Speaking too soon

Posted: December 18, 2016 in elections, government, New Zealand
Tags: , ,

So I remarked yesterday on a couple weird things going on in Labour’s reshuffle. This has been completely blown out of the water by National’s hilarious reshuffle announcement this afternoon. For those wanting a comparable diagram to Labour’s, you need to go to twitter for it. (actually, I’m sure it will be available elsewhere, but having found it on twitter already there is no way I am wading through publicity pieces on the Nats’ website to check. I did confirm that neither Scoop nor the major digital media players were bothering to post it, however)

Worth noting is the announcement that Parata is retaining education until May 1, at which point she will retire to the back benches. As this implies a plan to continue sittings of parliament at least into May, this likely rules out an early election, and puts the election timing anywhere between 1st July and 18th November 2017. This also implicitly rules in a by-election in Mount Albert, which the government had been hinting at anyway. Given the relatively low stakes in a final by-election for this term, Labour should consider sticking purely for people power for this one to preserve their campaign warchest for the General Election. It will be a good test, either for Jacinda, or whoever she ends up competing with for selection.

Highlights of the new cabinet:

  • Wanting to one-up Michael Woods as Ethnic Communities spokesperson, Judith Collins is now the Minister for Ethnic Communities. Not only is it a white person, it’s also Judith Collins, perhaps the most odious (in both senses of the word) conservative in National’s lineup. This is a ministerial position practically designed for a liberal, so Collins makes no sense in any way shape or form in this role in terms of competencies or political philosophy, although as you’ll see one point down, it actually makes a certain amount of sense in terms of internal National Party politics, as Bill is essentially trying to undermine Collins with her own base by putting her in the position of either acting like a liberal to succeed, or acting like a conservative and failing at her portfolio. Bill’s approach to Collins is a lot less conciliatory than Key’s was thus far, immediately demoting her after ascending to the leadership, and I’m not certain whether that’s a good strategy for him- it probably depends on whether Joyce can credibly step in and take over the more conservative wing of the party now that he is #3. Collins also has Revenue and Energy, which are actually both important portfolios, but are usually awarded to people who need to be seen as important but aren’t actually valued in government. On the plus side, with Collins in charge of IRD, perhaps she’ll crush some corporate tax dodgers instead of cars. Yeah right. =/
  • The Deputy PM is now minister for Women. (which, honestly, is an appropriate importance to place on the portfolio that literally impacts just over half the population- it should ideally be someone within the inner circle holding that role at the least) She also picks up Key’s Tourism portfolio and grabs Police off Collins. Other than Police, this all makes sense to me in terms of her position as deputy and her strengths as National’s top liberal, but I expect the reason Police is thrown into the mix is that the portfolio is red meat to National’s base and giving it to the Deputy makes it seem like they’re a Law and Order party, and also pinches credit for that particular fact away from the most conservative member. It probably doesn’t signal much of a change in approach on the issues, however. So we’re taking a bit of a turn to a more conservative direction under English, for sure. As usual, I expect a lot of playing defense and publicity and very little substantively achieved under Bennet’s leadership of these ministries that actually owes anything to Bennet.
  • As expected, we get the pleasure of seeing Joyce vs Robertson for future Finance debates. Urgh.
  • The would-be deputy Simon Bridges is essentially moved up into #5 position, making him effectively Ardern’s opposite, which is highly appropriate as they’re both essentially deputies-in-training now. It’s almost uncanny in fact, as they’re both over-ranked for their competence, although Ardern to a lesser degree than Bridges, as she at least is suited to her portfolios, if not her numerical position in the Shadow Cabinet. Bridges has yet to give an acceptable answer to a question in Parliament, although I think to be frank that is seen as a qualifying factor in National’s lineup. There are subtle echoes here of Clare Curran’s entrance into Shadow Cabinet, as this is another promotion that makes no sense when evaluating Bridges’ actual competence as a Minister. Unlike Curran, however, the explanation is readily apparent: Bridges has networks and sway with a lot of backbenchers, and his promotion into the informal inner circle of the “kitchen cabinet” will satisfy them that their concerns are being listened to, and like Nash, his promotion is to mollify his ambitions .
  • Amy Adams is moved into the #6 position, taking up portfolios that basically make her the new Paula Bennet, however this puts her in the same cabinet ranking as Chris Hipkins would occupy if the government changes in 2017. (Assuming, that is, any Green members inside cabinet are unranked or at least ranked separately to Labour ones) This is a sensible promotion and I think Adams deserves a chance to succeed in her social and justice portfolios, not that I’m going to be any less cynical about the likelihood of the government doing good work in those areas.
  • Nick Smith isn’t demoted. There are significant calls for this, but honestly he is probably doing more than you would normally expect a housing minister under National to do. Although the situation is unacceptable, National have largely managed to stall it getting much worse, so they’ve actually done “better” on housing than the previous Labour government, which actually did cause the problem, but it was one they did need to cause to solve the economic problems they were dealing with at the time, so it’s not really much a of a dodge for National to blame this problem on Labour- they’ve had eight long years to solve it, and all they’ve managed to do is arrest the growth of the crisis. There’s certainly an argument that housing needs to be moved away from Nick Smith, but to be honest I don’t see any better outcomes under National if someone else is put in charge. Whether you like his priorities or not, at least within them, Nick Smith is quite competent. And he certainly shouldn’t lose his other portfolios, because good luck finding anyone else who actually cares about the environment to any degree in the National Party caucus.
  • No new portfolios for Nikki Kaye yet. I expect this is related more to her health than anything else, and we’ll see her pick up something significant when Parata resigns from cabinet in May, either Education itself, or by having something traded to her from whoever gets Education. It’s even quite possible she’ll be traded some of the other portfolios lying around once she’s back in politics full-time.
  • Louise Upston and Paul Goldsmith are both promoted into cabinets. I don’t really have much to say about Louise yet, so she gets the benefit of the doubt. Paul Goldsmith inside cabinet is the real Clare Curran of this bunch, a backbencher who deserves to stay a backbencher and is definitive proof that the government has run out of qualified ministerial candidates. This is literally the guy they put up to lose against David Seymour, who went around taking down signs for himself so he wouldn’t win. That is not the stuff ministers are made of.
  • A bunch of new people have become ministers too but none of them are exactly names you’d know easily even if you watch Parliament TV or In The House. We’ll wait and see whether they’re good, mediocre, or terrible.

Unlike Labour, however, National doesn’t have the excuse of a shallow caucus to draw from. They have 59 seats in Parliament at the moment, all but an outright majority, which should mean selecting the right minister for the right role is easy, so any failures here are down to either Bill English failing to square the circle of assigning ministers to the right positions without upsetting caucus or members, or, more likely, to whoever actually selected candidates for and/or ordered National’s Party Vote list. (because they definitely don’t vote on it!)

While National have generally done okay at seeing off ministers whose used-by has been reached, (with a few notable exceptions) this definitely doesn’t look like a cabinet of winners. The political jeering that the leadership is now the “B-team” is looking to extend to a lot of the winners in this reshuffle as well, so I’ll be surprised if English enjoys anywhere near the media honeymoon or the polling strengths that accompanied Key given the announcements so far.

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