By Peter Dunne*
The Prime Minister returns from her maternity leave today (Thursday), but not to lead the same government she was just a few weeks ago. Over recent weeks, the Labour/New Zealand First coalition, supported by the Greens, has undergone a subtle but perceptible change.
This has come about because of a combination of circumstances. The most obvious of these has been the performance of the Deputy Prime Minister as acting Prime Minister. Notwithstanding much earlier critical speculation about how Winston Peters would handle the role, the transition and his performance have been seamless, a combination of uncharacteristic under-statement but firmness nonetheless which, in a backhanded way, has reinforced his authority.
A government that was looking all at sea and somewhat vague and indecisive when it came to overall leadership a few weeks ago now seems, while not out of those waters completely by any means, to have a little more cohesion and purpose about it. Generally, Ministers have appeared more on track than earlier, and their previous almost monotonous propensity to contradict each other in public has reduced substantially. Now, all this may be nothing to do with Peters, and may just be a consequence of the government - now a quarter of the way through its term - at last finding its feet. It is possible, but unlikely. The measured and less "golly gosh" bumbling approach Peters provided has had a flow-on effect across the team as a whole, reflecting his guile and experience.
At the same time, the government has been able to make progress on its policy agenda - even some of the more controversial aspects. A new Defence Review has been released, the confirmation of the replacement aircraft for the P3 Orions has been finalised, and the Provincial Growth Fund continues to spurt out its largesse capriciously on favoured parts of the country. Significantly, these are all initiatives from New Zealand First Ministers, and just as significantly, Labour flagships like Kiwibuild and the review of the health services continue to wallow and appear bogged down.
The Greens have been largely marginalised during this time - left to deal with potential time-bombs like the steep pending rise in landfill charges and the phase out of single trip plastic shopping bags. These are the sorts of worthy issues that can turn quickly from having general public support to having an unwelcome nanny-state flavour once the detail is rolled out, and the well-meaning Ministers promoting them reduced to looking like no more than intrusive, meddling busy bodies as a consequence.
When the Prime Minister went on maternity leave, the expectation was that Labour heavyweights like Grant Robertson and David Parker would act as Peters' minders, to make sure he did not step out of line. Well, Robertson has remained the most affable but invisible Minister of Finance in more than 50 years, and Parker has also disappeared from the public view. While his own performance has been atypically low-key, Peters has shown he can be a relatively safe pair of hands after all, if the situation warrants it, and that he does not need the guidance of others.
In fact, most Ministers have kept their heads down in this time, and the government has appeared better for it, in stark contrast to the freewheeling chaos of the preceding few months. It may just be that the recent mid-year Parliamentary recess and the school holidays kept them away from the negative headlines, and all the familiar snafus will return now these are over. Yet it may also be that there has been a little more focus from the top and direct leadership in recent weeks.
Whatever the explanation, things have changed. Peters' performance has dumbfounded many of his critics. In so doing, he has reinforced his importance to the government. Indeed, he observed recently that coalition mathematics mean that he and New Zealand First (still the same thing even after 25 years) are worth far more to the government than their 7% election vote share suggests. He is right and his tenure as acting Prime Minister reinforced that.
All of which makes for an interesting transition now the Prime Minister has returned. Given his performance over the last few weeks and in the face of the continued absence and apparent unwillingness of senior Labour Ministers to play their part in the leadership and management of the government, the Deputy Prime Minister will consider, with some justification, that he should play a much more prominent role in the leadership and direction of the government.
For her part, the Prime Minister will have little alternative but to accept that assistance, and attempt to make the best of it. Meanwhile, the wily Deputy Prime Minister will continue to smile enigmatically and no less smugly than before, because the transition of this administration from Labour-led to really a New Zealand First/Labour Government, what the last few weeks have actually been all about, has now been completed.
*Peter Dunne is the former leader of UnitedFuture, an ex-Labour Party MP, and a former cabinet minister. This article first ran here and is used with permission.