The easy part is over for Chris Hipkins in naming his new team, now the tough policy decisions lie ahead, writes political editor Jo Moir

The Prime Minister has dealt with two of his biggest and most immediate issues – the public perception of the politicians leading the local government and health portfolios.

Both roles have new faces at the helm, with Kieran McAnulty replacing Nanaia Mahuta as Minister for Local Government and Ayesha Verrall relieving Andrew Little of one of the worst jobs in politics, health minister.

Mahuta and Little have kept or been assigned senior portfolios, (foreign affairs for Mahuta and defence for Little) but have taken a dive in the rankings, down seven and six spots respectively.

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They’ve borne the brunt of the need to put some new talent higher up the list but arguably Phil Twyford has taken the biggest hit being knocked out of the executive altogether.

Asked by Newsroom how Twyford had taken the news he was no longer in charge of disarmament and associate for trade and export growth, Hipkins described the MP for Te Atatū as being “philosophical”.

The fourth victim of the ranking shuffle is Attorney General David Parker, who has also dropped six spots.

Hipkins told Newsroom Twyford hadn’t indicated any intention to leave Parliament at the election and Mahuta, Little, and Parker had all committed to four more years.

But when asked if they made that commitment before or after they got told their portfolios and rankings, Hipkins deflected. He then all-but-confirmed the commitments were made before they were delivered the bad news.

Arguably the biggest change for the public will be seeing a lot less of Little and Mahuta.

In some respects, the reshuffle won’t look any different at all for those New Zealanders who only dip in and out of politics on occasion and barely engage in the news.

In Jacinda Ardern’s government she held the top spot and the five ministers behind her consisted of Grant Robertson, Kelvin Davis, Megan Woods, Chris Hipkins and Carmel Sepuloni.

Take Ardern out of the mix and the other five remain in the top five spots with the addition of new Education Minister Jan Tinetti at number six.

These are the faces that will continue to front the public the most.

As for the rest of the executive, there’s plenty of change with McAnulty moving into Cabinet and new ministers Ginny Andersen, Barbara Edmonds, Deborah Russell, Duncan Webb and Willow-Jean Prime. But those ministers don’t and won’t get the same face-time as the front bench.

Arguably the biggest change for the public will be seeing a lot less of Little and Mahuta.

So, if Hipkins wants to send the message that this is a new government, it will be next Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting after his one-day visit to Canberra on Tuesday to meet his Australian counterpart, that will reveal how serious he is.

It’s at that meeting of his new team that decisions will start to be made about what on the Government agenda is being scrapped and what it will be replaced with.

Hipkins will use his time with iwi chair leaders at the annual Waitangi forum on Friday to try work through changes to Three Waters.

Iwi and the Government are on the same page when it comes to wanting to steer the conversation away from the divisiveness that now seems to go hand-in-hand with the co-governance aspects of the legislation.

Māori have for months been on the receiving end of abuse from New Zealanders alleging Three Waters is about giving greater rights to Māori than any government ever has before.

Iwi leaders will be keen to change the narrative, but that means some tough conversations with Hipkins, McAnulty, Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson, and the rest of the Māori caucus about how to peel back some of the controversial co-governance aspects without leaving Māori out in the cold completely.

One suggestion has been to create a separate advisory group as part of the new Three Waters structure that includes Māori representation and provides a voice for any decisions, without handing over rights or veto power that could be misinterpreted as preferential treatment.

Hipkins will at least go into that meeting on Friday having announced a reshuffle that has every MP who holds a Māori electorate now being a minister in his Government, with the exception of the Speaker of the House, Adrian Rurawhe.

It sends a strong message to iwi that he takes Māori representation seriously and wants multiple voices at the Cabinet table to help make decisions.

As for the TVNZ/RNZ merger, it’s almost certain it will now be thrown on the scrap heap with the Cabinet instead agreeing to invest more money into RNZ to allow it to meet the demands of changing and new audiences.

That’s a decision Hipkins will want his new team to make – but it must be made in the next three weeks given the new entity is set to begin on March 1.

The other focus the new leader has made clear after his reshuffle is that he’s listening to Auckland and what the country’s biggest city needs in the aftermath of extensive Covid lockdowns and the most recent flooding damage.

Appointing Michael Wood to head the new Auckland ministerial portfolio is a smart play, even if National made the first move when it created the portfolio in a minor reshuffle last year.

With the team and the priorities taking shape, it’s now a matter of how Hipkins plans to execute his plans and how voters respond.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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