Today marks the end of the first quarter of the political year, or the end of Round One if you like, and the red and black team of Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters are not as match fit as they looked just three months ago.

They look relieved to have the respite that Easter offers.

Ardern has lost her smile in the past few weeks because of the burden of events she is dealing with on a daily basis, most recently around the Russians and Clare Curran respectively.

It looks set to get worse before it gets better.


The demise of Carol Hirschfeld over her café meeting with Curran means it is not a "beltway issue" as the Government insists, not least because people want to understand how such a giant of broadcasting was forced to resign over it.

The issue of whether Curran breached the Cabinet Manual guidelines is not entirely irrelevant but it is largely an academic exercise because even if she did breach it – and the Cabinet secretary says she didn't - the breach is not so egregious as to force a resignation. Besides which, the manual is a guideline, not a straitjacket.

Having no clear sackable sin makes it worse for Ardern. It means the Opposition can needle away on the issue for weeks implying impropriety and murky dealings but, like the Judith Collins and Oravida saga, no single event warrants a circuit-breaking resignation. It is the thousand cuts that do the damage.

The Cabinet Manual reference is about underlings in public entities meeting ministers and it says employees should inform their superiors – not the other way around.

Of course ministers should be able to have meetings with people other than the chief executive and chairman of their organisation. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, for example, should be able to pick up the phone and speak to diplomats in posts around the world on issues of the day.

But those diplomats are expected to tell their masters back in Wellington about the call, either before or after it.

The fact that Carol Hirschfeld wrongly portrayed her meeting with Curran to her bosses later as a chance encounter rather than a planned meeting suggests she knew she had failed proper process.

The worse-to-come for Curran may be in her own failures within Parliament's processes, rather than as a member of the executive.


There was a hint in Question Time on Thursday that Speaker Trevor Mallard is considering a complaint of privilege against Curran on the basis that she failed to alert a select committee at her earliest opportunity to the fact the committee had been (inadvertently) misled by the RNZ chairman and chief executive, which resulted in the committee issuing a misleading report.

It took 20 days between Curran finding out that the select committee had been misled and the committee finding out it had been misled and even then it was through the news, not by Curran.

If Mallard accepts the complaint, that could mean privileges committee hearings where all manner of witnesses could be called to give evidence, and all manner of new facts could emerge.

Curran is a satisfying target for the National opposition. She has conducted her politics with large dollops of sanctimony and personal animosity.

She is the lowest ranked Labour minister in the Cabinet and leapfrogged a few places ahead of her ranking in the Opposition to make it in it, almost certainly on the basis of increasing the balance of women in Cabinet.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

So Curran was always one of the most likely of Ardern's Cabinet ministers to come unstuck; it has happened more quickly than expected.

In the case of the Russians, the Government has become a sitting target for criticism, some self-inflicted, but some unfair.

The scope for mockery in anything to do with the SIS has prevailed ever since Fran O'Sullivan's young son discovered an agent's briefcase in Wellington in the 80s with a pie and Penthouse in it.

But the Opposition has succeeded in making the Government the object of mockery rather than the SIS when it said the agency could find no undeclared spies to expel in solidarity with Britain over the nerve agent attack.

The mockery was compounded when the Government announced on Thursday it would ban the 150 spies expelled by other countries from entering New Zealand – as if.

But for all the bluster from National that New Zealand should have expelled a Russian diplomat – any Russian diplomat - it is highly doubtful that a National government would have acted differently to the current one. Yes it may have made stronger statements.

But its actions would have been the same. It too would have received the same credible advice from the SIS – working with Five Eyes intelligence partners in making its assessment - that there were no undeclared intelligence officers at the Russian embassy, the basis on which other countries have expelled diplomats.

It too would have received advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade on a range of options it could take to demonstrate some form of symbolic solidarity such as the travel ban, and it would have imposed a similar one.

But it is Winston Peters' ambivalence towards Russia – as evidenced in the coalition agreement to a free trade deal with Russia- which has left the Government exposed to accusations of being ambivalent towards old allies.

There is no great public clamour to show solidarity, or expel a Russian.

But amid the heat on the issue, the Government has lost the narrative because the simple perception is that it has been soft on the Russians because of Peters.

What has gone unnoticed is that in a few short months, any notion of bipartisanship between Labour and National on issues of foreign relations and intelligence matters has been shattered.

Labour and New Zealand First are reaping what they sowed on that score.

In Opposition both parties opposed National's long overdue legislation to clarify the powers of the GCSB and to improve the accountability and oversight of the SIS and GCSB.

They put their own short-term political interests first.

National is doing the same now, at some cost to Peters and Ardern.

They are not quite on the ropes but they will need to show some improvement for Round Two.