PM Jacinda Ardern, conceding the next three years will be very challenging for NZ, has two overarching priorities for her government: to drive the economic recovery from Covid-19, and to continue the health response to keep NZers safe from the virus.
“In what will be a difficult environment it’s critical we have our most experienced ministers leading the ongoing Covid response to keep New Zealanders safe from the virus and to accelerate our plan for economic recovery.
Sensibly, then, she has recognised the skills of Grant Robertson who has been given the task of co-ordinating the drive to regain economic growth. Besides keeping the Finance portfolio Robertson becomes Minister of Infrastructure. And his seniority is reinforced with the role, too, of Deputy Prime Minister—a role which he had previously filled in all but name.
Labour’s recovery plan includes $42bn of infrastructure investment that will create jobs and ensure the economic recovery. It also has to deliver much needed improvements to roads and public transport, to schools, hospitals and housing, while also continuing to support the regions.
Ardern, in effect, will be the captain on the bridge while Robertson is in charge of the engine-room.
Clearly it would have been an anomaly if Kelvin Davis had moved up to be Deputy PM, and wisely he chose to step aside from that role.
Without Winston Peters acting as a block on Labour whenever he felt like it, Labour now has a clear run. But both Ardern and Robertson are incrementalists rather than radicals. They have to get the economy up and running smoothly again, no easy task when the global economy is stumbling in the face of the pandemic.
Robertson accepts the Covid-19 economic and health response priorities for the new government will be hard work.
He told Radio NZ he recognises Covid-19’s health and economic impact store to be fully felt.
“My bit of the equation is particularly around the economic impact. And we are going to have to work very hard as a country over the next few years to recover and rebuild and get that ‘build back better’ approach going.
“So we’re going to have to be careful, we’re going to have to be balanced in the programme as we put forward at the election but I’ve got a lot of optimism about NZ. I see the economy doing better than people expected, plenty of headwinds to come, but I’ve got huge optimism about our country and our resilience.“
He concedes that with such a large majority in Parliament, Labour faces the risk of second term arrogance as a government.
But Robertson says the prime minister has been extremely clear with all of her colleagues that their job is a privilege and a right that has to be earned, and re-earned, every day.
As for his new job as deputy PM Robertson defines it as being basically a support role for the prime minister.
“She can’t be in two places at once and so there’s plenty of occasions where someone needs to fill in. And I’m very very happy to do that.
“I’ve been around Parliament for a long time I’ve seen various people wanting to take the role, so I’ve got a good guide as to as to how those people have done it. Clearly Sir Michael Cullen is someone I’ve looked to from the finance portfolio. He also fulfilled the role of deputy prime minister and finance minister … so I’ll continue to draw on his advice, along with others.”
What’s clear is that Robertson has a clear conception of his role in the partnership with Ardern and, unlike some previous ministers who have held the finance portfolio in other Labour administrations, does not harbour an ambition for the top job (unless of course it was thrust on him).
“I’m very humbled and honoured to have the role. I’ve enjoyed working with the prime minister over the last three years as finance minister and to take on the deputy role just gives me another opportunity to support her in doing her job.
“She had asked Kelvin Davis, as she said, to consider the role. And after the election he came back and had said to her that he did not want to take it up, so she raised the possibility with me once he’d said that”.
With such a strong mandate, the Ardern government could have struck out boldly in many directions.
But with Robertson driving the economic programme, the government can be expected to move ahead carefully, almost cautiously. He clearly understands he has to unite business, the export sectors and farming behind his policies if he is to batter down the challenges confronting NZ in dealing with the pandemic’s aftermath.