Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Government’s spinning out of control

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Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Government’s spinning out of control

Dr Bryce Edwards.

The Labour-led coalition got off to a disastrous start in parliament yesterday, with the first day spiralling out of control for them and resulting in farcical scenes of capitulation to the Opposition over select committee details and the election of the Speaker. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Leader of House Chris Hipkins then doubled down on the error with the absurd way they tried to spin the episode. It looks like this administration could be as bad as the last one in terms of disingenuous spin-doctoring.

New Zealand Parliament.

Labour’s out-of-control shambles

The best explanation of what went wrong for the new government yesterday is Claire Trevett’s news report, National makes Government look like fools as it blackmails Labour for Speaker vote. She explains that National called into question whether Labour MP Trevor Mallard would have the numbers to be elected as the new Speaker of the House, which led to the Government quickly agreeing to an embarrassing deal with National in order to get their support to elect him.

Trevett followed this up with a further explanation, saying “there was initially confusion because Labour had believed it could cast proxy votes for the five missing MPs, who included NZ First leader Winston Peters and Trade Minister David Parker who were at Apec. However, because those MPs had not yet been sworn in, their votes could not be used” – see: Nats fire warning shot on day one.

As Stuff political editor Tracy Watkins put it, “It’s a fair bet that this is not what Labour’s strategists and senior ministers wanted day one of the rest of the next three years to look like” – see: Red-faced Government needs to bury first-day farce, fast.

Watkins calls Labour’s Speaker episode “shambolic”, and stresses how it projects a picture of the coalition’s lack of control, and these “are just the sort of images Labour doesn’t need. Those images have catapulted what would normally be an in-house, procedural stoush, into a defining moment. They fit the Opposition narrative – the narrative being that this is the same party that only a few months ago was divided, and defeated, that Labour wasn’t ready for power, that the next three years are going to be a shambles.”

So, in the end National obtained a surprising compromise out of Labour – an agreement to allow 109 MPs to be allocated to select committees, instead of 96. Up until this time, Labour had signaled its utter intransigence in accommodating National’s very strong preference.

Shadow Leader of the House, Simon Bridges, went on TVNZ1’s Breakfast today to say the maneuver in the house was about “making it very clear” to Chris Hipkins that National was unhappy over the select committee MP numbers, which would limit their “ability to scrutinise the government” – see: ‘Yesterday was a day of incompetence by the Government’ – Simon Bridges’ dramatic move in Parliament just ‘vigorous testing’.

On whether Bridges’ had bluffed to Labour about them not having the numbers to elect Mallard, he says “It wasn’t a bluff, but I didn’t know [the numbers] exactly”, and “I could tell it was close one way or another”. Bridges says “You can call it a bluff.. I’d call it vigorous testing.”

Of course, National is milking Labour’s farce for all it’s worth. But many of their criticisms – although self-serving – aren’t unfair. Opposition leader Bill English was quoted saying, “I’ve never seen that happen on the day of electing a Speaker where the proceedings of Parliament were stopped because the government didn’t know what numbers it had, didn’t know whether it could elect the Speaker and essentially sought our support” – see Sarah Robson’s Govt denies being hoodwinked over Speaker election vote.

In the same article, English says: “They’ve got three parties, they didn’t know their own numbers – every day they’re going to have challenges being organised enough to run the Parliament properly.”

Labour’s spin control has been out-of-control

When politicians suffer setbacks and make mistakes, it’s usually best that they just admit the problem, thereby allowing everyone to move on from it. Unfortunately for Labour, they have taken the opposite strategy and tried to deny it all – which has merely made the situation worse for them.

Both Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins have gone on the attack, blaming National for the incident, and challenging the accounts of political reporters. Claire Trevett reports: “Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern denied it was embarrassing and described the set-back as a ‘minor irritation’ and ‘sadly, a bit of politics’.” – see: Nats fire warning shot on day one. According to Ardern, Labour simply reached out to National out of a desire for consensus, because “I wanted to show … this was going to be a Parliament that was different. So it was [my hope] we wouldn’t have that vote and we didn’t.”

Chris Hipkins repeated these lines today on TVNZ1’s Breakfast, and denied he had worried that the coalition didn’t have the numbers to elect the Speaker. According to TVNZ, “he said they knew they had the numbers but didn’t want Parliament to get off on the wrong foot.” And in terms of the compromise over the select committee MP numbers, Hipkins indicated that they had always planned to give National the additional numbers.

He also went on the AM Show this morning – see Newshub’s Chris Hipkins blames ‘shambolic’ Parliamentary opening on National. However Bridges also appeared on this, disputing the Labour MP’s account: “There’s a bit of post-event rubbish already by Chris Hipkins. It was quite clear to me from the way they acted they didn’t know the rules, they’re confused about that and they didn’t know their numbers and they’re confused about that”.

And for Hipkins’ most challenging media interview, you can listen his six-minute interview with an exasperated Guyon Espiner, who says to Hipkins: “Do you really expect us to believe that?!” – see RNZ’s ‘First day farce’ for new govt in Parliament – Hipkins.

I also went on the AM Show today to discuss the matter, and expressed my disappointment that the new government was so quickly moving into heavy spinning mode: “That’s one of the worst things about this story for Labour. Not just that it was such a shambles for them and they lost this manoeuvre by National, but they then tried to spin it… And the public hate politicians that are just so obviously spinning it. So Jacinda Ardern had the first day of Parliament going from Saint Jacinda to being seen as a liar” – see Newshub’s Labour’s ‘unprecedented disorganisation’ shows spin and shambles – Bryce Edwards.

The NBR’s Rob Hosking also clearly doesn’t believe the Government’s account of yesterday’s debacle: “The claim now that it only made the concession, to give National another 13 select committee places than planned for the rest of the Parliament, just so there could be a nice vibe around Mr Mallard becoming Speaker, shows either an odd set of political priorities or a belief the rest of us are idiots. Take your pick” – see: Silly parliamentary games and some bigger worries (paywalled).

Hosking makes the point that, ultimately, the story doesn’t matter that much: “Few will pay much direct attention. It is yet another example of politicians playing silly beggars, and few New Zealanders really care who sits where in what committee room in Wellington.  But it shows a government which is having trouble doing the political equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time.  Any more examples of slipshod organisation and the impression of a shambolic, amateur approach to government will start to bed in.”

Finally, we’ve already had the coalition government’s formation explained via the analogy of buying a pie (see my previous roundup: The legitimacy of the Labour-led government, and now Liam Hehir updates the analogy to explain yesterday’s farce in Parliament – see This pie analogy is the most Kiwi way of explaining electing the speaker ever.

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Dr Bryce Edwards is a political scientist and a lecturer in Politics.

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