Jacinda Ardern is not yet on maternity leave, but her departure from Wellington means Winston Peters’ tenure as acting Prime Minister has effectively begun when it comes to question time.
Under the first Roman triumvirate, three powerful men pooled their influence to effectively rule Ancient Rome between them. The system worked well, until one of the three, Crassus, was killed and other two, Pompey and Caesar, began warring for control.
If you don’t know what happens next, ask yourself: who the hell is Pompey?
The unity of a latter-day triumvirate - the coalition Government - was put to the test on Tuesday, as its popular figurehead, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, decamped to Auckland to be closer to the hospital where she plans to give birth.
Tuesday was also the first day of Parliament’s latest sitting block that will run for four weeks — all of which the Prime Minister will miss. This isn’t novel in itself. The Prime Minister usually misses question time on Thursday to fulfil her duties elsewhere in the country. But as it happened, Peters took control on a day on which tensions in the coalition were running high.
It was the first question time since Justice Minister Andrew Little was left looking foolish when New Zealand First scuttled his attempt to repeal the three strikes law. It wouldn’t have been so bad had Little not already publicly discussed the repeal of a policy he has called the “high-water mark of policy stupidity”.
The Opposition seized on the opportunity, directing questions on the back-down to the Prime Minister, which Peters was forced to answer in her stead.
But Peters did not take the bait, lauding Little as a “visionary” Justice Minister.
“Can I just say that Minister Little is a reforming Minister—probably the most reformist Minister we've had in decades,” he said.
“And because he has been putting all these ideas out for the public, there's no reason for him to swing from any of his statements at all. It looks like—and it is—an open Government”.
Peters stuck to the Government’s line, first used by Ardern last October, that they lead a true MMP coalition Government, where decisions are taken collectively and disagreements between the parties are worked out — sometimes in full view of the public.
Ardern will be pleased by Peters’ discipline in question time. But Monday’s revelation that the soon-to-be acting Prime Minster will be suing civil servants of the Government he heads will be worrying the Labour Party, as they try to balance a hope that New Zealand First will use its time at the top to boost its flagging poll numbers with dismay at the means Peters might deploy to accomplish this.
National Leader Simon Bridges continued to push Peters, contrasting criticism of Little not taking the repeal to Cabinet before discussing it publicly with the decision to ban new offshore Oil and Gas exploration without a Cabinet paper.
Peters' answer that both decisions were “typical” of the Government was met with laughter and the stomping of feet from the Opposition. He meant, as he went on to say, that the three parties decided to balance their priorities before making a collective decision, but the hilarity from the Opposition benches implied it had been received as a concession that the Government was divided and could not be relied upon to make straightforward decisions.
With Ardern away, the Opposition will look to push harder on this tack as it tries to make the Government look weak and divided.
The claim by Ardern and Peters that this is a true MMP Government is only half true. In more mature proportional representation systems differences between parties are ironed out in long coalition negotiations, where the policy programme of a government is negotiated to a far greater level of detail, avoiding embarrassing situations such as occurred this week.
But the most pertinent question is not whether this is a true MMP Government, but whether, after just 22 years, New Zealand has evolved an MMP electorate.
Our previous governments may have looked very MMP with their broad, mixed cabinets and complex confidence and supply agreements, but they were very much beasts of the 'first past the post' era, with a large, powerful party backed up by minnows who knew their place.
In this Government, Labour doesn't have the weight to throw around and always keep the minnows in their place.
All three parties in the coalition will be hoping the electorate acquires a taste for their new style of open deliberation. Their best chance of remaining in Government is to look like they can work together effectively and, in doing so, win more votes at the next election.
But National will keep prodding in the hope that someone breaks ranks.