he said. Its message was “completely fractured and entirely divergent”.

Ardern, backed by the ever-cautious Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, explained again and again that only a few days had passed since the permitted crowd size was increased to 100. There had to be time to find out whether all the mixing and mingling under level 2 was going to lead to another outbreak, they said.

While they were trying to get this message across, public discipline was starting to crumble. In Auckland and Christchurch hundreds of people marched in protest against the death of black American George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, with some breaching social distancing rules.

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Thousands of people are gathered in Aotea Square.

Thousands of people gathered in Aotea Square to show solidarity with those protesting in the United States over the death of George Floyd. Photo: RNZ / Mabel Muller

Assistant Commissioner Lauano Sue Schwalger said police would speak to organisers to set clear expectations for any further protests, but that they had actually made an effort to ensure participants complied with rules.

Police ruled out legal action over this disregard for level 2 rules, which gave Peters another angle of attack. “If they’re not going to be prosecuted, then there’s no choice but to move to level 1,” he said. “We cannot have rules where some people decide they don’t wish to comply and there are no consequences.”

Opposition politicians said the marchers had made a mockery of the crowd size rule and the Dominion Post made the point that they weren’t the only ones. “We shouldn’t kid ourselves that it was only protesters who have been flouting the rules of late,” the paper said in an editorial. “Good luck spotting social distancing in our tourist hotspots or weekend markets.”

In Parliament, Muller quoted from a leaked Cabinet paper detailing what was needed for a move to level 1. The paper, obtained by RNZ, said there had to have been 28 days of no community transmission. Muller said the conditions had been met “and every day the government waits to make this shift is another day that businesses sink into debt”.

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National Party leader Todd Muller. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

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Dr Bloomfield said the conditions had not been met because one person was still recovering from Covid-19, and the argument over that didn’t reach a conclusion.

During the week, Peters was at the centre of another controversy. After nearly two months of negotiations between Labour and New Zealand First, Justice Minister Andrew Little was able to announce that if commercial landlords and tenants couldn’t reach agreement over rent payments they would have to enter compulsory arbitration.

That was a response to a problem that has been boiling away since lockdown. Cafes, bars, restaurants and other small businesses earned no revenue for four weeks, and most of them for a longer than that. The government continually urged both parties to sit down, talk it through and reach agreements. In many cases that didn’t happen.

Little, clearly unhappy about the length of time it had taken for the government to react, told reporters to ask New Zealand First about that. Peters, questioned at his press conference on Thursday, said his party had been concerned about “the sanctity of contract” and had made sure both parties were getting a fair and sensible deal. “I’m very confident you are going to get people saying ‘thank heavens some people understand our system of law and our system of contract law’,” he said. “Our job is to represent what we think is common sense.”

Winston Peters announcing the $12.1 billion economic relief package.

Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Under the temporary change to the Property Law Act, which is now in effect, the mandatory arbitration process will be limited to businesses with 20 or fewer full-time employees. Responding to questions about why the limit wasn’t higher, Peters said that was the definition of a small or medium-sized business.

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When reporters said commercial tenants had suffered unnecessarily because of the delay, Peters replied that the business loan scheme had provided them with the money to pay their rent. He also said the loan scheme had been New Zealand First’s idea.

Throughout the week, Ardern played down the differences between Labour and New Zealand First, explaining away Peters’ outspoken demands for an early move to level 1 as simply a difference of opinion within a Cabinet that acted through consensus.

Peters’ strange rationale was that he couldn’t be accused of criticising Labour because both parties were in Coalition. It should be seen as “criticism of process”.

*Peter Wilson

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