It doesn't take much effort to imagine the smile on National MP Judith Collins' face when she was told her chief nemesis Transport Minister Phil Twyford was seen yabbering on his cellphone at an inappropriate time on an airplane.

Schadenfreude is the spice of life for an Opposition which felt the brunt of being judged by Twyford and his kin for similarly ill-advised actions when National was in power.

So Collins would have felt some glee while drafting the long series of questions that prompted Twyford to out himself for having infringed the rules of planes.

It is usual for Governments to get a post-Budget blip of attention and this should have been the week in which Ardern was basking in a post-Budget glow.


It may not have helped that the Budget delivered little by way of surprises.

Labour had opted for a 'joy-delayed' approach saying better things awaited in Budgets II and III. That left precious little to talk about in Budget I.

As a result, the debate about the Budget consisted of National accusing Labour of broken promises and Labour insisting they were simply 'promises that are yet to be delivered.' The only significant development since Budget Day was National's Finance spokeswoman Amy Adams finally coming up with a decent nickname for it: "the Dowry Budget" because it was the price of Labour's marriage to NZ First.

Even Opposition leader Simon Bridges decided it wasn't worth hanging around to tackle Ardern on it in Parliament for longer than one day this week.

He dispatched himself on Wednesday to the deep south for his public meetings.

While Bridges was frolicking in snow in Queenstown, Ardern was left dealing with unexpected items in the bagging area.

One such item was Twyford, whose Budget night phone call to a staffer from a plane after the doors were closed saw him offer to resign. That was refused and instead the civil aviation portion of his portfolio was handed to another minister who knew how to behave around planes while Twyford referred himself to the Civil Aviation Authority for any further punishments.

The other unexpected item was far more important and will have a longer impact.

It was the ongoing problem of mycoplasma bovis and news it had been found in the Waikato.

The catle disease is Ardern's first real (as opposed to hyperbolic) crisis.

In the long run it is her handling of that rather than Twyford's occasional lurches into arrogance that will that count more.

Dealing with it meant this week Ardern finally fronted up to dragons – those who are not Labour's natural constituents.

It started with her meeting with abut 15 farmers in the Waikato to talk about M. Bovis and ended with her meetings with gas and oil sector bosses and workers in Taranaki to talk about the Government's decision to stop issuing new exploration permits in the future.

Illustration / Guy Body
Illustration / Guy Body

It was the first time she had publicly met with either group.

During the campaign, she had promised to meet with farmers after the election. She did meet with farming sector leaders on the quiet twice at regular quarterly meetings that successive Prime Ministers have had with farming representatives.

Ardern could also be fairly criticised for not going to Taranaki sooner and for the lack of proper consultation over the oil and gas decision with the sector or workers involved.

Yesterday she visited with some cash and a vague plan with a vague title by way of reassurance: "Just Transitions." But at least she visited.

Ardern is very much the shopfront of the coalition government and until the week before the Budget, it was very much a photo-shopped government.

There was almost a paranoia about the Prime Minister being seen to be facing criticism. Cameras were only invited when it came to events where the PM was likely to get a warm reception. Students, the Waitangi tour, tertiary students, the Pride Parade, arts and culture events.

Meetings with critics of Government policy have happened but behind closed doors. There has been nothing similar to watching former National Prime Ministers get torn to shreds in question and answer sessions with the unions or lambasted at Waitangi. In fact, former PM John Key loved little more than a hostile audience.

Appearing only in front of friendly audiences is not sustainable for a Prime Minister so this week proved a welcome reprieve from saccharine photo ops.

For the farmers, M. Bovis was something of an icebreaker for Ardern, albeit an unwanted and dramatic one.

Farmers now have bigger worries than re-litigating Labour's election campaign policies. The days of protests under a mega cow in Morrinsville with signs saying "pretty Communist" are a luxury now. So too are arguments about things like water taxes (nixed by NZ First anyway), irrigation subsidies and de-stocking farms because of water quality.

Prime ministers are judged on how they handle a disaster as much as how they handle the books.

When the disaster is affecting people who are not your natural supporters, reassurance it is being taken seriously is even more important.

It is not a problem of Labour's making but it is one it must now deal with.

There is little direct political capital to be made from it for Ardern but fronting up on an issue that will have national ramifications as well as devastation for many farmers is what Prime Ministers must do to show leadership.

Nor is it just about fronting up, but about being seen to front up.

So Ardern has been careful to make sure she is personally involved in the M. Bovis response.

It will be Ardern who fronts when the final eradication versus control decision is made on Monday.

So Ardern has made up some lost ground from an election campaign in which she was blamed for an 'urban-rural divide' because of policies that would have hit farmers in the pocket.

Thus far it has worked. Those farmers who met with her on Monday declared they were impressed both with her attitude toward them, the seriousness with which she was taking it and her depth of knowledge.

Ardern even plans to go to Field Days in June – two days before her due date.

Labour's chances of getting the farmer vote remain as remote as National's of getting the union vote.

But familiarity helps kill fear and Ardern's face-to-face meeting with farmers put them at ease that she is not out to get them.

In fact, she may be more worried about a hostile reception from Labour's base as the Government embarks on nurses' and teachers' pay negotiations.

As for Twyford, his fate this week should serve as a reminder to Labour ministers that National still retains a strong support base out there, however impotent it may be.

That has endowed it with an extensive network of supporters more than happy to do double service as spies and dob in Labour MPs for ill-judged actions.