- BRYCE EDWARDS writes –
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 a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE.