COMMENT:

If all publicity is good publicity, then this was a terrific week for NZ First.

Usually, a senior MP being caught in a conflict of interest scandal, publicly pressuring the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to prosecute his opponents and attacking a major listed company for meeting its continuous disclosure obligations would be bad news for their party.

But the standards that apply to Labour, National and the Greens simply aren't relevant for NZ First. The party's supporters want to see their heroes at war with the establishment and Shane Jones well and truly delivered this week.

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The context remains a party at grave risk of ceasing to exist in 18 months.

NZ First is consistently below MMP's 5 per cent threshold in all public and private polls, and there is no rule that it does better during election campaigns than between them.

Both times it has been in formal coalitions it has fallen below 5 per cent at the next election and it is odds on that 2020 will be a third. Winston Peters' dream of his creation outliving him is fading, as are Jones' hopes of taking over a going concern.

For her part, Jacinda Ardern has no incentive to do anything to help her coalition partner.

Her interests are best served by NZ First not being back after next year's election. A three-party Parliament with a second-term Labour-led Government propped up by the Greens would suit her both ideologically and politically.

Unlike the stroppy NZ First, the Greens have depowered themselves by resolving to never even consider a deal with the other side. Ardern could use them as an excuse to advance a more left-wing agenda safe in the knowledge that they would have to lump it whenever pragmatism demanded she tack to the centre.

Winston Peters and Shane Jones will block any Jacinda Ardern plan to introduce a capital gains tax. Photo / File
Winston Peters and Shane Jones will block any Jacinda Ardern plan to introduce a capital gains tax. Photo / File

Jones did not plan the scandal over the $4.6 million grant to Manea Footprints of Kupe, a proposed new culture, heritage and education centre in Opononi. Murmurings of something controversial about the project have been doing the rounds in the Hokianga for months and it was only a matter of time before that chatter would reach both the Opposition and the media.

Moreover, Jones' behaviour really was egregious. Despite recognising a conflict of interest due to his relationships with the project's backers, Jones nonetheless gave assurances about its governance that were quite clearly decisive in Finance Minister Grant Robertson agreeing to sign the cheque. It is because of Jones that the money was handed over.

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Then, in parliamentary questions, Jones either deliberately or inadvertently failed to disclose his involvement in the decision. Were he a Labour minister, Ardern would have gained politically from sacking him to give meaning to the promise that her Government will be the most open, honest and transparent in New Zealand's history.

This is exactly why the scandal was not unwelcome for Jones. Demonstrating that different rules apply to NZ First and making the nominal Prime Minister look weak is central to differentiating the party from its larger coalition partner ahead of 2020.

The scandal then provided a pretext for Jones to go on the offensive.

For NZ First, attacking journalists, threatening to smear named individuals under parliamentary privilege, making dark insinuations about the SFO and positioning big business as somehow treasonous have been core business for a quarter century. In everything he did this week, Jones had the full blessing of Peters and the NZ First caucus.

Poor Ardern has to expect much more of these types of antics in the weeks ahead.

Wayne Brown's Upper North Island Supply Chain working group is soon to report and NZ First will renew Peters' "cast-iron commitment" to close Auckland's container and used-car port in favour of expanding Northport.

The party plans to humiliate Labour and the Greens by harpooning the capital gains tax (CGT) proposal. Not even a limited CGT on residential rental properties is acceptable given how many NZ First supporters own rentals to fund their retirements.

Crucially, NZ First wants voters to make no mistake that Ardern and Robertson are committed to a CGT and that it was NZ First that overruled them.

Anyone who cares about the integrity of government will be appalled by all this but the arithmetic of MMP makes it inevitable. NZ First knows it has no chance of reaching 5 per cent by loyally supporting the Government. Nor does it care if 90 per cent of voters think its behaviour is reprehensible.

It needs to win the support of only 1 in 20 voters: anything more is pointless. Drawing on the Kiwi culture of larrikinism, bad behaviour is its best bet.

- Matthew Hooton is managing director of PR and corporate affairs firm Exceltium.