Bryce Edwards: The new government line-up

Bryce Edwards: The new government line-up

The new government has officially taken office, and we know who will be doing what following yesterday’s allocation of ministerial portfolios. Below are five important general themes that have emerged about the new ministerial line-up.

1) A strong and sensible administration has been put together

The consensus amongst political commentators and newspaper editorials is that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has cleverly put together a credible new ministerial line-up. She has done so in a way that seems to satisfy all the different demands within the coalition. The three parties will be generally happy with what they have got, and ministers seem to be in the right portfolios.

As Audrey Young comments, “Forming a ministry is a delicate job but Jacinda Ardern made it look easy. Navigating her way through hierarchies, talent, egos, expectations and political considerations is a minefield. But she has done a remarkable job in balancing those in her ministerial appointments and has come up with a very credible ministry” – see: Jacinda Ardern takes job of assembling cabinet in her stride.

Overall, it is a strong line-up of ministers. The one criticism that could be made is that everything was a bit too predictable, with no big surprises. Sam Sachdeva says in this regard, “it was relatively hard to quibble with the list. Any shocks were few and far between, with Labour’s ministers largely tasked with handling portfolios they had already worked on in opposition” – see: Ardern plays it safe with ministerial line-up. But the government will be very happy if that’s the extent of the criticism.

For an excellent backgrounder on the new ministers and under-secretaries, see RNZ’s Who’s who in the new Labour-led coalition? Also very useful, is Laura Walters’ Jacinda Ardern’s new ministers and a peek into their backgrounds.

2) Jacinda Adern as Minister for Child Poverty Reduction is significant

By taking on the role of the new Minister for Child Poverty Reduction, Jacinda Ardern is signalling this issue will be a high priority for the new government. It is a stake in the ground, emphasising that all her talk about this issue isn’t just rhetoric. It’s therefore a gutsy move and contrasts strongly with John Key’s previous decision to take on the portfolio of tourism.

Today’s Dominion Post editorial focuses on this appointment, calling it the “single most important part of the coalition’s new ministry” – see: Major challenges for a Cabinet with little experience. But the newspaper also warns of the difficulties involved, and points to previous prime ministers personally taking on reform agendas, with less than perfect results.

Audrey Young calls the self-appointment “commendable” and explains why: “It is more than just symbolism. It is a bold move which directly links her leadership to a commitment to reduce child poverty as a primary goal. Failure on that front won’t be an option for her government.”

It is certainly a risk. Will Ardern really be able to turn poverty figures around? If not, this will be very embarrassing for her and the government. Vernon Small says: “She will be measured on one of the most important and difficult issues facing the country. Three years is a very short timeframe to make a big impact on a problem that has been decades in the making” – see: Jacinda Ardern displays innovation and industry but Apec test looms.

3) The powerful ministers are now obvious

It goes without saying that Ardern and Winston Peters will be powerful (as PM and deputy), as will Grant Robertson as Minister of Finance. But we can now see who the other powerful players will be.

David Parker is going to be a particularly crucial minister. Jason Walls and Pattrick Smellie have labelled him as the “linchpin in the new coalition cabinet, taking the pivotal economic development, environment and trade portfolios that will connect him to key ministers in both the New Zealand First and Green parties” – see: David Parker emerges as pivotal minister in new cabinet.

Parker’s power is partly based on the fact that he “has emerged as a key confidant of the new Labour leader since she took over from Andrew Little in August, and has a long and cordial relationship with the deputy prime minister and foreign minister to be, Winston Peters.”

But it goes further than this. Vernon Small also addresses Parker’s strategic linchpin role: “His lead portfolio is Attorney-General, but the engine room will be his other roles, which include important links to NZ First and the Greens, both of which rate and trust him. As Environment Minister he ties into the Greens, who dominate in that arena, holding Conservation (Eugenie Sage) and Climate Change (Shaw). As Economic Development Minister he will be working closely with NZ First’s Regional Economic Development Minister Jones, who, with a $1 billion-a-year capital fund, will get to cut the ribbons on the cheques written by Robertson. As Trade and Export Minister Parker will give Labour’s input into what, in government-ese, are called the external-facing roles that are otherwise dominated by Peters in Foreign Affairs, under-secretary Fletcher Tabuteau and NZ First’s Ron Mark in Defence.”:

Phil Twyford is now deemed to be “Minister for Auckland”, having been given the Housing portfolio, as well as the related portfolios of Transport, and Urban Development. These are major issues for the whole country and Labour has big plans in these areas, which makes Twyford central to the new administration. But because these issues are especially relevant to New Zealand’s biggest city, Twyford is going to be critical to Auckland.

Andrew Little has been given the hefty portfolios of Justice, Courts, and Treaty negotiations – which is appropriate for a former lawyer. He also has responsibility for the security services, as well as the new portfolio responsible for re-entering the Pike River mine.

Chris Hipkins has the big Education portfolio (which includes Tertiary education), and is also Leader of the House and Minister of State Services. Audrey Young explains: “Hipkins will also be in a uniquely pivotal position to keep an eye on potential problems in ministries and ministerial offices as State Services Minister and Minister Responsible for Ministerial Services.”

Shane Jones is looking very powerful – he has his hands on $1b for the regions each year, including the responsibility for ensuring 100m trees are planted annually. He is also in charge of the new Forestry Service, which will be housed in Rotorua. This role sets him up to be Peters’ replacement as leader. For more on all this, see Patrick Gower and Lloyd Burr’s Revealed: Shane Jones Minister for 100 million trees, $1 billion regional fund.

In contrast, the Greens are looking less powerful, mainly through being outside of Cabinet. But the Greens’ roles are mainly related to environmental issues – as opposed to welfare, social policy, economy, etc – which means the party gets to re-build as a more green-focused force over the next three years.

4) Portfolios and ministries have been renamed and re-configured

As is normal with an incoming government, a number of the official portfolio roles and ministries have had a shakeup. The Ministry of Primary Industries is being split into three separate agencies and ministers: Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry. For more detail about the break up, as well as positive reaction to the news – see Craig McCulloch’s MPI to be dismantled under new government.

Similarly, it seems that MBIE is also to be broken up. Vernon Small reports: “Steven Joyce’s brainchild, the super ministry of business, employment and innovation, will be blown into fragments.” For more on this, see Sam Sachdeva’s Ardern plays it safe with ministerial line-up. He also reports that Bill English’s Social Investment Agency may yet survive in the new government, and will initially be “handled by Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni”.

Some portfolios have also been re-amalgamated. The Education portfolio has been united and there is no longer a separate minister of tertiary education. Chris Hipkins has responsibility for the whole sector. Similarly, Housing is also re-united, under Phil Twyford.

And there are new portfolios. Andrew Little is the Minister for re-entering the Pike River mine. More surprisingly, Kelvin Davis is in charge of Crown-Maori Relations – apparently, a role concentrating on post-Treaty settlement relations. The Dominion Post comments that this “signals a move beyond the (vital but historical) work of treaty settlements. Building a more future-focussed partnership between the treaty partners is in theory a sound idea, although the scope of the new project remains unclear. Davis is a capable politician who might do useful work here.”

And today’s Otago Daily Times explains that this new portfolio “will be critical to Labour retaining the faith of the Maori who voted for the party in such strong numbers” – see the editorial, Great expectations for Ardern.

Bill English has criticised the new ministerial line-up for being “bloated” – there are now 31 ministers and under-secretaries, which is the largest ever. English says that roles have been created as a “make work scheme” for the three parties. He’s probably right – the new prime minister has obviously had to cater to the political needs of all three parties. Every government does this, but it seems Ardern has taken this a step further.

5) Demographically, the new ministerial line-up can be seen as more diverse

Ethnically, the new ministerial line-up is more diverse. There are now 13 ministers with a Maori or Pasifika heritage. But Asian representation appears to be zero.

For more on the Maori and Pasifika demographics of the ministers, see John Boynton and Mihingarangi Forbes’ Maori MPs secure 18 ministerial portfolios, RNZ’s Four Pasifika ministers in new NZ govt line-up, and Teuila Fuatai’s Time for more Pacific clout at Government table.

In gender terms, the Cabinet continues to be unequal. Seven of the 20 ministers in Cabinet are women – the same as the outgoing government, and the same as in the Helen Clark Labour government – see Andy Fyers’ New Cabinet has a gender balance problem.

But, for the first time, the Minister of Maori Development is a woman – Nanaia Mahuta.

Finally, for satire on the new ministerial line-up, see my blog post of Cartoons about the new government.