Three ministers who are overloaded, out of their depth or too influenced by their departments.

COMMENT: Our system of government relies on a strong relationship between Ministers and their departmental officials to work effectively.

Governments work best when officials understand and are in sync with Ministers’ policy expectations. Ministers start to look shaky when they seem unable to impose their will on their respective departments, or when their public pronouncements begin to sound more and more like the bureaucratese officials can so quickly resort to, to cover inaction.

A good example of this was Phil Twyford and Kiwibuild during the first term of the current Government. Kiwibuild was a grand dream to build 100,000 affordable homes over a 10-year period. Despite having been a Labour Party policy for years before it came to office in 2017, it quickly became clear that the party had done very little work in detail to consider how it might be achieved, other than chant constantly the attractive refrain of 100,000 more homes over 10 years.

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Once in office, Twyford quickly proved incapable of imposing that political commitment on the relevant government departments and agencies, meaning the policy soon fell into disrepute and failed miserably to achieve its objectives. In turn, that led to Twyford being removed from any ministerial responsibility for Kiwibuild, and ultimately from responsibility for any aspect of housing policy.

While Twyford’s failure to implement a key Labour Party policy was spectacular failure, it was by no means the sole example of a minister proving incapable of getting departments to respond positively to a key government initiative. Indeed, there are at least three other current examples where ministers seem to be struggling to get the response they want from public agencies for which they are responsible, or where they are starting to look no more than mouthpieces for their departments.

The most obvious example is Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins. Already hopelessly and unfairly overworked in his other roles as Minister of Education, Leader of the House, and Minister of Public Services – a sad commentary in itself on the paucity of talent on the Labour benches – Hipkins has been left by the Prime Minister to bear the brunt of the criticism about the abysmally slow roll-out rate of New Zealand’s Covid-19 vaccination programme. His problem is that he has let the system be captured by the district health boards – the structure his own Government has signalled its lack of confidence in by its separate commitment to abolish them by 2023 – and has now been left bemoaning the fact that he cannot direct the autonomous boards to move any faster.

Yet, he was the minister who accepted the earlier advice that this was the best approach, and the early involvement of general practitioners, pharmacists, and other community health workers in the vaccination process was simply not practical, even though they are now being called in to help. A less overworked and consequently more focused minister might well have questioned from the outset the wisdom of relying on the cumbersome and largely incompetent district health board structure, and the exclusion of other community resources, to deliver the vaccination programme with the rapidity and flexibility required, if New Zealand is to be in a position of safety where it can consider returning to somewhere near normality any time soon.

Similarly, Hipkins’ recent public frustration at the lack of response from officials to his request to look at new more patient-friendly Covid19 testing systems – like saliva based tests, for example – to replace the current intrusive nasal test is illustrative of a minister increasingly unable to get officials to implement his agenda, suggesting he is now working more at the officials’ behest than the Government’s intent.

All this means New Zealand’s recovery from Covid-19 now rests more with the convenience of cautious bureaucrats than the insistence and any urgency of the Government.

Hipkins’ colleague, Immigration and Justice Minister Kris Faa’foi has, over recent weeks, almost destroyed any reputation for effectiveness he had built up during his first term as a minister. His weak handling of the hate speech and conversion therapy issues, and the extraordinary inconsistencies in the way migrant workers and their families are being treated during the pandemic have been astounding. Faa’foi, who is apparently keen to leave politics, looks increasingly uninterested, and out of touch with the major issues affecting his portfolios. His media performances on the hate speech and conversion therapy issues have given the impression of someone who neither understands the complexity of the issues involved, nor wants to get too heavily involved in clarifying some of the challenging issues being raised.

While he has been hampered by a lack of support from colleagues on these matters (indeed, the Prime Minister’s interventions on both topics have been just as confused, adding to Faa’foi’s woes), it also seems Faa’foi has been left largely to his own devices by his officials. There have, for example, been no separate statements from Justice Ministry officials explaining the detail – not the policy – of the hate speech and conversion therapy proposals in the way one normally sees when new government policies are being proposed.

It has been a similar story with the migrant worker issue. There has been a stream of genuinely harrowing stories about various migrant workers in a range of professions and industries separated for a prolonged period of time from their families because of Covid-19. Faa’foi’s response has been lethargic and generally unsympathetic, falling back largely on departmental procedures to justify the lack of progress or interest in resolving these cases.

This all smacks of a minister who has lost interest in his responsibilities, and is content to just go through the motions for the time being. As a list MP, he can leave Parliament at any time of his choosing before the next election without precipitating a by-election, and his current performance gives every indication of a minister already working on his own pre-determined exit path.

And then there is Social Development and Accident Compensation Minister Carmel Sepuloni. Earlier this week, she dismissed an approach from a woman whose husband had died from a cancer related to his work as a volunteer firefighter. According to Sepuloni, extending the ACC scheme to cover volunteer firefighters would not be fair on other occupations or volunteers. In best ACC-speak bureaucratese, she explained that “providing cover for one group of volunteers and not for the remaining volunteer population would be misaligned with the scheme’s purpose to provide fair cover.”

She seemed blissfully unaware of a few facts that may have prevented her making such an uninformed statement. For a start, volunteer firefighters make up around 85 percent of our national firefighting force, and attend the majority of call-outs to incidents. The coverage the firefighter’s widow was seeking is already available to paid firefighters, so it is logically inconsistent at the very least not to make the same coverage available to volunteer firefighters doing the same work. Yet the Accident Compensation scheme for which Sepuloni is the responsible minister continues to regard volunteer firefighting as a “leisure activity”.

In language that might be more expected of a National ACC Minister than a Labour one, Sepuloni says she is committed to keeping ACC fair and financially sustainable. All this would be music to the ACC, which, like any insurance company, is more about restricting the scope of coverage provided than responding to community needs.

Sepuloni has already been under attack for the slow way in which she has tackled welfare reform, with suggestions that she has not been able to get on top of the complex and interwoven benefit and support system. Even the significant benefit increases announced in this year’s Budget have subsequently been shown to be not as universal as promised, raising questions about how much of the detail Sepuloni understood at the time they were announced.

All these ministers are not the first to have become departmental captives – nor will they be the last. Nevertheless, their performances compromise Labour’s claim to be a transformational government. Moreover, they confirm that this Government is no different from its predecessors, following the tradition of cautious incrementalism when it comes to making significant change. They also raise questions about what might happen if the Prime Minister carries out a mid-term Cabinet reshuffle, as is customary. However, the Prime Minister has already shown she wields a fine scalpel rather an axe on such occasions, and with so little backbench talent to draw from, the prospects for radical change are not high.

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