2. Dunne: Ardern returning to a solidified coalition

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters speaking to reporters in Parliament. Photo by Lynn Grieveson

With less than two weeks to go before Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern returns, former Minister Peter Dunne argues her temporary replacement has helped stabilise the coalition in an understated way.

When the Prime Minister returns from her maternity leave in the next couple of weeks she may not be leading 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. There was much earlier critical speculation about how Mr Peters would handle the role. In the event, the transition and his performance have been seamless, a combination of uncharacteristic understatement, but firmness on his part which has reinforced his authority in a back-handed way.

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, to have a little more cohesion and purpose about it. Ministers have generally appeared more on track than earlier, and their previous almost monotonous propensity to contradict each other in public has reduced substantially.

All this may be nothing to do with Peters, and may just be a consequence of the Government now finding its feet a quarter of the way through its term. It is possible, but unlikely. The measured and more sure-footed approach we are now seeing from the top is likely to have had a flow on effect across the team as a whole, which is where Peters' guile and experience will have been influential.

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, there was the feeling that Labour heavyweights like Grant Robertson and David Parker would act as Peters' minders, to make sure he did not step out of line. 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 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.

Again it may just be the mid-year Parliamentary recess and the school holidays that have 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 doing so, 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 7.2 percent election vote share suggests. He is right and his tenure as acting Prime Minister will have reinforced that.

All of which will make for an interesting transition once the Prime Minister returns. It is hard to imagine that Peters will be happy to hand back the role, just to allow the Government to return to its lax ways of the past. It may well be that, 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 has demonstrated his worth in that regard, and should therefore be able to continue to do so in the future.

For her part, the Prime Minister will probably have little alternative but to accept that assistance, and attempt to draw from it. 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 really been all about -- will be complete.