Shane Jones’ refusal to back down from his criticism of the Indian community seems unbecoming of a Cabinet minister – but it is the wider disconnect between Labour and NZ First over the visa issue that could prove catastrophic for the coalition.
Heading into government, one of the areas of closest agreement between the three coalition partners appeared to be immigration policy.
But it is a policy change in precisely that area which has set Labour and New Zealand First against each other in what could prove an early sign of unrest to come.
Shane Jones is no stranger to rhetorical flourishes, but his comments to RNZ about the Indian community’s opposition to a tightening of visa access that they could not “bring your whole village to New Zealand”, and if they were unhappy could “catch the next flight home”, has created an outcry and calls for his resignation.
Jones has proved unrepentant, accusing his strongest critics of a “Bollywood overreaction” in a continuation of racially tinged remarks.
He may feel he has carte blanche to speak out as a so-called “son of the Treaty”, but as the son of an Indian immigrant myself, I find it all too easy to understand why many migrants find his remarks offensive and bordering on racist.
Despite repeated admonishments from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on other indiscretions, Jones has proved either unable or unwilling to moderate his behaviour.
In an interview with the NZ Herald, which took place before the India issue blew up but was published last weekend, he said of his scoldings: “The bottom line is it doesn’t bother me.”
Peters could presumably pull his MP back in line, but has so far seemed disinclined to do so, perhaps on the grounds that any publicity for his party is good publicity.
As the Prime Minister has been at pains to point out, Jones is entitled to share his thoughts on immigration as a New Zealand First MP if not as a minister.
But the “provincial champion” has blurred those lines in the past – most notably in the forestry sector – and even when he is clearer on his role, it isn’t that easy to swap hats.
Jones was speaking about government changes to immigration policy, so it is entirely understandable that some in the Indian community would attach his comments to the Government at large and not just its New Zealand First component.
There is palpable frustration within the Labour wing of the coalition that the party is paying the price for the ill-advised comments of its junior partner, with several Indian members of Labour telling RNZ they would no longer support the party due to Jones’ remarks and wider visa changes.
Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway implicitly put his Cabinet colleague in his place, telling media: “The immigration minister is responsible for government immigration policy, and I’ve been very clear.”
But clarity has not been to the fore throughout the entire process – and it is Peters more than Jones who is to blame for that.
While most of Jones’ remarks have been aimed at the response to parental category visa changes – separate to the partnership visa problems – Peters specifically claimed credit for the latter change in an interview with RNZ.
“Has New Zealand First had an influence on trying to tidy up the quality of information on which the immigration department relies? The answer is profoundly yes…
“It’s clear as daylight – they’re not partners, full stop.”
That has put both Labour and New Zealand First ministers in the awkward position of disputing his claim without calling him a liar.
Tracey Martin contorted herself admirably, acknowledging that the partnership change had never gone through Cabinet while adding that “I’m not contradicting the Right Honourable Winston Peters about conversations that he may have had, and his office, with other offices.”
Lees-Galloway said he had specifically asked Immigration NZ about whether any other ministers had provided any other instructions and received an answer to the contrary, but implied that Peters may have been confused.
“I know we’ve been making a lot of immigration decisions at Cabinet in the last few months…again, it’s a good question to ask the Deputy Prime Minister.”
That is unlikely to sit well with Peters, and it was perhaps a blessing in disguise that he was again absent from Parliament while his High Court action against National MPs and government agencies rolls on.
His response when he is back in the Beehive will be fascinating, given the long-serving politician is seldom one for turning.
The coalition has not quite turned into an Ardern-Peters staring contest, but it is an interesting thought exercise to ponder who would blink first.
Would Ardern ever sack Jones and risk Peters pulling the coalition down, or – perhaps worse – turning the rest of the parliamentary term into an arm wrestle on every single policy proposal and piece of legislation?
The coalition agreement entitles New Zealand First to four Cabinet ministers, but other than Peters does not specify who those must be.
Would Ardern ever sack Jones and risk Peters pulling the coalition down, or – perhaps worse – turning the rest of the parliamentary term into an arm wrestle on every single policy proposal and piece of legislation? Or is it easier to suffer the occasional indignity in the interests of the greater good?
It is equally interesting from Peters’ perspective. If Ardern did throw her weight around, would he really withdraw his party from government, cementing his reputation as an unreliable partner in what, win or lose, will almost certainly be his last stint in power?
Of course, this is all hypothetical. But as the 2020 election draws nearer, New Zealand First is increasingly likely to want to distinguish itself from Labour and the Greens.
Some within the party have suggested it could tack away from the nativist sections of its support towards a more wholesome, rural constituency, but with polls showing it at risk of missing the five percent threshold Peters (and Jones) may find it tempting to return to an old staple.
That would put Ardern in an even more uncomfortable position, given her brand of progressive compassion.
Just as Jones is unlikely to change his tune, so too are the underlying dynamics that have thrown this issue into the spotlight unlikely to evaporate before Kiwis head to the ballot box.