Jacinda Ardern's not going to be in a position to influence the Coalition Government's relationship with NZ's largest company while she is on six weeks' maternity leave.

But with NZ First leader Winston Peters joining the verbal gang bang against Fonterra's chairman John Wilson, Ardern has been forced into a corner.

She is now trotting out the ridiculous contortion that NZ First MP and Cabinet Minister Shane Jones was "acting in his personal capacity" to explain why she should not rein him in for his swingeing personal attack on Wilson (even though he spoke at Fieldays as the portfolio Minister).

The timing of Jones' attack is bizarre but not without pre-meditation.


Just a week ago, Ardern held up a tiny red Swanndri — a gift for her first child, given to her by Fonterra's top brass — as she posed for a photo with Wilson, the dairy co-operative's chief executive Theo Spierings and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor.

The photograph was clearly meant to symbolise the beginning of a new and cordial chapter in what has, behind the scenes, been quite a fractious relationship between the Coalition Government and the co-operative. A relationship that was so stretched that Cabinet Minister David Parker was earlier deputed to meet the Fonterra board and set expectations for greater professionalism.

But if Ardern felt detente had been reached, she was mistaken.

This week she was yet again having to deal with fallout as Jones skewered another major company chairperson in Trumpian manner.

The Regional Economic Development Minister, speaking at the opening day of Fieldays, called for Wilson's head, saying he "should catch the next cab out of town" and follow Spierings out the door.

At issue is not just the poor result Fonterra posted in March and a sense that Wilson, who has already served two terms as chairman, should not stand again for re-election this year.

But it is a belief by several senior Cabinet Ministers that the dairy co-operative had over-reached itself in its dealings with Government, Coalition political parties and the bureaucracy when it comes to environmental policy development and the future shape of the dairy industry.

When it comes to corporate governance norms, there is force for the argument that Wilson should step aside.


When Fonterra announced its $348 million first-half loss in March, Wilson announced that Spierings would step down (he is continuing in the role until a successor is in place).

The half-year loss was impacted by a $405m write-down of Fonterra's stake in Chinese infant formula manufacturer Beingmate.

A damages payment to Danone over the false botulinum affair, which capped a string of biosecurity issues, also contributed. There was also concern over Fonterra's relationships with its suppliers.

But Wilson is said to want to stay in place and shepherd the new CEO as he/she finds their feet.

There are other options.

For instance, Sir Ralph Norris offered his resignation as Fletcher Building chairman after major losses in its vertical construction business. Sir Ralph recognised that someone at senior board level needed to carry the can.

If Fonterra was a listed company there would also have been substantial continuing pressure from institutions for Wilson to follow suit.

But this is not the only driver for Jones' onslaught.

The 2017 election polarised the nation on issues like water policy.

There was rumour and claim aplenty during the campaign. Even Ardern was lampooned as a "pretty communist" at a farmer meeting in the heart of the Waikato.

And a number of senior political players from Labour and NZ First continue to believe senior dairy sector players (including from Fonterra) were trying to influence the 2017 election result .

When Jones launched his onslaught at the Fieldays leaders' breakfast on Wednesday, he was about five metres away from Wilson. Jones confirmed his comments to parliamentary reporters that day.

Business media were for the first time banned by the naming rights sponsor for this event (a step that I hope is reversed by KPMG next year) so there was no immediate testing of the response.

Jones is not going to say so publicly, but there was an element of utu about the attack.

He alluded to this when he told reporters Fonterra should focus less on "interfering in politics" and more on "justifying the money they've lost overseas".

Yesterday I canvassed a number of political insiders who spoke to me on a "not for attribution" basis.

The suspicion still prevails that senior dairy players were behind election protests.

And a claim persists that Fonterra itself had planned an advertising campaign against Labour by taking issue with the water tax policies promoted by David Parker, who now holds the Economic Development and Environment portfolios.

A story — in wide circulation in the Wellington "Beltway" — suggested this would have been akin to the advertisements run by the Exclusive Brethren in the 2005 election campaign which were designed to benefit National.

Fonterra managing director corporate affairs Mike Cronin told me yesterday he had heard the story several times.

But Cronin said it was not true. No advertisements were either contemplated or prepared. And if they had been proposed they would never have been approved.

What does remain an issue is the future dairy industry framework.

The Government has announced a review of the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act (DIRA) — the legislation that created Fonterra.

Jones has also created uncertainty with his comment that he has suggested to Agriculture Minister O'Connor that Fonterra itself be restructured. O'Connor says it is not Government policy to "prejudge any part of that process or individuals".

He had an "honest and cordial" conversation with Wilson. He acknowledged to Wilson that "some farmers share Shane's views". But the Government's policy and position is to run a comprehensive and robust review of the DIRA.

But at the bottom the issue is political. In truth, Jones' attacks on Wilson and before him Air New Zealand chairman Tony Carter and The Warehouse's Joan Withers also work for NZ First's brand.

The Wilson attack was not the first — nor will it be the last.

In Ardern's place, maternity leave must look a pretty good option right now.