Bryce Edwards: Labour needs Mahuta to go, but she’s too powerful

Bryce Edwards: Labour needs Mahuta to go, but she’s too powerful

The pressure on Jacinda Ardern to sack Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta is building. But Mahuta is too powerful within the Labour Party to get rid of easily.

The Three Waters reforms have become one of the Labour Government’s greatest liabilities. While there is widespread consensus on the need for significant reform of water infrastructure, including from opposition political parties and local government, the specific reforms the Government have dogmatically pursued remain unconvincing to most, if not downright offensive to many.

Poll after poll has shown that the public are opposed to the reforms. While everyone wants to see water fixed, the Minister has presented a reform programme that has been botched from the start. Mahuta has failed to convince the public of all the contentious elements of the reforms – from co-governance element through to legal entrenchment of the anti-privatisation provisions.

Mahuta’s entrenchment debacle

The entrenchment drama has really made clear that Mahuta is a power unto herself in the Labour Government, and beyond reproach by Ardern. Although murkiness remains over exactly how and why Labour ended up pushing through the constitutionally objectionable and anti-democratic entrenchment provisions for Three Waters, there is now little doubt that Mahuta was driving the change.

Mahuta’s demeanor in the aftermath of the entrenchment scandal will be infuriating her colleagues. After all, she has been publicly blaming everyone else in the party but herself for the botch up.

The chain of events over the entrenchment is now becoming a bit clearer, with the obvious conclusion that Mahuta caused this problem for Labour, and seemingly defied the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and breached the Cabinet Manual – normally all sackable offences.

Cabinet made a clear decision not to entrench any of the Three Waters legislation, especially after they were made aware of the official advice that this would be unconstitutional and dangerous. Mahuta appears to have conspired with the Green Party to bring in a last-minute amendment during parliamentary urgency to do just this.

It appears that Mahuta, as the Minister responsible for getting the legislation passed, and working with Green MP Eugenie Sage, then choose not to inform any of her colleagues of what was planned and what this would mean. By design or otherwise, it appears that she neglected to inform the Prime Minister, Chris Hipkins who is the Leader of the House, and Attorney General David Parker that she was arranging for the Government to vote in the anti-democratic entrenchment provision that Cabinet had decided against.

Since then, Ardern has given cover to Mahuta by explaining to the public that it was a “mistake” made collectively by “the team” rather than Mahuta. But Mahuta herself has spurned that spin and thrown both the PM and other colleagues under the bus by speaking out publicly with a different story.

Mahuta has made it very clear that the vote wasn’t a misunderstanding, as the Prime Minister has tried to suggest, but a conscious attempt to bolster the reforms. She also pointed out that the entrenchment issue had actually been discussed at a caucus meeting. What’s more, she pointed out that Labour MPs had plenty of forewarning of the Green Party’s entrenchment amendment, suggesting that her colleagues, and especially those on the related select committee, should have read the material produced about the bill outlining the details of the entrenchment issue. As the Herald’s deputy political editor Thomas Coughlan writes today, “Mahuta turned on her caucus, even as they closed ranks to defend her”.

Coughlan argues that Ardern has bent over backwards to prevent Mahuta being blamed for the debacle, but Mahuta has spurned such help, publicly contradicting the PM on the issue, which has only inflamed divisions within Labour. Coughlan says: “Mahuta openly diverged from the Prime Minister, treating the press gallery to a spectacle more reminiscent of the National Party circa 2020-21 than the modern Labour Party.”

The Local Government Minister has also made clear that she knew of the constitutional objections to what they were doing. And as Coughlan argues today, it was Mahuta’s responsibility to proactively inform her colleagues what they were voting for in entrenching the Three Waters provisions.

Increasing calls for Mahuta to go

Thomas Coughlan writes today that “Mahuta is likely to leave Cabinet soon and possibly by involuntary means.” There are certainly a lot of calls for her to be sacked.

Some of these calls are being made by the opposition National Party. Reading which way the political winds are blowing, leader Christopher Luxon is seeking to be associated with any demotion of Mahuta – in the same way that earlier in the year, when Poto Williams’ position as Police Minister was becoming untenable, Luxon was able to call for her sacking and claim a political scalp.

National argues Mahuta has breached Cabinet collective responsibility rules – normally a sackable offence. It is certainly true that the Cabinet Manual states clearly: “Once Cabinet makes a decision, Ministers must support it, regardless of their personal views”. And in this case Cabinet made a decision not to entrench any of the Three Waters legislation, and then Mahuta appears to have organised and participated in getting Labour to vote for an amendment to do precisely that.

As Newstalk’s Heather du Plessis-Allan argues today, “it’s frankly embarrassing for the PM to be ignored”. She argues Mahuta should be sacked, not just for her role in Three Waters, but also because of “the lingering perception that something isn’t quite right about her husband attracting all those Government contracts.”

Why Mahuta can’t be sacked

There is a reluctance by some commentators and journalists to discuss a major factor in stopping Mahuta from being sacked – Labour’s very large and powerful Māori caucus. The fifteen-strong Māori caucus – and six out of the 20 Cabinet Ministers – is the biggest ever in Labour. Insiders say that they have incredibly strong leverage over Ardern and her fellow ministers.

Mahuta is one of the leaders of the Māori caucus, alongside Willie Jackson. Some commentators paint a picture of Ardern as being held hostage to the agendas of the senior Māori leaders. For example, journalist Graham Adams, has written about how Ardern doesn’t show any great enthusiasm for, or belief in, the Three Waters reform programme, and as a very cautious and poll-driven leader, “would normally back away from any policy as widely disliked as Three Waters soon after the poll results arrived on her desk”. But in this case that would cause a rebellion from the Māori caucus.

Labour’s Māori MPs are particularly worried about the potential for Te Pati Māori to win back more of the Māori seats and the Māori vote in general. They are therefore  note prepared to hand Te Pati Māori a huge stick to beat Labour with.

The Herald’s Thomas Coughlan points to this in his column today, trying to explain why Ardern seems so reluctant to stand up to Mahuta: “No one really knows why Ardern has burned through so much political capital defending her. It could be that Mahuta’s standing within the Māori caucus makes her too powerful to sack, or it could be an example of Ardern’s mercy and kindness, giving Mahuta a chance to get her yearned-for reforms through Parliament before retiring gracefully from Cabinet next year, and from Parliament at the next election.”

Heather du Plessis-Allan is more forthright about Mahuta’s powerful position: “she will not be sacked. She is one of the leaders of the Māori Caucus and they are powerful. I doubt very much that they’ll let the PM sack her. Nanaia is untouchable. You can see that from the way the PM has gone out of her way to defend Nanaia in this and say it was a team mistake. So even though Nanaia is causing all kinds of problems for Jacinda, and even though the Nats are right in that she’s probably done enough to be sacked, I bet you now she’s going nowhere.”

Similarly, today Peter Dunne suggests that a likely Cabinet reshuffle in late January might not allow the Prime Minister to sack Mahuta or Jackson: “both are senior members of Labour’s highly influential Māori Caucus – the so-called First Fifteen – which makes it almost impossible for the Prime Minister to act against them.”

According to Dunne, “Mahuta’s credibility has been severely damaged by the Three Waters saga, but her value arises from being Labour’s bridge to Tainui and the Kingitanga.”

Will Mahuta and Three Waters be blamed for a Labour Govt loss?

There should be no doubt that Mahuta’s reputation is at an all-time low. She was supposed to be one of the stars of Labour’s historically-powerful government this term, but has instead become one of the villains. She started the term with accolades for her new role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, but has performed relatively poorly in that role, as well as in her Local Government portfolio.

Interestingly, the Herald’s Audrey Young, recently gave Mahuta only 5 out of 10 in her evaluation of Government ministers. Young forecast that Mahuta was due to lose her portfolio in the next reshuffle due largely to her mismanagement of Three Waters. Earlier in the year, Young pronounced that Mahuta was “distracted by Three Waters reforms and a series of stories about public sector contracts awarded to her consultant husband.”

Mahuta has been accused of pushing the Three Waters reforms through to benefit iwi leaders, who are being given 50 per cent of the control over the new water companies.

Coughlan says today: “The problem that has dogged these reforms – a problem that followed her all the way into caucus this week – has been a lack of transparency and trustworthiness.” He details how the reform process has involved spin and deception from the Government since very early on.

A bigger problem is that the Three Waters reforms continue to impact Labour’s reputation and popularity very negatively, threatening to help sink the government at the next election. Two polls out this week, showed that the party had sunk to historic lows in support. First the 1News-Kantar poll on Monday put Labour on only 33 per cent support, which was the lowest the poll had recorded for the party since coming to power in 2017. And then on Wednesday the Roy Morgan poll gave a more shocking figure of 25 per cent support.

It’s worth pointing out that Roy Morgan had the most accurate poll results in the lead up to the last election. And the 25 per cent result is probably the lowest that any government has polled since the early 1990s when Ruth Richardson’s radical neoliberal economic reforms dragged down Jim Bolger’s National Government. Notably, Bolger’s eventual response was to sack Richardson. However, Ardern is in a bind, and due to the power of Labour’s Māori caucus, both Three Waters and Nanaia Mahuta look set to continue as an albatross around Labour’s neck.


Dr Bryce Edwards is Political Analyst in Residence at Victoria University of Wellington. He is the director of the Democracy Project.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.  


Further reading on Three Waters

Thomas Coughlan (Herald): How Nanaia Mahuta lost control of Three Waters, and Jacinda Ardern lost control of Nanaia Mahuta (Paywalled)
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Christopher Luxon too trigger-happy with call to sack Nanaia Mahuta, but her clock is ticking
Heather du Plessis-Allan (Newstalk ZB): Nanaia Mahuta should be sacked, but she’s going nowhere
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Jacinda Ardern has lost control over Nanaia Mahuta and must sack her – National
Jenna Lynch (Newshub): Jacinda Ardern sticks by Nanaia Mahuta despite criticism over Three Waters entrenchment row
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Christopher Luxon calls for Nanaia Mahuta to be sacked from Cabinet
William Hewett (Newshub): Christopher Luxon says asset sales ‘not on the agenda’, claims Government trying to deflect from Three Waters entrenchment clause
Grady Connell (Today FM): Luxon promises not to privatise any water assets if elected next year
Casper McGuire (1News): Luxon and Ardern spar as National leader calls for Mahuta’s sacking
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Christopher Luxon calls for Nanaia Mahuta to be sacked from Cabinet
Stefan Dimitrof (Whakaata Māori): PM determined to keep Three Waters in public ownership despite backroom fumble
Brent Edwards (NBR): Entrenchment mess confirms value of academics in ivory towers(paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): 3 Waters is now spinning out of control – Cabinet Reshuffle is urgently required
Hilary Calvert (ODT): Entrenchment fiasco tests our trust in govt
Janine Rankin (Manawatū Standard): Palmerston North will not oppose Three Waters changes


Other items of interest and importance today

Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): Jacinda’s Manic Ministry
Peter Dunne: Cabinet reshuffles do not save sinking ships
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): The ‘remarkable levels of access’ political donors get for their money
Max Rashbrooke (RNZ): Chief Ombudsman’s OIA inquiry another pointer to govt’s lack of transparency
Peter Gluckman and Anne Bardsley (Stuff): The rush to pass new laws is eroding the public’s trust
Ben Thomas (Stuff): How does Labour solve a problem like Willie and his ‘certain style’?
Max Rashbrooke (Spinoff): Campaigning on economic security sounds dull, but it might be Labour’s best option
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): The 1 News Kantar Poll could be the kick up the backside Labour needs
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): Poor old Luxon having to solve the Winston Peters/David Seymour Rubix cube
Richard Prebble: More comebacks than Rocky
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): Roy Morgan Poll – Labour crash – Hard Right wanting children in ankle bracelets soars
RNZ: ‘Incredibly difficult’ for National to win Hamilton West by-election – Luxon
Jo Moir (Newsroom): PM won’t accept political environment’s changed forever

Toby Manhire (Spinoff): Is Labour going to kill the public media merger?
Wayne Hope (Daily Blog): Media at the Crossroads
Bob Gregory (Newsroom): Merging TVNZ and RNZ: some history
Mana Wikaire-Lewis (Whakaata Māori): Canada and Aotearoa’s indigenous broadcasters to share content

Jenny Ruth (BusinessDesk): Reserve Bank’s cheap funding ends with $19.02b drawn down (paywalled)
RNZ: Ruapehu Alpine Lifts: Government to hand ski fields operator another $6m
Daniel Smith (Stuff): How bad could a Reserve Bank engineered recession get?
Susan Edmunds (Stuff): How high are mortgage interest rates really going to go?
Tom Pullar-Strecker (Stuff): Next year is shaping up to be a turning point for savers
David Hargreaves (Interest): ‘A step too far’- Kiwibank economists question OCR call
Rebecca Stevenson (Interest): Academic says building supplies market study isn’t bold enough to bring real competition
RNZ: Commerce Commission recommends action to improve competition in building supplies market
Jonathan Mitchell (NBR): Smaller building suppliers big winners from ComCom report: chair (paywalled)
Jonathan Milne (Newsroom): Big hardware retailer faces court action for blocking competition
David Hargreaves (Interest): ‘RBNZ to develop ‘monitoring framework’ to keep an eye on cryptoasset developments
Brianna MciLraith (Stuff): By the numbers: How are we spending our money?
Phil Pennington (RNZ): Outdoor advertisers using smart technology to reach more customers
Rebecca Stevenson (Interest): Mobile traders shut up shop or move on after Commerce Commission’s compliance clampdown
Tim Hunter (NBR): SkyCity’s NZ management implicated in Austrac claim (paywalled)
Arena Williams and Stuart Smith (Stuff): Kiwis need confidence that Superannuation will always be there when they need it

Tom Taylor (RNZ): NZ firefighters union set to vote on major pay settlement
RNZ: Firefighters could see $20,000 pay rise next year following strike action
Zarina Hewlett (Today FM): Firefighter Steve Devine upset with FENZ ‘lack of accountability’ following additional funding
Zarina Hewlett (Today FM): FENZ CEO squirms over hard questions after 18 months wait for firefighter funding
Stuff: Uber driver backpay claims could reach millions of dollars, First Union says
Dita De Boni (NBR): Uber drivers apply in droves to be eligible for back pay (paywalled)
Will Trafford (Whakaata Māori): Uptick in Māori cadetships follows gov’t funding boost
RNZ: Chartered Accountants ANZ members’ pay rose by 11 percent this year

Henry Cooke (Guardian): A royal commission gives New Zealand a chance to reckon with what Covid did to us
Henry Cooke: The five months that destroyed the Covid consensus
Jamie Morton (Herald): The three things experts want NZ’s next pandemic response to be(paywalled)
Roger Partridge (Herald): Covid-19 Royal Commission scope not enough (paywalled)
Herald Editorial: Third wave of Covid raises questions over antiviral drugs (paywalled)
Bridie Witton (Stuff): Covid-19: Next vaccinations likely before winter but warnings ‘we can’t boost our way out’
Adam Pearse (Herald): Covid-19: Omicron vaccine rollout could align with 2023 winter – Ministry of Health
Rowan Quinn (RNZ): Reported daily Covid-19 cases top 7000 for first time since July
Rowan Quinn (RNZ): Vaccinated donor blood: Parents’ meeting with doctors ‘hijacked’ by anti-vax support person
Logan Church (1News): Court becomes guardian of baby who needs urgent heart surgery

1News: Poll: Huge support for permanent half-price public transport
Simon Bridges (NBR): Transport and other moving issues (paywalled)
Herald: National takes $350m ‘slush fund’ to Auditor-General, Michael Wood says National MPs lacked ‘wit’ to bid for projects themselves
William Hewett (Newshub): National furious after Labour gets heads up on $350m transport fund
RNZ: Trial using more invasive road safety cameras snaps nearly 200,000 offences
RNZ: Travel industry leaders worried over flight capacity, urge govt to ensure security of fuel supply

Adam Pearse (Herald): Fast intervention for 10 to 13-year-old ram raiders and robbers – new Govt package
RNZ: Govt brings in fast-track plan to deal with children who commit crimes
Avina Vidyadharan (Stuff): Chairs and racial slurs hurled – another day on the youth crime frontline
Lianne Dalziel (Newsroom):  Rinse, ram raid and repeat – politicians lack the courage of their criminal convictions
Sunny Kaushal (Herald): Let dairies sell a safer product to reduce crime (paywalled)
Martyn Bradbury (Daily Blog): John Campbell’s Journalism on Youth Crime once again saves us from the ‘Get tough on crime’ cheerleaders

Rachel Smalley (Today FM): Last night’s funding announcements show why Pharmac needs reform
Isaac Davison (Herald): KPMG brought in to assist Government’s health reforms(paywalled)
Ella Stewart (RNZ): The shadow of racism over cancer diagnosis, treatment and outcomes
Brent Edwards (NBR): Net trust in ACC not as good as it could be (paywalled)
Ripu Bhatia (Stuff): Ethnic leaders form new health collective to bridge inequities
Debbie Jamieson (Stuff): Southland Hospice pays $1.5m for Queenstown base, but hospice up to 15 years away
Natalie Akoorie (Herald): Complain to the police or we will, advocates tell Ministry for disabled over alleged neglect

Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Nanaia Mahuta criticised for not corresponding with Russian Ambassador since Ukraine war started
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Call for NZ to ban ‘transplant tourism’

Hamish Cardwell (RNZ): Stats NZ confirms drop in household climate emissions during 2020 Covid lockdown
No Right Turn: Climate Change: More subsidised pollution
Te Okiwa McLean, Ethan Oneroa (Te Karere): Enviro minister ‘failed’ to keep waterways clean – Māori lawyer
RNZ: Group plans further legal action against govt after landmark decision on crayfish catch limits
Ian Llewellyn (NBR): Carbon prices drop at last auction of year (paywalled)
Nathan Cooper (The Conversation): Avoiding climate breakdown depends on protecting Earth’s biodiversity – can the COP15 summit deliver?

Tina Law (Press): Christchurch City Council ‘heads down the path of selling assets’
Oliver Lewis (BusinessDesk): Christchurch council greenlights asset sale evaluationr(paywalled)
Todd Niall (Stuff): Report finds no conflict of interest on Auckland Council agency board
Stefan Dimitrof (Whakaata Māori): Dargaville hikoi planned for Wednesday protesting Kaipara mayor’s karakia ban
James Perry (Whakaata Māori): ‘Pai, kino rānei ki a ia’ – Glavish promises to meet Kaipara Mayor whether he wants to or not
Lauren Crimp (RNZ): Timaru council ignores health officials’ calls to cut back pokies

Kiri Gillespie (Bay of Plenty Times): Tauranga’s housing crisis: Demand for social housing soars 360%
Nicholas Boyack (Stuff): From emergency motel to dream home for family of four
Herewini Waikato (Whkaata Māori): Ngāti Awa win – Ōpihi Whanaungakore will not be touched for now
RNZ: Ōpihi burial ground appeal – developer and Māori groups to meet out of court

Felix Walton (RNZ): Fewer Kiwi children living in poverty but disparity between Māori and Pākehā increasing
Jimmy Ellingham (RNZ): Abuse in care inquiry: Victims distressed as wait for compensation drags on
RNZ: New aid launched to help more parents put controls on streaming services

Te Aniwa Hurihanganui (1News): Māori ASupreme Court rules in favour of Wairarapa Māori
RNZ: Wairarapa Māori win legal battle over power station
Mana Wikaire-Lewis (Public Interest Journalism): Ngāpuhi backs Ngāi Tahu’s blocking of ‘unjust’ fisheries changes

Kate Newton (Stuff): What’s going on with school attendance?
Mark Sheehan and Bronwyn Wood (Newsroom): NZ schools move away from ‘goodies and baddies’ history

Emile Donovan (RNZ): Are our Olympians actually employees?
Rebecca Howard (BusinessDesk): Former governor-general Patsy Reddy to chair NZ Rugby (paywalled)
James Perry (Whakaata Māori): Bailey Mackey, Farah Palmer elected deputy chairs as changes made at NZ Rugby

Karl du Fresne: Why social cohesion should be the key issue in 2023
Marc Daalder (Newsroom): Security Intelligence Service holds copy of all incoming traveller data
Anna Whyte (Stuff): Union goes after National’s claims of ‘bloated bureaucracy’, calls for release of plan
Alan Thompson (Bay of Plenty Times): Why no inquiry into Whakaari tragedy? (paywalled)
RNZ: No supporters show up for far-right Counterspin Media pair’s latest court appearance
RNZ: Some North Island, West Coast customers hardest hit by Transpower price rises
RNZ: Science system reform needed to tackle environmental challenges – Verrall
RNZ: Google’s most searched terms for 2022 in New Zealand
Chris Schulz (Spinoff): From Gayford to guacamole, here’s what we Googled in 2022