The Labour-NZ First coalition must have been agreeably surprised on completing the year with so many encomiums from the pundits on its performance. And with the economy chugging along at a useful, though uneven, pace the government could look back on 2018 with a great deal of satisfaction (as the NZ Herald contended).
But will 2019 be as easily navigated?
For this is the year of decision. The reports from the scores of reviews the government has ordered will be piling up on ministerial desks. How well equipped is the coalition to deal with them?
Some insights might be found in how Cabinet operated in the year past. Every ministry has its duds and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s team is no exception, with Clare Curran and Meka Whatiri leading the way and Iain Lees-Galloway deserving, but escaping, the drop-kick.
But Ardern herself starred both at home and abroad. Her ratings in political polls stayed astonishingly high. Across the Tasman, she stirred envy in Canberra where there is a revolving door into the prime minister’s office. And there were accolades at home: Tracy Watkins in the Dominion-Post wrote “The Prime Minister is at the height of her powers… her international cachet is huge”.
Watkins, in judging the unlikely coalition of Labour, NZ First and the Greens “is looking locked in”, argues that’s all down to Ardern. She sees Ardern as operating a different style of leadership and “brand” which has emphasised kindness and compassion over the qualities more usually prized in politics like ruthlessness.
Audrey Young in the NZ Herald saw things differently: “Like him or loathe him, the NZ First leader is the politician of the year”. She contends Winston Peters has effectively demanded, and been given, “a real partnership in the coalition”. In contrast to Watkins, Young argues Ardern has made plenty of mistakes as prime minister.
Barry Soper, too, reckons Peters plays politics like no one else in the business. “He understands how things work and where the pitfalls are”.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson, as Point of Order looks over the Cabinet team, stands closely behind Ardern and Peters as a key figure in the coalition. It’s true he inherited financial books in very good shape from the previous administration but he has resisted calls to loosen the purse strings, even though some of his colleagues would like him dancing to their tune of “nine years of neglect” (which is code for “spend on my pet project”).
Business confidence which fell after the election last year and declined in the first half of this year has recovered, a response possibly due to compromises on intended changes to employment law and the healthy Budget surplus.
Labour’s main mission has been to raise incomes at the lower end of the scale, and in this it has succeeded, but there is much yet to be done on the parallel issues of reducing inequality and child poverty
As for others in Cabinet, the standout probably has been Shane Jones but it is a moot point whether he commands as much attention inside the room as he does in the media.
By comparison Trade Minister David Parker supplies real intellectual grunt, not just within his own portfolios but across the spectrum. So too does Andrew Little, even though he has failed to make any progress with Ngaphui in its treaty settlement, and critics judged his justice summit a flop.
Housing Minister Phil Twyford, entrusted with key roles in housing and transport, has found it hard going trying to deliver on his party’s promises, but Ardern might not find any volunteers to step into either of those portfolios just yet.
In some quarters Kris Faafoi is regarded as a rising star but that’s probably because he hasn’t blotted his copybook rather than because of any innovative political thinking.
Chris Hipkins and Megan Woods are regarded as solid in their portfolios but real tests are looming for them in the coming year.
From the Greens, there’s probably some satisfaction among the party’s supporters on issues like the medicinal cannabis reform, conservation and climate change issues, but given Winston Peters’ insistence that it is a Labour-NZ First coalition, it’s not easy to assess what influence, if any, the Greens exert on Cabinet outcomes, outside the areas of their particular responsibility.
It’s said they have made more progress against plastic bags than global warming this year and they have managed to redirect some roading funds to railways and cycleways as well as enticing KiwiRail to resume plans to replace diesel with electric locomotives. Not spectacular, yet after more than 20 years in Parliament, the Greens can at last say they have achieved something.
There has been some speculation Ardern might reshuffle portfolios and fill the gaps left by Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri.
Certainly there is talent among the 2017 crop of backbenchers, with Deborah Russell and Duncan Webb leading contenders. Such a reshuffle would certainly confirm Ardern’s authority but whether she could do it without Peters’ approval is one of the yet-to-be tested conditions of the coalition arrangement. And if you are preaching kindness and compassion, how can you be ruthless with those sitting around you?