State of the Union: The 'when a child is born' version

The birth of a child is almost always a joyous event, but it's especially so for a government that desperately needs the time-out to re-set itself and rediscover its discipline and competence 

As Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters stand poised to fulfill very different dreams, neither of them will be terribly happy with where the government stands on the brink of this wee bit of history.

The three-party government that promised to be transformational is not without runs on the board, but its successes has been muddied by a series of recent SNAFUs and blunders that play right into the Opposition's hands.

Some may be down to bad explanations, others more serious signs of incompetence, but either way they leave the government exposed and in desperate need of the 'pause and reset' the new Ardern baby offers.

Looking back over recent weeks, the list of fumbles is not insignificant. Phil Twyford took his smart move of bringing Sir Peter Gluckman into the meth house debate and mangled it, spending days unable to clarify what happens next and failing to deliver accountability for people kicked out of their state houses.

In trying to clean up the mess left at Middlemore Hospital by the previous National government David Clark has made one of his own, looking to stop the Health Boards from answering important questions of what happened and when. While over at Police, Stuart Nash has been left arguing that significantly more police officers won't mean more prisoners; a position with lots of losing sides and little to gain.

Then to top it off, Andrew Little and Kelvin Davis bumbled their justice reforms last week. For one, Davis announced a prison to be built via a Public-Private Partnership with half the cells double-bunked, two things Labour has been critical of in the past. To make matters worse, Davis couldn't remember how many of the cells would be double-bunked, froze and had to be rescued by Corrections CEO Ray Smith.

The most serious foul-up though, was Little's long-promised repeal of the three strikes law falling over because New Zealand First maintained its support for the legislation... as it always has. While we can only assume that Little had received some sort of assurance of support from his coalition partner before going public, it seems inept on all sides that the governing parties ended up defeating themselves.

It suddenly seems a long time since the government deftly handled the M Bovis culling decision. To quote Bruce Bayliss from arguably New Zealand's greatest folk song, frankly, "Fred, it's a mess".

What will worry Labour most is that, Davis aside, these mistakes have come from senior ministers in big portfolios who in the opening months of government were considered the most able. It's been the party's safe pair of hands dropping the ball.

The urgent question for Labour now is whether those MPs can quickly find their feet again, while attention is centred on the Prime Minister's new baby. The fear must be that they are paying for their sins committed in Opposition.

While the previous National government did any number of controversial back-flips and took at times unpopular stances on issues, the Key-English-Joyce powerbase gave the party an air of competence that held for the best part of three terms. In Opposition, Labour never really looked able to compete on the competence front, running through leaders (and senior staff) and arguing amongst itself, often about issues that few New Zealanders felt strongly about.

It meant Labour did not do the detailed work it might have in its years in Opposition.

So last year the party came to power under-prepared, propelled by the popularity of a young, talented and optimistic new leader. While the policies Labour had worked out lacked some details, they were popular, offered new solutions and responded to public sentiment. National warned it was "stardust" without the substance, but New Zealand made its choice.

In policy terms, Labour has delivered quite a lot, while somehow seeming determined to disguise the fact. But its "transformative" rhetoric is increasingly at odds with its cautious reality and each stuff-up allows National to point to its pre-election warnings and say 'told you so'.

So this government, whether it likes it or not, is now under close observation to see whether National's dire predictions of chaos might yet come true. A couple of bad weeks is undoubtedly a long way from "chaos", but if Labour doesn't see the red flags raised in the past few weeks, it needs to start paying more attention.

Given the time wasted in Opposition, the most pressing question for Labour now is whether it can do the work quickly and well enough to make up for that lost time. And can it do it under pressure and in a disciplined manner.

It won't be easy in the short-term because it now faces six weeks with Winston Peters as Prime Minister. They will be six weeks of uncertainty, simply because it's new territory.

Having said that, this could also be this government's biggest opportunity. For one, Peters, whatever his other sins, is a determined constitutionalist. So I suspect he will behave scrupulously in this role. Quite apart from his respect for the office, he will enjoy being able to show his statesmanlike side and later being able to say 'I told you so'.

Perhaps that's why he and his party have got their maverick tricks out of the way last week. Shane Jone's outburst on Fonterra's leadership, New Zealand First's ankle-tapping of Little over 'three strikes' and Peters' own farcical decison to file court papers suiing his own government just days before he becomes Prime Minister did nothing to undermine this government's air of incompetence. But at least for the next six weeks Peter's partners can expect him to settle down and behave, buying them some time to rebuild the government's respectability.

The other great benefit for the government over the next six weeks, of course, is that, while Ardern won't be Prime Minister, she will be the single biggest story in the land. If National was wary of her "stardust" previously, they ain't seen nothin' yet. The arrival of the Prime Ministerial child is an historic event that will shine nothing but light on her. Even a currently bumbling government can't help but get caught in its glow.

Still, the Cabinet will want to make the most of its good fortune and spend this short window figuring how it can start to live up to its own spin, speaking more honestly and directly to voters and running the country with a renewed air of competence. It still has plenty of time before Election 2020, but it needs to stop the rot and fast.