With so many of her Labour caucus looking as if they’ll lose their seats at the next election, I expected Jacinda’s recent Cabinet changes to promote lots of new faces from the backbenches with the intention of giving her ministry a new look. Maybe she’d give a few of her caucus more experience of government. But then I reviewed the people on offer and realized that she had little choice. Lots of low-level lawyers, educationalists, health workers and student politicians with little experience except working for trade unions. No commercial experience. No stars. Thus, Jacinda had little alternative to re-shuffling her current de-faced set of cards. She passed over re-promoting Phil Twyford, and she ignored Aupito William Sio, Rino Tirikatene and Deborah Russell, bringing into Cabinet only Priyanca Radhakrishnan. Kieran McAnulty got a junior ministerial role outside Cabinet. There’ll be a new Speaker with the ever-so-undiplomatic Trevor Mallard setting off on a diplomatic career. He’s better than the egregiously undiplomatic Louisa Wall who was recently bumped from Parliament to what has been billed as a diplomatic post in the Pacific, much to the horror of the Foreign Ministry. I realise that is scarcely high praise for Trevor.
It’s the things that weren’t done in the reshuffle that warrant attention. For several months we have had a Foreign Minister (Nanaia Mahuta) who has held the position in name only. She’s scarcely been off-shore, preferring to stick around Wellington contriving co-governance nepotism for her wider family and Iwi in the new health structure and her Three Waters scheme. She holds a Rasputin-like grip over Jacinda who seems permanently in thrall to anything promoting Maori that Nanaia comes up with. Things can’t come right for Jacinda’s ministry until Mahuta is moved on from local government. Change is needed at Health too. Andrew Little is struggling and isn’t on top of his complex portfolio. When questioned the other day about when health delivery to Maori was likely to improve, he cited the structural changes to hospital delivery, completely overlooking the fact that so comprehensive are his proposed changes that it will be several years before service delivery recovers from the structural chaos that he’s already creating. But Jacinda reminds herself that it was Little’s offer to stand aside from the leadership in her favour just before the 2017 election that enabled her to become Prime Minister. He’ll be allowed to struggle on till he requests change. And meanwhile our health services will languish with short staffing and a slew of wage, salary and back-pay issues.
Some of the problems in Health as well as other portfolios require a new broom at Immigration. Faafoi’s departure where, as one TV commentator observed, he’d been sleeping at his desk for months, is good news. But Michael Wood is scarcely a dynamic successor. The man who proposed the swiftly killed walking and cycling bridge over the Waitemata, and who is yet to get his head around the gross irresponsibility of his proposed $29 billion rapid rail to Auckland’s airport, doesn’t possess sufficient commonsense to handle the variety of complex and urgent issues that await him at Immigration after so many months of border closure. Farming, horticulture, hospitality, health and education are all crying out for migrants; can Wood handle the pressure? I wouldn’t bet on it.
And what about Police? It shows how little talent Jacinda has in her caucus that yet again she had to call on Chris Hipkins to try to grapple with a crisis. And just as happened when he took over Health a few years ago, and then Covid, his extra burden comes at the expense of his major portfolio, Education. Five more years under this government of steady decline in standards of literacy and numeracy have put our kids’ achievement scores near the bottom of the OECD. School truancy rates have never been worse. This will continue to blight the country’s future, further turning us into a hermit kingdom. The Education department hasn’t been strong since the days of Dr C.E. Beeby 70 years ago. With its long parade of less than stellar ministers and CEOs, some terrible things have been inflicted on our children. Take for example the wickedly erroneous New Zealand history syllabus built on Maori myth and Treaty ignorance that is now compulsory for all students. It’s Mahuta’s influence in part; Hipkins’ intermittent attention to his principal portfolio has enabled her to get away with it. To date, the Associate Minister, Jan Tinetti, hasn’t shown much interest in getting to grips with the portfolio’s biggest challenges.
Possibly the worst news of all from the portfolio shuffling is that Willie Jackson, he of the Roast-busters’ notoriety and never-ending nonsensical interpretations of the Treaty, is now the Minister of Broadcasting and Media. Main Stream Media are taking things very cautiously now, because they have gradually succumbed to the on-going constraints which come with taxpayer grants from the Public Interest Journalism Fund. Our media are becoming hooked on government handouts and want them to continue. There is a real danger that Jackson will push, shove and threaten them into further submission.
All in all, when she undertook her shuffle Jacinda Ardern showed few signs that she takes any heed of the serious unease about many aspects of her ministers’ stewardship. This leaves us with our only option: bundle the Labour Party into opposition at the earliest opportunity.