* Dr Bryce Edwards writes –
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins continues to be the new broom in Government, re-setting his Government away from its problem areas in his Cabinet reshuffle yesterday, and trying to convince voters that Labour is focused on “bread and butter” issues.
The ministers responsible for unpopular reforms in water and DHB centralisation – Nanaia Mahuta and Andrew Little – lost their portfolios and have been heavily demoted in Cabinet.
Health – removing an irritant
Healthcare has traditionally been a strong policy area for the Labour Party, but the health reforms haven’t rolled out well for the Government, and some sort of big change was required on Labour’s part. The easiest option was to get rid of the Minister, Andrew Little.Little has become quite unpopular in the sector. As Newshub political editor Jenna Lynch explained,
“Little was becoming too much of a hothead for health. He got the hard bit through, the major restructure. The system is crumpled and it needs a sympathetic, pragmatic and practical touch from someone who knows it inside out.”
The new minister, Ayesha Verrall, is a fresh face, and a has strong standing amongst health professionals, in part because she’s a former physician and appears to understand the sector.
According to the Spinoff’s Toby Manhire, Hipkins chose Verrall
“… in pursuit of a more emollient presence after Andrew Little, whose bullish approach to reform rubbed some noses out of joint.”
How much the change of Health minister will help Labour out in this beleaguered portfolio is up for debate. According to BusinessDesk editor Pattrick Smellie,
“Verrall inherits a literal hospital pass with Andrew Little’s semi-completed public hospital reforms”.
And he reminds us that the new minister of this major sector
“…. is still a first-term MP who wilted at fiery covid-era press conferences”.
Similarly, broadcaster Rachel Smalley points out today that
“Verrall is not a good communicator. She has a fragile and stuttery voice”
“… if you’ve got someone looking after major health reforms, you don’t want a nervous nellie. I think she’s too inexperienced. Two years in politics and we put in charge of the health system.”
Not all commentators see Little as a loser today – despite him losing one of the biggest portfolios and plummeting six places in the Cabinet rankings. Stuff’s Thomas Manch says being “freed from this burden” instead “makes him a winner”.
Manch argues that Little takes on the more prestigious public service and Defence portfolios, which also have significant problems to sort out. Plus,
“….. in the case of defence, it’s a job with perks. The Government has invested billions in defence assets since 2017, and new aircraft are beginning to arrive in the country. There will be great photo opportunities to be had.”
Cauterising the Three Waters wound
Removing Nanaia Mahuta from overseeing the Three Waters reform programme, together with her demotion off the front bench, to number 16, shows just how much Hipkins wants to fix the problem of Three Waters. According to Newshub’s Jenna Lynch, Hipkins will
“…. hope to have cauterised some of the criticism of Three Waters by removing Mahuta.”
It also shows just how much Hipkins and his colleagues blame Mahuta for the farcical embarrassment that Three Waters has become, especially over the entrenchment scandal, over which Mahuta is considered to have misled her colleagues.
Mahuta’s removal also foreshadows some significant reform to Three Waters. Yesterday, Hipkins stated that
“We’re going to take a close look at the Three Waters reforms; certainly leaving open the possibility of a reset there”, admitting that the government would “look closely to make sure we have got those reforms right”.
But Hipkins also said that Three Waters is “not going to be scrapped altogether”.
At this stage, it looks likely that Three Waters will be shorn of its contentions co-governance structures, and Mahuta was clearly unable to countenance this sort of alteration. Instead, Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty will be tasked with using his stronger rural reputation to make a new version of the reform palatable to the public.
Big changes for the Māori caucus
Mahuta’s demotion will be humiliating for her. Pattrick Smellie argues today that she “would appear to be heading for the departure lounge” – and he’s not talking about her failure to travel abroad much in her role as Foreign Minister.
And it’s not the only demotion for a member of Labour’s Māori caucus – Defence Minister Peeni Henare was also relieved of his big job, and instead given ACC and Tourism.
Although Hipkins rejected the notion that Henare was being demoted, the minister also dropped a long way down the rankings. According to Thomas Manch, it all shows that
“Hipkins lacked confidence in his handling of the big-ticket portfolio that is defence.”
And today, Stuff political editor Luke Malpass says Henare’s demotion was the right thing to do as he seemed
“… to be MIA in the portfolio for much of his time in charge.”
Hipkins balanced the demotions of Mahuta and Henare with big elevations for Kiri Allan (up seven places) and Willie Jackson (up five). A quarter of Cabinet is Māori and Hipkins also pointed out that the number of Māori on the front bench had increased with his reshuffle. He might also point out that he’s now given a ministerial role to every Labour MP holding a Māori electorate.
Jackson’s elevation, together with his retention of the broadcasting portfolio, also suggests that the merger of TVNZ and Radio NZ might not entirely be off, as has been assumed in recent days.
Minister for Auckland the second biggest winner
Ayesha Verrall is generally singled out by commentators as the biggest winner from yesterday’s reshuffle. The second biggest winner appears to be Michael Wood, who jumped from a ranking of 16 to 7, and picked up a brand-new ministerial portfolio – responsibility for Auckland.
The creation of this role is something of a return to the Helen Clark years – her government set up Judith Tizard as a minister for Auckland between 1999 and 2007. And more recently, the National Party’s reshuffle established Simeon Brown to look after that portfolio, promising to prioritise fixing Auckland’s problems.
In appointing Wood to this new ministerial role, Hipkins could be seen as responding to National’s move. But, according to Toby Manhire, Hipkins also
“… will have been influenced by the fact that he is not, unlike the three most recent long serving prime ministers, based in Auckland, but it is likely as much motivated by the range of specific issues our biggest urban centre faces, ranging from transport to business to housing.”
Whether Wood is the right person for that job is raised by some critics. Luke Malpass says today that it’s odd to put in someone with such a mixed track record as Transport minister into the role, and especially someone that won’t exactly be loved by the Auckland business community. He points out that Wood’s record with Auckland light rail and the farcical Auckland Harbour cycle bridge has blighted Wood’s reputation in the city.
Smellie also says Wood has a huge job ahead of him:
“He is effectively being tasked with trying to calm down the biggest city, where resentment over the long winter lockdown in 2021 still simmers, flooding will dent confidence and where, as transport minister, he has yet to turn a single sod of earth on the long-promised light rail project.”
A former school principal appointed as Minister of Education
Hipkins passed his Education portfolio to Jan Tinetti, who used to work as a high school principal. She had served an apprenticeship as an associate education minister, and is widely regarded as highly competent.
Manhire says that Tinetti is likely to be warmly received in the sectors, at least initially. She also takes over Jacinda Ardern’s Child Poverty Reduction role.
Tinetti certainly helps the Government appear refreshed – a new face on the front bench, ranked at number 6. Her rise was described by many yesterday as “meteoric”.
Pattrick Smellie reminds us that Education is a big portfolio with difficult issues, and
“Tinetti has been more of a behind-the-scenes operator to date. Education, which National will target hard this year on truancy and under-performance, has all the hallmarks of a baptism of fire.”
Other big winners
Megan Woods is now being described as the “Minister for Hardhats”, as she has taken over Grant Robertson’s infrastructure portfolio, adding this to her responsibilities in associate finance, building and construction, and housing and energy. She retains her high ranking of five in the Cabinet, and Manch says:
“If the Government need something built, Woods is the minister for it.”
Kieran McNulty has now entered Cabinet, taking over full responsibility for Local Government. It’s now his job to grapple with and sell a reformed version of Three Waters.
Stuart Nash has succeeded in winning back his coveted Police portfolio – which he lost to Poto Williams after the last election. He also rises one place in the rankings.
Too early to say how big this reshuffle is
Many commentators were underwhelmed by yesterday’s reshuffle – largely because most of the changes were already expected, such as Mahuta and Little losing their big portfolios. There were few surprises.
Some described the reshuffle as “modest”. Hipkins himself said he had aimed to “balance stability with renewal”. Or put another way, Hipkins took a “continuity and change approach”. Certainly, the top five positions in the Government remain largely unchanged.
In general, there was just a large amount of shifting ministers around in their Cabinet rankings. In this regard, Pattrick Smellie says the “reshuffle delivers the same faces, but in a different order”, and suggests that it’s not a particularly renewed line-up, as “some of the promotions look less like a showcase of emerging talent than a political need to be seen to be shuffling the deck.”
What has been interesting is to see the newer generation of ministers appointed or elevated. There’s an element of freshness to the Cabinet due to the rise of Kiri Allan, Michael Wood and Ayesha Verrall.
In addition, Barbara Edmonds is now in Cabinet, ranked at 20 (after previously being number 49 on Labour’s party list), and Ginny Andersen is at 19 in Cabinet (after being only 45 on the party list). There are also four new ministers outside of Cabinet: Duncan Webb, Willow-Jean Prime, Deborah Russell, and Rino Tirikatene.
Overall, according to Jenna Lynch:
“this reshuffle was more of a spring clean than a full reno job.”
But do the changes in Cabinet personnel signal more substantive political changes? Although there have been some big changes in the politicians in charge – especially with Mahuta and Little being demoted – this doesn’t necessarily mean big policy changes will follow.
As Bernard Hickey has argued, Hipkins might just be hoping that a change of faces will be enough to assuage voters:
“This is a series of tweaks aimed at suggesting a change in approach, rather than a massive pivot to new policies. New faces do make a difference, but this is not a broad shift or likely to completely reverse unloved reforms such as Three Waters and the centralisation of the DHBs.” And Hickey points out that “the Health and Three Waters reforms already legislated and mostly completed.”
Does the reshuffle focus the Government enough on Hipkins’ oft-stated “bread and butter” issues? Some have criticised the fact that neither the commerce or consumer affairs portfolios are inside Cabinet, let alone on the front bench.
For example, Luke Malpass says today that one of the big jobs of the Commerce Minister
“… is to oversee that the supermarkets are behaving and keeping prices down – something Labour claims to care about greatly. Anything to do with prices, regulation or competition really. Given that consumers are surely what matters in a cost of living crunch, that seems odd.”
But will the Prime Minister himself be pushing forward any major policy reforms? It’s notable that Hipkins has decided not to take on any significant portfolios himself. When this was raised yesterday with Hipkins – especially contrasting him with Jacinda Ardern holding her Child Poverty Reduction portfolio – Hipkins was quick to say “I’m not interested in a symbolic gesture”.
Ardern might have grimaced to hear this, but it probably only helped illustrate just how determined the new PM is to show that he’s an entirely new broom.
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.
2 thoughts on “Bryce Edwards’ Political Roundup: Hipkins’ bread and butter reshuffle”
The extraordinary thing about Little’s appointment as Defence Minister is that Labour seems to think that it’s business as usual, that the P8s are enough to make our military credible. Far from it. The world has changed. China is on the move. Australia is rearming big time. We must too. Unless NZ plays its part, it’ll be left behind. We are at the end of a long supply chain which will end at Australia if we do not contribute to its protection. With only two frigates frequently there are none on station. When the push comes to shove the US and Australia will accord priority to their interests unless we pay our fair share. At present we are freeloading.