One of the more interesting aspects of Jacinda Ardern’s second Cabinet is the method by which it was selected – something that reinforces how Ardern has become the most powerful Labour Prime Minister since Michael Joseph Savage in 1938, says Peter Dunne

Labour’s practice has always been that the Cabinet is elected by the Party Caucus, with the allocation of portfolios, the appointment of Ministers outside the Cabinet and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries, the subsequent responsibility of the Prime Minister.

The only times that provision has been varied were in 1935 and 1938 when in gratitude to his role in securing election victory the then Labour Caucus agreed that Michael Joseph Savage should pick his own Cabinet. However, that so riled John A. Lee (who was passed over for Cabinet both times) that his small faction began the Caucus revolt that led to Lee’s expulsion from the Party in March 1940, just two days before Savage’s death from cancer. Since that time, Labour Caucuses have always insisted on their right to elect the Cabinet when they are in government.

Until now, it seems. Rather than have the Caucus select the members of the Cabinet and then have the Prime Minister allocate portfolio responsibilities, as was the norm on the last 10 occasions a Labour Cabinet has been formed, the process has been reversed this time. It seems the Prime Minister presented a full package of names matched with positions to the Caucus for its endorsement.

While there was the opportunity for other names to be nominated, the reality was that given the magnitude of Labour’s win, and the totality of the Prime Minister’s control of her Caucus, this was never going to be a serious option.

Technically, of course, the Cabinet was still chosen by the Caucus, but unlike any of her Labour predecessors the Prime Minister has got absolutely the Cabinet of her choice. This is actually no bad thing, as one of the faults with Labour’s traditional practice has been the selection by the Caucus of Ministers not favoured by the leadership. Those Ministers then had to be fitted awkwardly into the Ministry where they could be sources of difficulty in the future.  

All this confirms that in achieving the first single party majority government under MMP Jacinda Ardern has become the most powerful Labour Prime Minister since Savage in 1938. This new Cabinet is unashamedly hers and its successes over the next three years will be a direct reflection of her judgement and leadership. Conversely, of course, so too will its failures.

On the whole, the Cabinet is a careful and somewhat predictable selection, playing to the strengths some Labour Ministers have demonstrated over the last three years, and glossing over the weaknesses and failings of others. It is the customary mix of interesting newcomers, one or two surprise Ministerial allocations, and some winners and losers. And equally typically it closes the door on promotion of some of those who have been passed over this time, and who will now be realising that they may not get a chance in the future.

The elevation of Ministers Peeni Henare and Willie Jackson from outside the Cabinet to the full Cabinet and the promotion of Chief Whip Michael Wood were largely expected, as was the appointment of newcomer Kiri Allan.

There had been speculation that Dr Ayesha Verrall might be appointed a Minister despite having no previous Parliamentary experience, but plenty of relevant health experience, although the general assumption was it was more likely to be as a Minister outside Cabinet, rather than to the Cabinet itself. She will need to be carefully managed, in the House in particular, while she finds her Parliamentary feet, so that she can effectively utilise her wider professional skills, without becoming too easy an early target for the Opposition.

Much has been made of the appointment of Nanaia Mahuta as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Over the years she has been Minister of Local Government she has quietly but steadily built a reputation for establishing good relationships and gaining the sector’s confidence, skills that are essential in a good Minister of Foreign Affairs. Moreover, her ethnicity will be an significant factor in enabling her to project a distinctly New Zealand persona in international relations, something that will be extremely important as the nature of our relationships inevitably changes in the post Covid-19 world.

Aside from the Ministerial newcomers, the big winner in the new Cabinet appears to be Poto Williams who has gone from being a Minister outside Cabinet to being ranked number 10 in the Cabinet itself, holding the portfolios of Minister of Police and Associate Minister for Children, amongst others. Given her own extensive career background in community development and family violence prevention, she can be expected to focus the work of the Police more sharply on its family violence prevention role, working closely with Greens Minister Marama Davidson in her new role as Minister for the Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence. Her elevation is also an indication that the government intends to focus strongly on this area during the coming term.

Another, although much lesser, winner has to be David Clark, returned to albeit just inside the Cabinet door after being virtually forced to resign over his appalling handling of Covid-19 when Minister of Health.

While on the face of it, his new responsibilities are far less onerous, his new role as Minister for the Digital Economy and Communications is an extremely important one, given New Zealand’s position as one of the world’s most digitally advanced governments. He may well prove to be far more suited to this role than he ever appeared to be to the Health portfolio.

Another winner is Meka Whaitiri who will be relieved to be returning to her old roles after she was stood down following staff bullying complaints a couple of years ago.  

But as with all Cabinet appointments, there are the inevitable losers. There will be those who are miffed because they did not get the portfolio they have long coveted or remain further down the Cabinet rankings than they feel they deserved.

In this reshuffle the big losers are Phil Twyford and Jenny Salesa.

Phil Twyford has gone from being ranked number five in the previous Cabinet to being dropped altogether from Cabinet this time around. He is now the second lowest ranked Minister outside the Cabinet. He has lost his substantial Economic Development and Transport portfolios in favour of the comparatively minor role of Minister for Disarmament and Arms Control. While his abysmal performance over Kiwibuild and Auckland Light Rail did not justify his retention as a Minister it would have been kinder for the Prime Minister to have dropped him altogether, rather than retain him in his new almost non-role, where he will be an ongoing point of Opposition ridicule.

The other big loser is Jenny Salesa who has missed out altogether, having been number 15 in the previous Cabinet. Her reported forthcoming nomination as one of Parliament’s two Assistant Speakers is hardly compensation for losing a Ministerial position.

She seems to have borne the brunt of the criticism of the failure of the Government’s housing policy, although her role as Building and Construction Minister was always secondary to that of Ministers Twyford, and more latterly Woods. There is the distinct feeling that there is more to this demotion than has so far been admitted.

In all likelihood, and barring unforeseen accidents along the way, this Cabinet will be reshuffled in about eighteen months to two years, when its strengths and weaknesses have become obvious. As well, some of the pre-2020 Labour MPs who have not yet impressed sufficiently to merit promotion so far, may have pushed their claims more strongly by then and some impressive new talent may have emerged amongst the 2020 intake. Some Ministers may have signalled their intention to stand down at the end of the term, leaving the opportunity for fresh faces to be presented to the public before the next election.

The Prime Minister has successfully navigated the primary task of putting together the Cabinet she wanted. Now she simply has to make it work effectively. That will prove to be the far bigger challenge.

Leave a comment