Bryce Edwards: The Government suggests it hasn’t given up on the housing crisis (yet)

Bryce Edwards: The Government suggests it hasn’t given up on the housing crisis (yet)

Yesterday the Prime Minister sent a clear message to voters: the Government has not given up on fixing the housing crisis. It was communicated via the sacking of the Housing Minister, and a serious re-organisation of the housing portfolio so that a team of five ministers now share responsibility for fixing what is becoming an albatross around Jacinda Ardern’s neck.

Audrey Young emphasises the ruthlessness of Ardern’s Cabinet reshuffle in the Herald today, saying: “for all her kindness, the Prime Minister can be ruthless. What happened to Phil Twyford was nothing short of a political humiliation” – see: Jacinda Ardern shows ruthless streak in Cabinet reshuffle.

Young says Twyford was removed from more housing portfolios than was necessary: “Ardern said housing was too big for just one minister, which is nonsense. She could easily have left Twyford in charge of state housing. But even that has been taken from him for reasons that Ardern could not properly articulate but it effectively means that his reputation is so trashed, she does not want him associated with something so precious to Labour.”

Regardless of any progress he had been making, Young suggests the tide of opinion had turned so strongly against Twyford that he had to go,: “he had become so wounded that Ardern would not trust him with the “reset” of housing policy. She wanted not only a new set of housing priorities but a new face. He was sacrificed for the greater good of the Government and importantly the Labour Party.”

Perhaps there should be some sympathy for Twyford. Young seems to suggest this is the case: “her decision is about the optics, not the substance. Twyford has been removed from the job just as he has finally got the shop in order, and just as he is getting to grips with the reality of the public-private housing partnerships there are essential to large-scale housing production. Megan Woods won’t be coming in to crack the whip and suddenly double the output of Kiwibuild houses. Anything that is produced under Woods’ watch in the next 18 months in whatever rebranding Kiwibuild undergoes will be from the commitments and planning previously undertaken by Twyford.”

The notion that Twyford has been the sacrificial lamb to the unfixed housing crisis is also emphasised by Henry Cooke, who says “Twyford himself had started to be associated with that policy failing in the eyes of the public – so Jacinda Ardern decided to sacrifice her minister rather than the entire policy” – see: KiwiBuild: Can Megan Woods do what Phil Twyford could not?. He says that, despite Ardern’s spin, this is “undoubtedly a demotion” for Twyford, and a real blow for his career given how much he had staked on housing and KiwiBuild.

Cooke says the housing crisis is still in full effect under Labour, and now the new Minister Megan Woods “has the luxury of designing a new version of KiwiBuild that is actually doable with the help of many officials and a relatively clean slate”. Not only is the name of “KiwiBuild” facing abolition – all the Government’s existing housing promises are up for axing. Expect to see more U-turns – but the long-awaited “reset” is now even further off.

Similar arguments are put forward by Stacey Kirk, who says “Ardern has scrubbed the minister to keep the policy. Phil Twyford had become so tainted by the KiwiBuild disaster, the only way the prime minister could salvage the policy brand – which still polls extremely well – was with a new minister with a fresh mandate to pull it apart” – see: Phil Twyford in Jacinda Ardern’s sights as first reshuffle squarely lands on Kiwibuild failure. She adds that it was clear Ardern “no longer had confidence in his ability to deliver a solution to the housing crisis.”

Twyford is therefore paying the price, Kirk says, for remaining dogmatic and not listening about the need to fix KiwiBuild: “The policy was quite obviously a dead horse that Twyford refused to stop flogging. Twyford’s failure is not born of incompetence, so much as it is a blinkered obsession to some of the more problematic – and probably ideological – aspects of the KiwiBuild policy. Ardern alluded to as much in announcing her decision. As much as Twyford may have been placed in an invidious position with a tough policy to create, he was the minister and ultimately accountable. If it wasn’t working, he had many opportunities to make the required changes. His officials expressed reservations throughout, but he persevered when he should have cut and run.”

For Jane Patterson the reorganisation of the Housing portfolio “shows the commitment of the government to make progress”, and she spells out the changes like this: “the fact Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern now effectively has five ministers with some role in housing shows the breadth of the challenge – not just the affordable house building programme but in homelessness, state housing and the limitations on development under the Resource Management Act” – see: New housing team eases Phil Twyford’s indignity.

But some are questioning the logic of the housing portfolio reorganisation. For a start, it is all very reminiscent of John Key’s failed reorganisation in 2014 when his government was also under pressure for failing to deal adequately with the housing crisis.

This is best conveyed by Toby Manhire, who recounts how in 2014 Key announced “there would be a new ‘ministerial team’, with the portfolio split between three senior ministers. Paula Bennett got social housing. Bill English got Housing New Zealand. Nick Smith had been under mounting pressure over a housing crisis which the government obstinately refused to call a housing crisis. He got building and construction, in what seemed like a face-saving consolation prize” – see: Housing crisis history repeats as Ardern breaks up the housing job.

Manhire then fast forwards five years and points to National’s Housing spokeswoman Judith Collins arguing that splitting the portfolio “looks like panic”, noting that “She could have been describing either the 2014 or 2019 carve-up.”

Collins also made a critique of the split up this morning on the AM Show, saying: “We’ve got all these ministers now, it’s split into three, but at the same time the Government has a Bill going into Parliament called the Kāinga Ora Bill – what that does is it brings Housing NZ, KiwiBuild and the Ministry for Housing and Urban Development all together – so you’ve got all the agencies together, but all the ministers split. It’s bizarre” – see Housing job split despite Bill to combine them.

The same article explains the merger of the housing agencies: “Currently at the select committee process, the Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities Bill would disestablish Housing NZ, bringing state homes under a new umbrella organisation called Kāinga Ora – Homes and Communities, which would also have responsibility for urban development.”

Act leader David Seymour has also challenged the lines of responsibility and accountability that will result from the new arrangement: “It’s now not obvious whose fault it is, when for instance, the cost of rent that New Zealanders pay goes up or the number of houses built goes down. Because you’ve got three different ministers with overlapping responsibilities who can all say the other one’s responsible” – see Jo Moir’s Judith Collins says demotion shows KiwiBuild a failure, offers olive branch.

In the above article, Moir also raises important and unanswered questions about this: “So how will the separate portfolios and responsibilities work? Any detail or explanation was less than forthcoming with both Mr Twyford and Dr Woods refusing media interviews, instead sending out short written statements. And with a three-week recess now underway little light will shine on the unanswered questions anytime soon.”

A number of journalists have also questioned the PM and Government’s cynical move of announcing the reshuffle at the last possible moment and then avoiding answering questions about it.

Here’s what Jane Patterson says: “Once again though, the government appears cynical in its timing. Ms Ardern waited until the last hours of the last day before the longest recess during the sitting programme. She fronted a news conference and the two newly promoted ministers talked to reporters shortly after. But the timing presented others the opportunity to avoid the media as the House rose and MPs were free to depart Parliament within hours of the announcement. Ms Woods and Mr Twyford have both declined requests for interviews – issuing statements instead and making the most of the opportunity to avoid any tricky questions.”

Finally, although the Prime Minister’s main Cabinet reshuffle message is that her government is still very serious about dealing with the housing crisis, should the public have any confidence that a reshuffling of the deck is going to bring about real change? I’ve tried to answer this question in a column today for RNZ – see: Is the government now more serious about the housing crisis? I suggest that this although this government hasn’t cared much about fixing the housing crisis, maybe this might be about to change with the appointment of the first genuine leftwing housing minister in ages.