The mute PM

Henry Cooke writes:

… the prime minister has slipped this week from the usual kind of space people give Winston to be Winston into plain supplicancy.

Jacinda Ardern is yet to say anything at all about the fact the Electoral Commission made absolutely clear on Monday that the way NZ First was treating donations to its foundations was wrong.

This is no minor thing. It is almost inconceivable the SFO will reach a different conclusion. The only real issue is who should be charged, and how many different sections of the Electoral Act have been broken.

The PM is mute on this finding. She will probably try to divert attention from NZ First by announcing some electoral law changes, to try and fool people into thinking the law is the problem. The law is not the problem. It is people conspiring to get around the law that is the problem. The Electoral Act actually has pretty robust features to stop people getting around transparency obligations.

This silence got even louder on Thursday when it became clear that NZ First had some kind of involvement in two covertly taken photographs of journalists reporting on the Foundation story, which found their way onto a right-wing blog. Peters told Magic Talk on Tuesday that “we took the photographs just to prove that’s the behaviour going on”, but later backtracked to say a supporter just happened to see the journalists and thought he or she should snap a photo.

Because of this shifting story, there is a muddle over exactly how involved NZ First and Peters are, a muddle that would best be sorted out by Ardern demanding a fuller explanation from Peters. Any level of involvement in this kind of tactic – clearly designed to intimidate journalists – is worth condemning, and you can bet that, if Ardern was in Opposition, she would manage it.

Instead she’s not commenting, saying it is a “matter for NZ First”, while her office notes that she speaks about ministerial decisions and comments, not about things said as party leader. 

The thing is, the Cabinet Manual does have a section about ministers upholding and being seen to uphold “the highest ethical standards” at all times, not just when doing ministerial business. Ardern has all the ammo she needs to give Peters a dressing-down over this, but instead she defers. Things don’t have to be illegal to be wrong.

Cooke is correct that the need to act ethically applies to what Winston Peters does as party leader, not just a Minister. So one can only conclude from Ardern’s refusal to comment is that she thinks it is okay to covertly photograph journalists to try and intimidate them and their sources.

Worse, this rot of silence has also infected the Green Party, which, as a confidence and supply partner, has plenty of legitimate room to criticise such tactics. You don’t need to tear the Government up or demand that Peters is fired – you can just say what the journalists’ union said on Friday, that Peters needs to explain himself and apologise.

Instead the Greens just talk about how the law needs to be changed – which most people agree with, but isn’t the point. The topic at hand isn’t underhanded but lawful behaviour, it’s stuff that is potentially illegal – hence the police referral. The party should grow back its spine.

The Greens are so desperate to appease Winston and swallow their previously hallowed principles that they could probably land a job working for the Fyre Festival.

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