COMMENT

It has been one step forward, and three steps backwards for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as she seeks to establish some momentum for the Government since her return from leave.

Shane Jones, Helen Clark and Meka Whaitiri have all put the brakes on some of that momentum this week in their own ways.

In doing so, they have also allowed Ardern's critics to portray her as a weak leader.

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The Meka Whaitiri issue may be difficult if there were no witnesses to the alleged altercation and there are conflicting views of what took place.

Ardern can't be faulted in her management of the Whaitiri case so far, standing the minister aside while Ministerial Services tries to establish the facts.

Despite apparently being a difficult minister to work for, Whaitiri deserves natural justice given the severity of the allegations.

But Ardern is dealing with political imperatives, not employment law, and she can essentially make any judgement she likes if she can defend it to her party and the public.

She needs to be conducting her own investigation so she is able act when and if she sees fit and not according to a public service timetable.

People's judgments around Ardern's handling of cabinet discipline are more influenced by the Clare Curran example than anything that has happened in the Whaitiri case.

And there are two schools of thought.

Those who have given Curran the benefit of the doubt and have accepted she made an error in forgetting a meeting she had, believe that her demotion to a minister outside cabinet (and a $46,000 pay cut) was fair and proportionate.

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Those who don't accept Curran's word and believe she lied and deliberately kept the meeting secret think Ardern should have sacked her, and consequently that Ardern is gullible and weak for not doing so.

The judgment about Curran is unfairly being transferred to Ardern. In matters of ministerial discipline, Ardern has acted firmly, not weakly.

Ardern's association with weakness has been reinforced by the release this week of recommendations after alleged assaults at Labour's summer camp.

The revelations by Newsroom back in March about incidents at the boozy summer camp in February have been without a doubt the lowest point at Ardern's leadership and the only glaring example of weak leadership.

It is still unbelievable that Ardern did not expect her senior party officials to have informed her of the serious allegations, did not publicly admonish officials for failing to do so and did not believe any of the young people's parents should have been informed.

Comparisons were made at the time – including by me - between Ardern's expectations and what Helen Clark's would have been.

Unhelpfully for Ardern, Clark reminded the public this week of those differences in saying heads would have rolled.

In fact, heads would not have rolled because no one in Labour at the time would have dared not to tell Clark. And she would have been fully involved in the response.

The third issue this week over which Ardern's leadership has been judged has been over Shane Jones outbursts on Air New Zealand chief executive Chris Luxon.

National says it is an act of defiance and challenged Ardern to assert her leadership over him.

Handling the Jones phenomenon is a difficult task for both the Government and Opposition.

Luxon aside, much of what Jones says, National agrees with, such as his support for pro-growth projects such as the Waimea Dam.

National is often left with having to throw suspicion on the processes of decision-making or highlighting the differences between Jones and his Government colleagues.

In this case, the differences over attributes of Luxon as the head of the new business advisory council between Ardern and Jones were big and as the week went on, they got bigger.

It was a legitimate appointment by Ardern made in the interests of getting business out of its funk before it starts seriously affecting the economy and eroding wealth.

She wanted people in business with a pedigree in business, not just professional advocates who are already seen as too close to the Government.

An analogy would be National setting up a group of principals and teachers to work with, not just relying on NZEI or PPTA.

Jones should have been warned about the appointment and been asked to be circumspect.

His outbursts were politically stupid because they detracted from the Prime Minister's big business speech.

They don't amount to defiance in the normal sense of the word because New Zealand First has a wide berth to express alternative views.

Jones should be smart enough to set his own boundaries but he gets swept along by his own rhetorical flourishes.

Ardern is not silly enough to set boundaries for New Zealand First because that would courting failure and that really would make her look weak.

Ardern is vulnerable to accusations of weakness by dint of her sheer pleasant personality and overall niceness.

It shouldn't be so and it needn't be so but she should be cognisant of it before the perception takes hold.