As problems go, it’s a good one to have – but Jacinda Ardern will nevertheless have to tread carefully in selecting her next deputy prime minister, Sam Sachdeva writes
For all the problems Winston Peters has caused Jacinda Ardern during their three years in government, he has provided at least one solution.
When Peters secured the deputy prime ministership during coalition negotiations between Labour and New Zealand First, he gave Ardern someone with prior experience in the role (albeit with mixed results), while in effect taking a potentially contentious decision out of her hands.
When the Prime Minister took six weeks of maternity leave in mid-2018, Peters defied some pundits’ predictions of chaos by keeping a steady hand at the tiller until her return – some well-worn jabs at the media and a brief break to sue the Crown were as scandalous as it got.
But unless Peters can “defy gravity” as he often puts it, he and New Zealand First seem destined to depart Parliament – and that will in turn leave Ardern with something of a deputy dilemma.
If the decision was a captain’s call, with no regard for the wider political context, she would almost certainly be lining up Finance Minister Grant Robertson as her second-in-command.
The pair have a long history together, dating back to Helen Clark’s Labour government, and when Robertson made a failed bid for the Labour leadership in 2014 it was with Ardern as his intended deputy.
Speaking at Labour’s campaign rally on Sunday, event MC Oscar Kightley likened the pair to “famous duos” corned beef and cabbage, cornflakes and milk, and Eric B and Rakim.
Robertson lavished Ardern with praise when he took to the stage, hailing her “intellect, a critical mind and a strategic brain that very few people can claim”.
Yet both were tight-lipped when asked by reporters whether the Finance Minister had any designs on the deputy role.
That is in large part because the role as Ardern’s deputy within Labour is already filled – by Corrections Minister and Te Tai Tokerau MP Kelvin Davis, who was in fact nominated to the role by Robertson when Ardern took over the leadership.
There was an element of political strategy in the choice of Davis, bringing the party’s Māori caucus behind Ardern as well as Labour’s more conservative elements.
Taking the job off Davis and giving it to Robertson would risk alienating both Māori voters and MPs, with the caucus having already faced significant pressure over the Government’s stance on issues like Oranga Tamariki’s uplifts of Māori children.
That is not to say he does not deserve the role: one of the less heralded successes of the Government’s first term has been Davis’ efforts to reduce the strain on overwhelmed prisons through reducing the prisoner population, while on more than one occasion he has shown himself able to match Ardern’s rhetorical heights.
But Davis would probably himself acknowledge he has struggled with the cut and thrust of Question Time and media scrums when required to deputise for Ardern at Parliament; after some early stumbles, Robertson largely took over the Prime Minister’s House duties when she couldn’t be there.
As Deputy Prime Minister, Davis would have to stand in for Ardern even more frequently, and could not so easily hand off the less palatable aspects of the job.
But taking the job off Davis and giving it to Robertson would risk alienating both Māori voters and MPs, with the caucus having already faced significant pressure over the Government’s stance on issues like Oranga Tamariki’s uplifts of Māori children.
Perhaps Ardern’s other partner could offer her an out: Green Party co-leader and Climate Change Minister James Shaw told RNZ the deputy PM role was “not out of the realm of possibility”.
Shaw would be a safe pair of hands and has known Ardern for some time – yet appointing him could alienate elements of both Labour and the Greens.
Replacing Peters (or for that matter Davis) with Shaw could be seen as moving the Government further towards the left: likely a welcome move for some of the coalition’s left-wing supporters, but possibly resisted by Labour’s more centrist, even conservative elements.
But that might not be left enough for some Greens members, who must ratify any coalition agreement (through at least 75 percent support of delegates) before the leadership can sign on the dotted line.
There have already been some rumblings among supporters about why it is Shaw being lined up for the job and not co-leader Marama Davidson, who is more beloved by the party’s grassroots.
If some within Labour are sceptical about Shaw, they would be positively terrified (rightly or wrongly) about Deputy PM Davidson.
There is a compromise position of appointing co-deputy prime ministers – but it is hard to know how that would work in practice, and could still risk internal divisions depending on who was more of a co-deputy than the other.
The dynamic between a prime minister and their deputy does matter, while you can never be sure when the second in charge may be required to take command, as Ardern’s pregnancy showed.
And the Greens membership may be sceptical in general about taking on the baubles of office if it is perceived to come at the expense of policy gains, such as the wealth tax which Ardern and Robertson are refusing to even discuss during any negotiations.
Perhaps the most likely outcome, although by no means guaranteed, is for Robertson to become deputy prime minister as Davis cites a desire to focus on his portfolios – not unreasonably, given there is plenty more left to do to fix the justice and Corrections systems.
But if he does not make that decision himself, it would be an exceedingly risky call for Ardern to push him out.
At one level, this may seem much ado for a relatively powerless role which merits barely a handful of sentences in the 190-page Cabinet Manual.
But the dynamic between a prime minister and their deputy does matter, while you can never be sure when the second in charge may be required to take command, as Ardern’s pregnancy showed.
As problems go, it is a good one to have – but barring a dramatic change in the polls, it is a problem Ardern will need to face soon enough.