27 Dec 2017

True MMP: Ardern as PM, English as deputy

9:54 am on 27 December 2017

Opinion - Just imagine for a moment New Zealand had a truly MMP government. Not simply a majority government elected under MMP, but a grand coalition of all parties that got elected to Parliament. How would it look?

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Photo: RNZ

A government such as this would require true consensus as the parties negotiated their way through Cabinet decision making.

The National Party, which won 44.4 percent of the vote at the election, would have the biggest bloc of ministers in Cabinet. But it would still be outnumbered by Labour, New Zealand First and the Green Party, so its ministers would be governed by collective Cabinet responsibility and have to abide by majority decisions when consensus was not possible.

That might be a step too far but, under this scenario, National would still be part of the government.

Unfortunately for the ACT Party's sole MP David Seymour, given ACT won just 0.5 percent of the party vote, he would become the country's only Opposition MP. In fact, he would be the Leader of the Opposition.

Yes, this is never going to happen. But it is an interesting exercise to speculate what a government representing all the parties might look like.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has already said she wants to engage with National more over key policies on child poverty and climate change, rather than engage in the usual partisan politics. Her deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters has also talked about giving select committees more power, citing the example of Germany where its finance committee can change elements of the budget.

So having a government of all parties - but sorry ACT, not you - is just another step on from that. It would force political parties, whatever their ideological persuasions, to co-operate more in the practice of government.

Under rough proportionality National would get nine Cabinet spots, Labour eight and between them New Zealand First and the Greens three. New Zealand First, since it polled higher than the Greens, would get two of the three Cabinet positions.

As well as reflecting party preferences this attempt at constructing a Cabinet is also aimed at ensuring diversity.

Most Prime Ministers, when they construct a Cabinet, have this at the back of their minds, but more importantly they worry about how to keep party factions happy and how they can ensure strongly-minded egos within their caucus - predominantly men - can be kept in the tent.

So even though Ms Ardern talked about gender balance, she managed to appoint only six other women to her 20-person Cabinet.

While National won most votes there is still a place for pragmatism in the line-up. Based on the coalition negotiations this assumes Jacinda Ardern would be elected Prime Minister by her peers. So here is how the new government line-up could look.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at APEC.

Jacinda Ardern Photo: AFP / APEC 2017 National Committee

1) Prime Minister

Jacinda Ardern, despite no previous ministerial experience, would take the job. Her enthusiasm and understanding of MMP-style consensus decision making will drive the government, but she will need help.

National party leader Bill English.

Bill English Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

2) Deputy Prime Minister

National Party leader Bill English would have to settle for the deputy's role. He would be expected to provide strong back-up to the more inexperienced Ardern. As someone who is more interested in policy debate than political points scoring English would be constructive. He would also be Minister of Social Development.

3) Minister of Finance

Again reflecting the fact National is a minority in the Cabinet, Grant Robertson would hold on to this portfolio. But he will have to operate by consensus and will be helped by a group of associate ministers, most notably National's Steven Joyce.

Civil Defence Minister Nikki Kaye

Nikki Kaye Photo: RNZ / Tom Furley

4) Minister of Education

Nikki Kaye, like Ardern, has known nothing but politics under MMP and has a much more natural inclination to consensus than some of her colleagues. Her approach wins her a high spot in Cabinet.

5) Minister of Health

David Clark will be under pressure managing expectations from the health sector while his National Party colleagues in the Cabinet worry about the cost.

6) Minister of Climate Change

Under this proposal James Shaw will be near the top of the table, reflecting Ms Ardern's statement that climate change is her generation's nuclear-free moment.

Winston Peters reacts to North Korea missile test.

Winston Peters Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

7) Minister of Foreign Affairs

Winston Peters does not miss out and gains a high place as well. It is important to give proper recognition to both New Zealand First and the Green Party in the Cabinet. Under MMP minority voices do get heard.

8) Minister of Māori Development

Nanaia Mahuta keeps this role and the chance to advocate for Māori interests in the Cabinet. But she will not be alone.

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Steven Joyce Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

9) Minister of Economic Development

Steven Joyce will also be associate finance minister which, in this new MMP government, will almost be the equivalent of a co-finance minister.

10) Minister of Crown/Maori Relations, Corrections and Tourism

Labour's deputy leader Kelvin Davis will provide strong support to Ms Mahuta to ensure the issues important to Māori are given due prominence. He will also have more time to deal with the problem of New Zealand's rising prison population.

11) Minister of Defence

This has traditionally been a man's job, but why? This time Anne Tolley will take control. Having been Minister of Education and Social Development - both big spending portfolios - Tolley's got good experience to manage Defence's spending woes. As well, she might give more focus to Defence's difficulty dealing with sexual harassment and violence within its ranks.

Amy Adams speaks to reporters about the government's decision on whether to give compensation to David Bain.

Amy Adams Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

12) Minister of Justice

National's Amy Adams holds on to justice but she would have been under pressure, with the make-up of this government, to deal with the injustices the actual minister, Andrew Little, has already sought to put right.

13) Minister of Treaty of Waitangi Negotiations and responsible for the GCSB and SIS

Andrew Little's appointment is no criticism of National's Chris Findlayson, who worked assiduously in settling Treaty grievances, but a new face after nine years appears to be giving some impetus to the most difficult and intransigent negotiations.

14) Minister of Trade

National's Todd McClay will have the chance to keep on negotiating the new comprehensive trans-Pacific Partnership and chase a host of other trade deals while he is at it. There should be few difficulties here because, despite the rhetoric, National and Labour are on the same page when it comes to negotiating trade agreements.

Judith Collins

Judith Collins Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

15) Minister of Police

Judith Collins' role will be to strengthen the police presence on the streets but without blowing the budget. But there will be questions about whether she can adopt to a more collaborative approach to politics.

16) Minister of Agriculture and Biosecurity

Nathan Guy will continue to be farmers' minister in Cabinet. He would drop other primary industries to focus solely on farming and on ensuring biosecurity risks are managed effectively.

17) Minister of Energy and Resources, Research, Science and Innovation

Megan Woods takes on these roles, which fit neatly with the Climate Change role held by James Shaw. These two, plus Nathan Guy and Steven Joyce, will have to work closely together.

Labour's Carmel Sepuloni on the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee hears from petitioners asking the government to address human rights issues in West Papua.

Carmel Sepuloni Photo: RNZ / Daniela Maoate - Cox

18) Minister of Housing and Building and Construction

Auckland-based Labour MP Carmel Sepuloni will take responsibility for trying to make housing more affordable again, particularly for low and middle income earners in the country's biggest city.

19) Minister of Transport

National's deputy leader Paula Bennett would have to work closely with James Shaw and Megan Woods to ensure transport policy did not run counter to action on climate change.

20) Minister of Regional Development and Employment

Tracey Martin takes the last spot in the Cabinet. She ensures New Zealand First has two ministers and that there are ten women in the Cabinet as well.

Outside the Cabinet there are eight ministerial spots up for grabs and Jenny Salesa, Clare Curran, Damien O'Connor, David Parker, Eugenie Sage, Peeni Henare, Aupito William Sio, Nicky Wagner, Maggie Barry, Mark Mitchell, Alfred Ngaro, Julie Anne Genter, Shane Jones, Gerry Brownlee, Simon Bridges, Nick Smith, Chris Finlayson, Chris Hipkins, Phil Twyford and Michael Woodhouse would all be vying for them.

As it is this Cabinet is still not truly representative of New Zealand. At the moment there is only one Pasifika minister and no minister with Asian ethnicity.

No wonder no Prime Minister is ever likely to put together a Cabinet of all parties or one that fully reflects the country's gender and ethnic make-up. To do so would mean bruising egos and dealing with the trouble that followed - and there would be plenty.

* Brent Edwards is a former RNZ political editor

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