Jacinda Ardern’s cabinet reshuffle needs to send a message to voters that she’s serious about refreshing her team ahead of the election. Tuesday’s three ministerial retirements provided little help on that front, writes political editor Jo Moir.
Ministers have a job to do this summer finding work programmes that can go on the chopping block so the Prime Minister can kick off election year with a sharp focus on a much smaller set of reforms.
Some of those ministers will be wondering what job they might end up with as Jacinda Ardern prepares to announce her new line-up in January.
Retirements usually provide an opportunity to easily refresh the team by making room to bring in plenty of new blood while also freeing up meaty portfolios to promote well-performing ministers into more senior roles.
But on Tuesday just three ministers announced they were calling time on Parliament at the next election and none of them have particularly high-profile or challenging portfolios for Ardern to utilise in her shake-up.
Commerce and Consumer Affairs, Digital Economy, State Owned Enterprises and Statistics Minister David Clark, Minister for Pacific Peoples and Courts Aupito William Sio, and Conservation and Disability Issues Minister Poto Williams will all leave at the 2023 election.
While those portfolios will be useful for Ardern to promote first-time ministers into controversy-free jobs, it won’t be enough of a step change to send the sort of message Ardern is signalling is needed.
That means those ministers already in the top jobs will need to be shuffled around to make it seem like there’s actually been some real change.
Some of Ardern’s most senior ministers are already loaded up and she will be loath to have just a handful doing the bulk of the legwork, as that will leave her open to criticism from the Opposition and the public that she’s short on talent.
If Ardern decides to push ahead with the merger it would do little to inspire confidence in the reforms if she was to appoint a fourth minister in five years to the portfolio.
While the likes of Grant Robertson and Chris Hipkins will stay put in finance and police, respectively, Ardern will need to consider how best to shake up other areas like health, education, justice, immigration, local government, and Māori development with a mixture of ministers she already has and the best of the new blood coming through.
Wairarapa MP Kieran McAnulty was promoted to the executive in June when Kris Faafoi left Parliament, and while he is already associate minister of local government, it would come as no surprise if he was given the top job.
That would remove Nanaia Mahuta from the controversy that she has been front and centre of while the Three Waters issue has bubbled away.
Broadcasting and Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson could end up with little work on his plate in the new year if both the United Nations declaration plan and the TVNZ/RNZ merger are put on the chopping block.
If Ardern decides to push ahead with the merger it would do little to inspire confidence in the reforms if she were to appoint a fourth minister in five years to the portfolio.
The best-performing ministers the Prime Minister has will need to be carefully spread across areas where Labour is vulnerable to attacks and where reform is pushing ahead.
In some cases, keeping the status quo will be the best option.
It may well be that Sio stays on as Minister for Pacific Peoples until he leaves, and given the amount of work Clark has done around supermarket and building material competition it might make better sense to keep him where he is.
Labour’s class of 2020 brought some huge talent into the caucus, and Ardern will be looking to see who is best placed to step up in an election year, and importantly, least likely to attract negative headlines in the process.
Barbara Edmonds, Camilla Belich, Tangi Utikere, and Rachel Brooking are all tipped as potential additions to the executive.
Ardern’s biggest job after deciding what work programmes to cut and which ones to keep will be choosing the best minister to front them.
Transport, Immigration and Workplace and Safety minister Michael Wood has proven himself a safe pair of hands in Cabinet and with fair pay agreements passed, he could be freed up to take on something hefty and new.
Justice Minister Kiri Allan has struggled under the weight of a portfolio full of complicated and contentious reforms, many of which have left her exposed in interviews and in the House.
Ardern could see fit to find a portfolio better suited to Allan’s skills and particular style.
Housing Minister Megan Woods is Cabinet’s highest-ranked woman after Ardern but will be swamped with her role as Labour’s campaign chair leaving her little time to take on much else in 2023.
It will be a particularly busy year ahead for some Labour MPs, but for others it could be quieter than they expected.