Jacinda Ardern’s first ministerial reshuffle has seen Phil Twyford pay the price for his KiwiBuild failures, while Kris Faafoi was perhaps the biggest winner in rising to Cabinet. Sam Sachdeva looks at the most notable parts of the Prime Minister’s changes, and where the party heads to next.
Can you really have a KiwiBuild “reset” without resetting the minister behind it?
It is that fundamental question, and the obvious answer, which perhaps best explains why Phil Twyford has been left in the cold with all those waiting for a house they can afford.
Going into her first reshuffle, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern promised her changes would be minor, and for the most part they were, with only one new minister.
But the Housing and Urban Development Minister losing the first part of that title – being left only with responsibility for urban development – was a major admission of failure regarding the Government’s flagship affordable housing programme.
With KiwiBuild not even remotely close to meeting its first-year target of 1000 new houses, and the long-term goal of 100,000 houses in 10 years increasingly laughable by the day, a “recalibration” was promised.
That has now been surpassed by Ardern’s political recalibration, creating a team of senior ministers to tackle the issues he was struggling to handle.
Fixing the housing crisis, said Ardern, was a challenge “too great for one minister”.
That may be true, but it wasn’t what Labour was saying in opposition.
In a 2014 press release titled “We need more houses, not ministers”, Twyford crowed that the division of the National government’s housing portfolio into three was “a humiliation for Nick Smith after his inept handling of the politically sensitive housing policy”.
Those words may now hit uncomfortably close to home, and that struggle across governments to get to grips with housing may explain Judith Collins’ words of sympathy for her vanquished opponent.
Megan Woods, his successor as Housing Minister, does not have an easy task ahead of her, with public and industry confidence in KiwiBuild shaken by the steady stream of negative headlines.
While she has seemed a safe pair of hands so far, most of her portfolios have been relatively low-profile, while her work on the oil and gas exploration ban as Energy and Resources Minister has been boosted by Ardern’s engagement on the issue.
As Ardern is fond of saying, this Government is the first in New Zealand’s history to try a project like KiwiBuild – if Woods isn’t lucky she may find out why.
The elevation to Cabinet of Kris Faafoi, perhaps the biggest winner from the changes, is a no-brainer after his strong performance to date.
He is well-liked on both sides of the House and has turned the commerce and consumer affairs portfolio – in recent years a dumping ground for the less able among the executive – into a role for meaningful action on easy but often overlooked targets like payday lenders, ticket scalpers and wheel clampers.
That work, plus plenty more to come on dealing with the troublesome banking and insurance sectors, may explain why Faafoi did not pick up a heftier new role as some had expected.
Another factor is the sheer number of portfolios he already had, having inherited some from both Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri after their unceremonious exits.
Workload also accounts for Twyford taking over economic development from David Parker, who through trying to solve water issues as Environment Minister and sign free trade deals with the EU and others as Trade and Export Growth Minister has had more than enough to keep him busy.
Poto Williams’ rise to the ministerial ranks was perhaps a little surprising, although less so when you do the math and think of Ardern’s female shortfall.
Williams is one of only five female non-ministers whose Labour political careers predate the 2017 election: of the others, Curran and Whaitiri are not an option for obvious reasons (although Ardern has said the door does remain open for the latter), Ruth Dyson has already announced her retirement come 2020, while Louisa Wall remains as unpopular as ever within the party.
There are some nods to the next generation of talent, with Priyanca Radhakrishnan and Willow Jean Prime taking up parliamentary private secretary roles, Michael Wood becoming chief whip and Deborah Russell moving to chair the (somewhat) prestigious finance and expenditure select committee.
But expecting any first-term MPs to make the leap into a ministerial role would have been a stretch when even their more senior colleagues have been prone to mishaps.
While some were calling for more sweeping changes, in reality Ardern was lacking both in people to move up and, perhaps, to move down.
Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway did not cover himself in glory during the Karel Sroubek affair but has managed to ride out the storm, while personal allegiances and factional considerations preclude the removal of many others.
That may change next year, with Labour more likely to land big-name candidates now it is polling in the 40s, instead of the 20s as it was before Ardern took the reins in 2017.
Of course, there is still the small matter of an election to win.
Whether this is the ministerial team that will head into the next campaign remains to be seen, but if they manage to hold off National and win a second term a more significant slate of new faces is a near-certainty.
* This article has been updated to include Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri in the list of Labour’s female non-ministers with more than a term of experience.