The Ardern government, adding a fresh policy pile-up to the heap it has accumulated, has been busy re-defining the core principle of ministerial responsibility.
Health Minister David Clark has joined Transport Minister Phil Twyford in the “look, no hands” brigade, as he shrugs off responsibility for failing to ensure the government’s strict border protocols as agreed by Cabinet were implemented.
And Twyford, adding the failure to deliver Labour’s key 2017 election pledge to build Auckland’s light rail by 2021 to his KiwiBuild performance, must still be laughing as he draws his ministerial salary and looks forward to another term, after being promoted to number four on Labour’s list.
The consequence is headlines such as “Phil Twford, Minister of embarrassing failures” and “David Clark throws Ashley Bloomfield under a bus, while Bloomfield looks on”.
Not quite the sort Labour will cherish as it goes into a general election campaign.
Point of Order, in an earlier post, noted what is emerging in NZ as a redefinition of leadership: Ardern is there to lead, not to take responsibility. This defies all previous conventions in a parliamentary democracy.
This is now being refined for ministers, too. They are there to get Cabinet sign-off on measures, but not to take responsibility when a programme is not fulfilled.
Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters (standing in for the PM in Parliament) took it a step further when he said when there are failures “we are there to fix them”.
Some commentators argue ministers can’t take responsibility for everything. Not even the most competent minister, they say, is safe from “mistakes” further down the chain.
That defies historical precedent. Ministers have resigned in cases where there have been serious failures.
Take, for example, the Cave Creek disaster in 1995 when the Minister of Conservation, Denis Marshall, resigned, although clearly the collapse of the structure which led to the deaths of 14 people was a construction failure.
But Clark sees it differently: he contends border controls and testing is an issue of implementation and operation, the responsibility for which falls on the chief executive of the Health Minister.
Clark won’t even go as far as Bob Semple did in Labour’s first ministry when he famously said: “I am responsible, but I am not to blame”.
Instead Clark insists Bloomfield has taken responsibility for the border bungles and had apologised to the public for them.
TV3’s political editor Tova O’Brien (and her cameraman) neatly skewered Clark emerging alongside Bloomfield from a parliamentary room when he shrugged off the border bungle onto the Health Department chief. It was an image which delighted social media.
It may not yet be diminishing the clouds of glory that float above Jacinda Ardern, who nevertheless has sought to distance herself from her “not responsible” ministers.
She knows it would give too much ammunition to National if she were to call on Clark to fall on his sword.
In any case, she has other fires to dampen. The NZ Herald put it to her that the government was being torn apart after NZ First killed off any hope the light rail project would get under way this term.
“This is an MMP Government. It just happens to be one [area] where we were unable to form a consensus.”
Light Rail was the first big policy announced by Ardern when she took over leadership of Labour leading into the 2017 election.
Labour made a commitment to the Greens in their governing agreement:
“Work will begin on light rail from the city to the airport in Auckland”.
Greens co-leader James Shaw said NZ First’s light rail moves were a “slap in the face of Aucklanders”.
How Aucklanders will view it will become clearer on September 19.