Testing week frays Ardern's Coalition

Ben McKay
A donations scandal involved Winston Peters has overshadowed Jacinda Ardern's performance this week

With a condolence motion for late prime minister Mike Moore and a state-of-the-nation speech from Jacinda Ardern, the first parliamentary sitting week in New Zealand should have been a gentle introduction to the election year ahead.

Instead, it was marred by scandal and ended with a poll that showed Jacinda Ardern's government as on the brink of being a one-term wonder.

And at the heart of it all was Winston.

Winston Peters, the deputy prime minister and renegade leader of Ms Ardern's coalition partner New Zealand First, is increasingly being called out on his political practices.

As of this week, that includes a review from the Serious Fraud Office, New Zealand's white-collar crime investigators.

On Monday, the Electoral Commission suggested donations received by the party's fundraising foundation should have been declared, kicking its investigation to police.

On Tuesday, Mr Peters claimed personal exoneration from that investigation, saying he "was not involved in any way shape or form".

After revelations that several donors to the foundation - best understood as a legal loophole to New Zealand's electoral donation regime - were from the racing industry, Mr Peters - also minister for racing - stood accused of major conflict of interest perceptions.

He did little to dampen those questions by running from journalists, instead hosting a farcical question and answer session on Facebook which contained very few answers.

A final head-scratching moment arrived on Thursday, when Mr Peters claimed credit for covert photographs of investigative journalists appearing on a right-wing website, saying "we took the photos".

Mr Peters later backed away from his own assertion.

The rough-and-tumble is nothing new for Mr Peters, who was first elected to parliament in 1979, and often described as a maverick.

But his conduct is increasingly at odds with Ms Ardern's pledge for "relentless positivity" and transparency.

The prime minister has asked Kiwis to wait until the Serious Fraud Office concludes its probe before forming a judgment and has refused to strip Mr Peters of the racing portfolio.

She clunkily missed the chance to say she trusted in her deputy in one press conference before belatedly saying so the next day.

And attempts to focus debate on Mr Moore's contribution, her prime minister's statement, or a $NZ300m ($A287m) spend on public housing were all lost.

The chaos plays right into the hands of opposition leader Simon Bridges, who has ruled out any post-election deals with NZ First in an attempt to win over Kiwis sick of Mr Peters' behaviour.

On the evidence of the first poll since the move, it may be a masterstroke.

National was polling at 46 per cent in the 1News-Colmar Brunton survey released on Thursday night, ahead of Labour on 41 and the Green party on five - numbers that would turf Ms Ardern and Mr Peters from office.

NZ First polls just three per cent in that survey - short of the five per cent threshold that guarantees parliamentary representation.

Ms Ardern has announced the election will be held on September 19, allowing plenty more time for flummoxing Kiwi voters.