Friday, December 9, 2022

Graham Adams: Ardern’s disregard for democracy on full display

After Jacinda Ardern held a press conference alongside Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin on November 30, media attention focused on a dumb question posed by a journalist.

Asking whether the two Prime Ministers were meeting because they were two young women was stupid and sexist but the wave of self-righteous indignation that followed entirely obscured another outrageous statement — made by Ardern herself.

She actually had the gall to boast to Marin about New Zealand’s democratic credentials.

In what can only be described as evidence of a serious dislocation from reality, Ardern opined: “Our countries are aligned on incredibly important issues. We share a strong commitment to democratic values as a basis for tolerant, open, resilient, equal societies.”

Say what?

Only two days earlier, Ardern had been fielding questions at her weekly post-Cabinet press conference about a last-minute amendment put forward by Green MP Eugenie Sage that would entrench an anti-privatisation clause in the Water Services Entities Bill.

The bill is the first of a suite of bills making up the Three Waters legislation to be introduced to Parliament and it was being debated under urgency.

At Nanaia Mahuta’s behest, Labour had block-voted in favour. How many of those MPs, including Ardern herself, knew exactly what they were voting for is still not entirely clear.

However, despite being warned by law academics, it appeared Ardern had no firm grasp of the serious democratic and constitutional implications of the move to entrench a matter of public policy.

Rather, it became clear at the press conference and in interviews that she saw a political opportunity to force National and Act into a corner where they could be painted as being in favour of privatising water assets.

The Prime Minister appeared to think the 60 per cent threshold sought by the Greens — rather than the usual 75 per cent needed to change electoral laws such as the voting age, the method of voting and Parliament’s term — was its most important and interesting feature.

She described the entrenchment as “quirky” and “novel” and went no further than declaring concern about it to be a “legitimate” question, which she would pass on to Parliament’s Business Committee to thrash out in its own good time.

Yet any Prime Minister who respected the democratic convention that a government cannot bind future governments — except on significant constitutional matters such as electoral law — would have immediately understood that such an unconstitutional move was dangerous and a threat to our representative democracy.

In fact, Ardern gave the late-night manoeuvre legitimacy by implying that, in this case, the ends might justify the means inasmuch as the possibility of water being privatised was so reprehensible that forestalling it by entrenching the legislation might be warranted.

A stern letter from the Law Society later that week asserting the entrenchment “undermines democracy” and was “unconstitutional” seemed to finally jolt Ardern into the realisation that she was playing with fire and was likely to get badly burned.

What had hitherto been “quirky” and “novel” was promoted to the slightly graver category of “mistake”. Immediate moves were made to repeal the amendment but with no evidence the Prime Minister was deeply concerned about the insult and injury it had posed to democracy itself.

The chasm between Ardern’s breezy boast to Marin about a commitment to democracy and her actual indifference to constitutional tradition over entrenchment was revealing.

Standing alongside the Finnish Prime Minister, Ardern perhaps dreamt for a few minutes that she had somehow been transported to Finland’s magnificent Parliament in Helsinki where she could happily trumpet her imaginary democratic credentials without a backlash.

It has been observed that a peculiar transformation overtakes her when she travels overseas. At home she is usually very reluctant to defend democracy when asked, but once her plane touches down in a foreign country she becomes very keen to pose as its champion in front of adoring audiences.

At the Tech 4 Democracy summit in Madrid in June, she opined that the “real duty” of political leaders was “to nurture a thriving and effective democratic system that protects human rights and provides for people’s long-term wellbeing”.

In May, addressing 8000 students at Harvard, Ardern warned “democracy is fragile”.

She also reminded them that “the foundation of a strong democracy includes trust in institutions, experts and government — and this can be built up over decades but torn down in mere years.”

Her statement was no doubt intended to be viewed by her young American audience as a reference to Donald Trump, but it could also describe the destructive actions of her own government in pushing through the deeply unpopular Three / Five Waters programme by subterfuge.

This has included asking councils last year for feedback on whether they wanted to opt in even though the decision to not allow that choice had been made months before by Cabinet.

Another egregious example was provided last month by the stealthy extension of Three Waters to Five Waters. This was achieved by late amendments slipped in before the bill’s second reading with virtually no notice, without the matter having been discussed by Cabinet and months after submissions had closed.

When confronted about this deeply undemocratic manoeuvre by Newstalk ZB’s Barry Soper, Ardern insisted that the amended Water Services Entities Bill did not convert the three waters (freshwater, storm water and waste water) into five waters (with the late addition of coastal and geothermal) as he alleged.

Despite the fact that Soper was entirely correct — as anyone with reasonable comprehension skills could see from the legislation — the Prime Minister maintained he was wrong.

She claimed the reason for the “confusion” lay in shabby drafting. She would see, she said, if the parliamentary drafters could make it clearer.

The original text was perfectly clear of course — and possibly too clear in Ardern’s eyes. So presumably to throw the likes of Soper off the scent, the extension to Five Waters was subsequently hidden in other amendments that made it far less obvious.

As the pseudonymous lawyer and political analyst Thomas Cranmer wrote on his Substack this week: “When it became apparent that Three Waters had, by stealth, become Five Waters during the select committee stage, the Prime Minister reassured the public that some minor drafting would clarify the issue. In truth, they merely played around with some definitions in a way that did not change the enlarged scope of Five Waters at all…

“The definition of Te Mana o te Wai was replaced with a new definition which states… that it applies to ‘water’ as defined in the Resource Management Act 1991.

“What is included in that definition of ‘water’ as set out in the Resource Management Act? Geothermal and coastal water!

“Five Waters remains Five Waters.”

It is clear that what Ardern calls clarification is nothing more than legislative sleight of hand that means perfectly clear clauses have now been replaced with more obscure additions that require forensic skills and cross-referencing to decipher.

This is reprehensible behaviour by the government that shows contempt for voters’ right to be told openly and frankly what laws are being passed and what they mean.

In New Zealand, Ardern is usually evasive when asked about her own commitment to democracy — and especially so when asked to affirm her dedication to “one person, one vote of equal value”, which has been one of the nation’s proudest boasts since all women were given the vote in 1893.

For that reason, her inclusion of the word “equal” in her summation of New Zealand’s democratic virtues in front of Sanna Marin was a howler in its own right.

In August, her government passed the Canterbury Regional Council (Ngāi Tahu Representation) Bill, which explicitly moves away from the principle of equal voting rights.

The bill allows the wealthy South Island iwi to appoint two additional unelected councillors to the council with full decision-making powers.

In fact, Ardern’s tenure as Prime Minister will be remembered largely for her attempt to transform New Zealand into an ethno-state in which Māori ancestry confers electoral and institutional privilege.

In July, when Jack Tame pressed Ardern on TVNZ’s Q&A about the nature of democracy, and asked whether Māori are being given greater representation than non-Māori in the Regional Representative Groups that will set the overarching strategy for Three Waters, she obfuscated.

Tame: “Most people’s definition of democracy is ‘one person, one vote’. So what I want to know is, under those Regional Representative Groups, [do] you and I as Pakeha people have the same level of representation guaranteed as Māori people?”

Rather than admitting the undeniable fact that Māori will be given greater representation, Ardern described Tame’s question as “overly simplistic”.

In a clumsy and obvious sidestep, she asserted that power still lies with councils — as if that was a reasonable response to a question about equal suffrage in a democracy.

Extolling the nation’s dedication to democracy while standing alongside Sanna Marin, it appears the Prime Minister got her domestic and foreign personae completely muddled.

That is perhaps an inevitable slip-up when a Prime Minister’s commitment to democracy is largely rhetorical and superficial, and changes dramatically in different situations.

No one is more aware of this than Act’s David Seymour, who has tweaked her nose several times this year in Parliament — and sent her diving for cover — over her endorsement of what is looking very much like “democracy with New Zealand characteristics”.

In the distortion of democracy that Ardern endorses, Māori are given special rights and greater representation on the basis of a radical — and hotly contested — view of the Treaty of Waitangi implying a 50:50 partnership with the Crown.

The entrenchment debacle has further exposed just how little Ardern cares about democratic and constitutional tradition. And she is certainly not repentant.

Try as he might, David Seymour could not get an admission of contrition from the Prime Minister in Parliament this week despite angling several questions around that theme.

Even being direct to the point of cruelty with one particular question didn’t elicit remorse. When he asked: “How does it feel to be the first Prime Minister in 168 years of Parliament to try and entrench her own policies without even knowing she was doing it?”, Ardern wouldn’t go further than repeating her stock response: “We have acknowledged that a mistake was made and we're fixing it.”

As Seymour later put it: “In 168 years, with all that has happened in New Zealand politics, no government has been arrogant enough to think its own policies are so important that they deserve the same protection as voting rights.

“It is extraordinary that the Prime Minister sees nothing wrong with this.”

Graham Adams is an Auckland-based freelance editor, journalist and columnist. This article was originally published by and is published here with kind permission.


DeeM said...

Ardern is a bit like an owl.
Traditionally thought to be wise and measured, both are in fact rather stupid. Owls are the second stupidest birds in the animal kingdom due to their massive eyes which leave less room for a brain.

In Jacinda's case, her mouth, which talks non-stop often about nothing to do with the topic in question, seems to have assumed this role.
She is oblivious to glaring errors and impervious to contradictions between what she says and does.

Anonymous said...

Definitely, one confused person running the show at the moment.
Her ministers are openly defying her and she sits back and takes it. Too much of a coward to do anything about it. Zero credibility in the public arena and probably within her Caucus.
I really wonder who in Labour is going to stand up and say enough is enough. The longer she stays the more damage she does to the party and the country.
This weekend will be interesting, hopefully another nail in the coffin for the worst Government in NZ history by a long way.

Peter Young said...

It is, indeed, extraordinary and very succinctly put Graham. But then, it's been an extraordinary Government, especially when you also have the likes of a corrupt Minister, committing nepotism and subterfuge with others, all at the expense of the taxpayer and democracy as a whole. The sooner they're gone the better, but what a dreadful legacy.

EP said...

I'm afraid we all have to take some responsibility - given our differing levels 9f power - for our allegiance to a woman of pretty limited intelligence and understanding. All mouth and trousers, Ardern really has shone in the spotlight, but she has been revealed to be limited in her grasp of political reality, weak and duplicitous. Yet she still ranks quite high in the preferred prime Minister list. What mindless idiots (mainly women I suspect) are putting her there? She is OUR prime minister, and we are responsible - wonder how many good citizens will turn out in Hamilton tomorrow?

Anonymous said...

A very clever, funny and best comment for ages Dee M. I'm still laughing.

Martin Hanson said...

"Rather, it became clear at the press conference and in interviews that she saw a political opportunity to force National and Act into a corner where they could be painted as being in favour of privatising water assets".

Yet that's the very thing Three Waters would result in - just Maori ownership instead of international ownership.
Her hypocrisy and inability to tell truth from reality are so extreme that only a personality disorder can be the explanation.

*** said...

Democracy in NZ today is certainly weaker than it has ever been since 1893, and it is arguable whether democracy was stronger even prior to 1893.

Anonymous said...

What is extraordinary is that she is still at the helm with barely a murmur of dissent in the public arena. Are Kiwis so ‘laid back’ ( call it apathy) that they just cannot be bothered to ‘ storm the bastille’ as it were and call for a vote of no confidence and stand this decrepit government down?

Marc said...

Interestingly, since the patsy question and haughty reply regarding the young adjacent PM's, not one media outlet has owned up to being the culprit. It's almost as though it was scripted...