With the reshuffled ministerial lineup for the start of her second term, Jacinda Ardern has truly stamped her mark on her Government, Sam Sachdeva writes

After unveiling her new Cabinet and wider executive, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was asked to describe the team in one word.

She opted for “exciting” – but that was putting it lightly for what amounted to a more surprising overhaul than many had predicted.

It was difficult for Ardern to truly stamp her mark on the executive in the last term.

Roughly a quarter of ministerial roles were essentially taken out of her control due to coalition agreements with New Zealand First and the Green Party, while the unexpected nature of Labour’s success left her with a shallow pool of talent to draw on within the caucus.

There are no such restraints this time around: there are just two non-Labour ministers, and even those by gift rather than necessity, while the party has had three years knowing a second term was likely and able to recruit accordingly.

As a result, Ardern’s reshuffle is not lacking in bold choices, with five first-time ministers – one of whom, infectious diseases specialist Ayesha Verrall, is a first-time MP – and a significant reallocation of portfolios amongst those who did serve in the last executive.

Gains for Māori caucus

The axe has also fallen on poor performers who arguably survived too long last term.

Phil Twyford has been tipped out of Cabinet and lost his transport, urban development and economic development roles – at least his experience stepping on KiwiBuild landmines may be handy as Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control – while Jenny Salesa is out of a ministerial job entirely, with the hardly thrilling consolation prize of a nomination for Assistant Speaker.

One of the bigger dilemmas for Ardern, who to appoint as her deputy Prime Minister, was made easier by Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis’ decision to publicly withdraw himself from contention and leave Finance Minister Grant Robertson a clear path to the job.

Davis insisted it was entirely his own call, but if the decision still stung a little, it would have been soothed by the significant gains made by Labour’s Māori caucus.

The caucus now has five of its own around the Cabinet table, up from just two last term, while Māori caucus co-chair Meka Whaitiri has been reinstated to a ministerial role outside Cabinet and Te Tai Tonga MP Rino Tirikatene is now a parliamentary undersecretary.

Just as important is the work they, and the party’s Pasifika MPs, have picked up.

Labour’s Māori caucus has a newly prominent role at the Cabinet table. Photo: Lynn Grieveson.

As Children’s Minister, Davis may be better placed to rebuild strained relationships between iwi and Oranga Tamariki than his predecessor Tracey Martin (although he made a point of praising her work in the job).

He has also kept Corrections, while Poto Williams has become Police Minister and Kris Faafoi has succeeded Andrew Little as Justice Minister, putting oversight of New Zealand’s law enforcement and justice systems in the hands of minority communities who have disproportionately suffered from ill-treatment.

The biggest surprise of the day was arguably Nanaia Mahuta’s appointment as Foreign Affairs Minister, with most (including this reporter) having expected either Little or David Parker to take on the job.

Mahuta did serve as an associate trade minister last term, and Ardern cited her ability to build relationships quickly as one of the reasons why it was a “natural decision”. She is also the first woman to hold the role in New Zealand, a not insignificant first.

Even in a world of diplomatic meetings via Zoom, there will be some complex issues to navigate in the coming years, and it is understandable why Mahuta swerved tricky questions on China and the Pacific Reset until she had been briefed by foreign affairs officials.

If Mahuta’s elevation to foreign affairs role was a shock, so too was Verrall’s propulsion straight to the Cabinet table.

Ayesha Verrall has made a rapid ascent into Cabinet. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

Ardern cited prime ministerial precedent for elevating new MPs to the Cabinet immediately, namely Labour’s Margaret Wilson under Helen Clark and National’s Steven Joyce under John Key.

But in both those cases, the new entrants already had a reasonable level of experience in the world of Parliament and politics: Wilson had served as Labour Party president and as the chief political adviser to Prime Minister Geoffrey Palmer, while Joyce had managed National’s 2005 and 2008 election campaigns.

That is not to deny Verrall’s undeniable depth of knowledge in the field of infectious diseases, invaluable to the Government in the current circumstances; simply to note that making the transition from physician to politician would be daunting enough without throwing a ministerial workload into the mix (although her seniors and food safety roles are admittedly low-key portfolios).

But while the overall tone of Ardern’s reshuffle is one of transformation, at the core of the Cabinet are the same reliable ministers who helped the Prime Minister through the last term, such as Robertson in finance, Megan Woods in housing, Chris Hipkins in education (and the newly created Covid-19 response portfolio).

It is they who will likely define the success – or failure – of Ardern’s second term.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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