Around the world, Jacinda Ardern has received acclaim from those who see the charismatic New Zealand Prime Minister as a leader for the modern age.
- New Zealand First has been accused of dealing with opaque loans and donations
- Ms Ardern has refused to reprimand, criticise or even question her Deputy Prime Minister
- Polling shows a National-led coalition garnering more support than a second term for the Labour Government
The progressive young mother, who is due to make a short visit to Australia on Friday, has been lauded for steering her nation compassionately through terrorism attacks and natural disasters.
But at home, Ardern’s leadership and judgement are under question.
New Zealand’s political scene is currently beset by donations scandals, with the most dubious elements embroiling her Deputy Prime Minister and her Government’s junior coalition partner.
Ardern has refused to reprimand, criticise or even question her Deputy Prime Minister, Winston Peters, and his party, despite — or perhaps because of — her prime ministership depending on his support.
With a general election due in September, will Kiwis see Ardern as flying above the political fray? Or will her hands-off attitude taint her as just another politician trying to dodge difficult questions about murky fundraising?
What’s going on?
Jacinda Arden’s prime ministership depends on the support of Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters. (AP: Nick Perry)
At the centre of this saga is Peters: long-time political provocateur, leader of the nationalist minor party New Zealand First and, crucially, holder of the balance of power in NZ’s Parliament.
Back in 2017, Peters kept everyone in New Zealand on tenterhooks for a month after the national election, before declaring he would back the Labour Party to govern.
His decision catapulted a new, inexperienced leader — Ardern — unexpectedly into power, and in the process snagged himself the deputy prime minister and foreign minister titles.
Fast forward to 2020 and NZ First has been exposed as dealing with opaque loans and donations.
The party received three significant loans in three years from an entity called the New Zealand First Foundation that were never made public.
Under New Zealand’s electoral laws, only donations, not loans, have to be disclosed.
But these loans haven’t been repaid and Peters initially denied any knowledge of them — despite being a trustee of the foundation and the party’s founder and leader.
It’s also worth noting that NZ First Foundation is the sole declared source of funding for NZ First.
But wait, there’s more
The Serious Fraud Office is investigating donations made to Winston Peters’s NZ First Party. (AP: Achmad Ibrahim)
Further investigative reporting dug up more information about where Peters’s NZ First gets its money from.
It turns out that some of NZ’s wealthiest business owners were making large donations to the NZ First Foundation, but splitting them up into multiple, smaller donations to avoid having to reveal them.
Two businesses owned by Graeme Hart — NZ’s richest man — made donations on the same day to NZ First Foundation, both worth $NZ14,995.
Do you feel a twinge of Kiwi envy?
The world looked longingly at the young and inspiring female leader who had unexpectedly catapulted the Labour Party into office. Jacinda Ardern created an undefinable aura of promise and that’s hard to live up to.
The amount is significant — it just happens to be $NZ5.01 short of the disclosure threshold under New Zealand law.
In another case, three separate entities linked to the wealthy Van Den Brink family made donations on the same day, totalling $NZ36,000 but each falling under the $NZ15,000.01 disclosure limit.
In fact, every donation to the NZ First Foundation since the 2017 election has fallen under the disclosure limit.
To add to the ethical mire, another trustee for the foundation is a former MP-turned-lobbyist, who has lobbied for businesses while at the same time accepting political donations from them for the foundation.
The Serious Fraud Office, New Zealand’s specialist financial crimes investigator, is now examining the donations.
Then it gets really weird
It was in the midst of these revelations the saga took a seemingly nefarious turn.
A right-wing blog published photographs of the reporters who had uncovered the donations details meeting with sources connected to NZ First.
At the time, Peters bragged, “We took the photograph just to prove that’s the behaviour going on”.
After a backlash for appearing to be trying to intimidate the media, he backtracked, saying on Twitter the picture was an opportunistic snap from a supporter.
Winston Peters on Twitter: NZF has no interest in following Mr Espiner or any other journalists. The very reverse applies. No private investigators have been engaged to follow Mr Espiner or anyone else
Ardern has been under pressure from opposition parties to stand Peters down while the Serious Fraud Office investigation takes place
But she has declared the scandal has nothing to do with her.
Ardern told Radio New Zealand that while she was in charge of the Government, she was not in charge of the two other parties that form part of her Government’s ruling coalition — NZ First and the Greens.
“These aren’t matters that I have any responsibility for,” she said.
Ms Ardern says says she is not in charge of the two other parties that form part of her Government’s ruling coalition. (Reuters: Carlo Allegri)
“I’m the leader of the Labour Party, I had nothing to do with this and I’m not going to stand here and explain it or defend it because it’s not for me.
“I cannot run both a government and three political parties.”
It stands in contrast to the leadership of former Labour prime minister Helen Clark, who in 2008 stood Peters down in remarkably similar circumstances.
Ardern a one-term prime minister?
Despite the strength of Ardern’s leadership image abroad, at home her political reign is a little more fragile.
If Peters were to baulk at any criticism from her and pull his support, the Ardern Government would fall, forcing a snap election.
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The election date has been set for September 19, but recent polling gives a good hint as to why Ardern and Labour aren’t keen to risk that being brought forward.
Despite her strong lead as preferred prime minister, voting intentions suggest the election outcome would be on a knife edge.
Some of the most reputable polling shows a National-led coalition garnering more support than a second term for the Labour Government.
National may have been pleased at this point with the pressure the donations saga is piling on Ardern and her deputy, but it is the subject of a donations scandal itself.
Former National MP-turned-independent Jami-Lee Ross and three other people — Yikun Zhang, Shijia Zheng and Hengjia Zheng — are facing criminal charges over donations to the party.
They have all pleaded not guilty over allegations they split up $NZ200,000 worth of donations into smaller amounts to hide their origin.
Ross says he was directed to hide the donations by National leader Simon Bridges and is blowing the whistle, while Bridges says the claims are false and part of a vendetta by a disgruntled former party member.
Ms Ardern is due to make a short visit to Australia on Friday. (AAP: David Rowland)
On the international stage, New Zealand’s clean, green image has been complemented by its youthful, optimistic leader.
But there has been a strong undercurrent of political skulduggery in the country in recent times.
The donations saga engulfing Peters is drawing in Ardern through her reliance on NZ First’s support.
How she wields her leadership at home could determine whether she’ll still have a role on the international stage after September 19.