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Analysis: Ardern's new Cabinet in safe hands but 'nothing flashy'

Nov 02, 2020

Analysis - Some days are diamonds, some days are stone, as the song goes. Or, if you prefer, some people call me the space cowboy, some people call me the gangster of love. Some like it hot, but some sweat when the heat is on. And some people make sense as Deputy Prime Minister and some do not. Kelvin Davis is the latter, and so has made a wise choice today.

Labour's deputy leader has announced he will not be taking the Deputy Prime Ministership, despite the evidence suggesting it really was his choice to make.

Davis wants to stay deputy of the Labour Party and his devotion to the party now extends to giving up the baubles of that particular office. Because he probably wouldn't be good at it.

So the party will be relieved Grant Robertson will be Jacinda Ardern's safe-hands deputy dawg if she ever gets to travel again or decides to have another baby.

For Davis, it's a wise choice and one I suggested on the Caucus podcast last week. He's not great under the pressure of parliamentary questions or media interrogation; he can be a bit seat-of-his-pants at times. Fairly or not, he would be subject to intense scrutiny whenever he deputised.

Instead, I suggested he sacrifice the temptation to be sitting on his porch in his dotage telling his mokopuna he was once Deputy PM for the greater good. The good of New Zealand, and to use his sacrifice to leverage more power for the Māori caucus in Cabinet.

It looks as though that's exactly what he did. Labour's Māori caucus has been richly rewarded for the loyalty of Māori voters and, I'm led to believe, thanks to Davis' advocacy.

His mana amongst his colleagues and Māoridom in general will be significantly enhanced by this choice.

Nanaia Mahuta is Foreign Affairs Minister - the first woman to have the job and second Māori in a row. It's a high-trust role with no room for error. Mahuta is not terribly well known outside of Waikato, but is very capable. This though is a big responsibility and the pressure will be on her to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Phil Goff, Sir Don McKinnon, Mike Moore and Keith Holyoake.

Nanaia Mahuta has been named as the first woman to take the role of Foreign Affairs Minister in New Zealand. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Willie Jackson loses Employment, but gains the crown of Māori Development off Mahuta. Again, it's a high prestige portfolio that goes back to the 1850s (as Native Affairs Minister) and he follows in the tread of Koro Wētere, Āpirana Ngata, Peter Fraser and James Carroll.

Poto Williams is promoted to Police and Building and Construction. Peeni Henare doesn't get the Health Minister job he wanted, but he gets Defence and two associate gigs (health and housing) and he moves into Cabinet.

So does Kiri Allan, as Minister of Conservation. It will be a big step up for her. She is very smart, but some in Labour wasn't sure she was ready. Even Meka Whaitiri gets some ministerships outside of Cabinet, after her past controversies.

Davis himself got some runs on the board with the Corrections portfolio but has been less popular with the Tourism sector. In the reshuffle he has ditched or lost Tourism and picked up Minister of Children. As a former principal of two intermediate schools, it fits his knowledge of young 'uns.

And appointing a prominent Māori to the position vacated by Tracey Martin sends a strong signal to the sector and whānau that the work begun there will continue, and perhaps go further than it might have.

So big wins for Māori within Labour, in some significant part, thanks to Davis and his choice.

Elsewhere, Stuart Nash becomes Mr Regions - a slightly less controversial version of Shane Jones. He gets Tourism off Davis to go with Economic and Regional Development and Small Business. I imagine he'll be stoked.

Damien O'Connor is also given Trade and Economic Growth, so the most regional of Labour's MPs are given big jobs, giving a nod to the growing support for Labour outside the main centres.

Kieran McAnulty though will likely be disappointed not to get an associateship or under-secretary role.

The most notable other promotions are Michael Woods taking on Transport, presumably with the task of getting light rail/a track to the airport sorted out properly. Given the light rail runs through his electorate and he's been mentored by Phil Goff, it makes sense.

And there's Tauranga List MP Jan Tinetti, who will be known to few, but is highly regarded by those who do know her.

The victims of the reshuffle are Phil Twyford, who keeps some portfolios but is demoted out of Cabinet, and Jenny Salesa, who is gone altogether, clearly not rated highly enough by her boss.

It's interesting also to note some new portfolios, notably 'Oceans & Fisheries' for David Parker (suggesting a more environmental approach and some interesting battles with the fishing sector) and Minister for Covid-19 to Chris Hipkins.

Indeed, the heft of Cabinet is still focused on Covid-19 and the economic response to that. Robertson and Hipkins - the safest duo in Cabinet - have got the jobs that will most likely make or break this government over the bulk of this term. This government is planning to spend an eye-watering amount of money and start more infrastructure projects that you can throw 10 bridges at. All roads to that $42 billion will go through them and the Prime Minister, you can be sure.

The Labour government is not exactly overflowing with stars, but Ardern looks at first blush to have done quite a lot with a little. This is a Cabinet designed to do what must be done between now and the next election.

Nothing flashy is signalled, but there are some safe hands there and the risks are mostly minimised (though far from eliminated).

The question now is who will respond to the opportunity and pressure and who will wilt. Because what this line-up reminds us, more perhaps than anything else, is that this is a Labour government. Not Labour-led, not Labour-Greens, but Labour, Labour, Labour. What it achieves and where it may fail will all fall directly at the feet of Jacinda Ardern and her party.


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