For some time now, National has been trying to characterise the new Government as chaotic and disorganised.

Most of the time the criticism has been exaggerated - or at least excusable for a Government that is still setting up its ministerial offices.

But on some occasions, National has had a legitimate point. Two such occasions this week have involved a rather large gap between what Labour says and what New Zealand First leader Winston Peters says.

The snag over the coalition promise to apply a royalty to exports of bottled water, and the hidden coalition document are both cases in point.


Gaps in themselves are not dangerous. Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens all have points of divergence and agree-to-disagree conventions.

The problems are the unmanaged differences. Winston Peters and David Parker's reactions to export tax on bottled water could not have been more stark.

At the same time, on opposite sides of the same foyer of Parliament House on their way to the debating chamber they gave opposite views of what the Government would do in the face of advice from Mfat that trade agreements would be breached if they taxed exports.

Peters said it would be ploughing on, and questioned the advice of his own official – one of Mfat's superstars. Parker agreed with the advice and said the Government had to take care not to breach trade agreements and would look at alternatives.

Clearly neither Peters and Parker had spoken to the other after news reports of the breach earlier in the day. Both were at fault because both were legitimately asked about it.

At issue is not a royalty on water exports (although the very use of the term "royalty" open ups a minefield over ownership of water), but what it tells us about coalition management.

If it were the last Labour Government, Helen Clark would have banged ministerial heads together. She was in her third term as PM, he was essentially being given a second chance in an MMP Government.

In this Government, such is Peters' status that it would be unthinkable to admonish Peters. He is beyond being reproached publicly or privately.


Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern barely knew him before he installed her as Prime Minister. They got to know each better three weeks ago during their trip to Asia and Peters treated her very respectfully.

But the Ardern-Peters relationship is clearly more a partnership of equivalents than the Clark-Peters relationship and Labour will have to rely on Peters' own discipline to manage the New Zealand First side of the coalition.

As Deputy Prime Minister and inside cabinet, his performance will have far greater impact on the reputation of this Government than the last Labour one, and winging it won't always work.

The fact that Peters held a short media standup at Parliament to deny allegations he insulted Dame Susan Devoy (a few decades ago) suggests he may be more mindful of his public relations responsibilities to the Government.

It perhaps would have been helpful if the finer aspects of the coalition relationships were addressed in the confidential coalition document - the other glaring example of untidy coalition management.

But alas, even among the varying descriptions of what the document contains, coalition etiquette is not among them.

The ongoing saga around the document has the potential to be the more damaging than two ministers saying wildly different things because Ardern's reputation is at stake.

The coalition document will remain a subject of fascination for the media, if not the public, for as long as Ardern wants it kept under lock and key.

The more irritated she is about it, the more fascinating it becomes.

Make no mistake, although National calls for its release day in and day out, the last thing it privately wants is for the document to be released.

Sitting as it does in various safes in the Beehive, it is an emblem of closed Government.

National can also make far more mischief by not knowing its contents and by speculating about them as Bill English did this week about the level of influence it gives New Zealand First within the Government.

That said, the level of influence New Zealand First might have in the Government is not exactly juicy speculation.

Given that New Zealand First had the power to choose the Government and sits in cabinet, getting to approve the Budget would hardly be an over-reach. Even the Greens' have an implicit veto right over the Budget with their confidence and supply agreement.

More seriously, Newstalk ZB's Barry Soper suggests that the private document contains a plan for Peters to take over the Prime Ministership in the unlikely event of Ardern being incapacitated – which Peters would neither confirm or deny yesterday.

Ardern has described the document as "notes" and Peters has described it a "directive to ministers."

It appears to be New Zealand First's notes of the discussions during coalition talks of the next set of issues to be sent to ministers for more work. There is no clarity yet on the level of agreement between the parties on the wishlist.

But if the instinctively secretive Winston Peters originally wanted it released and the instinctively open Jacinda Ardern wants it to stay hidden, it is a safe bet that it will show New Zealand First in a good light at the expense of Labour.

The visible frustration that Ardern is showing over the issue and the entertaining answers Peters is giving about the document will guarantee it remains a focus for National in many Question Times to come.

The Government may convince itself that it remains a beltway issue but National has all the time in the world to continue testing the document's status and bedding in the notion of a hidden agenda.

By the time National has finished, Ardern may be hoping that the Ombudsman decides to release it.