Richard Pamatatau: Labour's new Cabinet has someone for everyone

9:00 pm on 2 November 2020

By Richard Pamatatau*

Opinion - Waiting online for the lineup of a newly selected Cabinet is a bit like sitting in the front row at a mainstream, semi-pedestrian fashion show.

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Chris Hipkins, Kelvin Davis, Jacinda Ardern and Megan Woods. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

One kind of knows and doesn't know what's going to be the outcome of the designer's mind and preferences.

Who is in and who is out?

Who has been naughty and who has been nice?

Will there be something that shocks the customer after a fresh look while keeping the repeat buyers happy without boring them?

Are the ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, party loyalist and hard-working don't-rock-the-boat set of boxes going to be ticked?

Oh and not everyone in Cabinet is getting a mention in this text. It's a columnist thing - just like the PM choosing who is in and out.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivered an almost pitch-perfect line-up with the post-election 2020 Cabinet.

Given Labour won the diversity race the PM had a good selection to pick and mix from. Almost someone for everyone.

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Grant Robertson. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Grant Robertson is the new deputy PM who has more than proved his competence running the numbers across the year.

He's on point and gracious given the persistent whining from some members of the business community who will open their gobs at the mention of an interest rate. He's got some hefty things to deal with - finance, infrastructure, sport and recreation, and racing.

Kelvin Davis was offered the deputy PM gig but declined. Lordy - there's grace in that too - or maybe he's wised up to just how difficult that gig might get as the Covid virus continues to bite and managing the economy and subsequently people gets tougher. He's got a ton on his plate with Māori Crown relations, children and corrections. So much to do and really so little time with a three-year election cycle.

Dr Megan Woods, aka Dr Fixit. At number four with housing, energy and resources and research science and innovation with a side of finance she's got a full slate but so far she's kept her train on the track. No deviation expected there.

Chris Hipkins at five will drive the Covid-19 response, education, public service and remains Leader of the House. Another dependable player with an almost permanent smile on his dial though he has not managed to amass the Fbook live numbers of his boss. Not a biggie, just a thing.

Given the lack of international students in New Zealand plus matters at a range of universities, he'll be busy.

Carmel Sepuloni heading into the Labour caucus where Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will brief MPs on her ministerial preferences for the new government.

Carmel Sepuloni. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Carmel Sepuloni as the highest-ranked MP who identifies as Pacific has a lot on her mat. Social development and employment, ACC, arts et al, and disability issues. Pacific voters have to be happy with this - the highest ranking of a Pacific person ever and some smarts to go with it. This is about breaking through and recognising talent that is not defined by ethnicity or perceptions that sit around that. It's a strengths-based decision that unites what she's done with the what she needs to do.

Doubtless, all eyes will be on her - particularly if Labour is to be even half as transformational as some voters want. Of course, any action will need to be measured against the wishes of those newbie Labour voters who saw the party as a prophylactic against those "radical Greens" because they don't want too much transformation.

You have to hand it to Jacinda Ardern for selecting Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister. An inspired and remarkable choice. On the runway, this would be the item that makes the cognoscenti go 'yes - finally some fresh thinking that is also true to brand'.

Mahuta brings a cultural span to the role that the white men being touted by pundits on Twitter (yes, that place of political whimsy and wish) don't have. The thing about change is it has to be a mix of incremental and wise and this unites both.

Poto Williams at number 10 will please the Cook Islanders around the motu. She's in charge of police, plus building and construction with associate work on the side. Given guns, building issues - oh and guns - not to mention policing matters, she's going to be in the firing line. Williams is not a talk-it-up politician. She's more of a get-it-done person. Watching her this term will be fascinating.

Kris Faafoi has justice, broadcasting and media, and immigration.

Fortunately, with borders closed for the moment, he can direct his attention elsewhere. Justice speaks for itself but one wonders if he will make changes to the broadcasting ecosystem. Arguments for change, and no change can be applied evenly. He is a steady hand.

Jenny Salesa, Phil Twyford and David Clark

Jenny Salesa, Phil Twyford and David Clark. Photo: RNZ

Without being privy to the ins and outs of Cabinet naughty and nice, the exclusion of Jenny Salesa is strange. Was she an abject failure, especially when compared to the white fellas Phil Twyford and David Clark who have retained their warrants?

If Twyford was in the private sector he'd be given the flick for incompetence and over-promising. As for the biking former health minister - who would have thought?

Voters in Salesa's electorate will be watching to see what direction she takes.

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Aupito William Sio. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Last of course but never least. Aupito William Sio. Many people across South Auckland and in the many communities with big Pacific populations will be disappointed, possibly angry he is not in Cabinet.

If the government were an ocean-going vaka it is always the ablest person who is on the steering oar, and that person is always at the stern with an overview of all that lies in front, to the side and towards where people are going.

As Minister for Pacific Peoples, he is always central to the Cabinet of the people who vote for him, first in their fale - and critically that is where it matters.

That he is not in Cabinet is doubtless disappointing but Islander voters know power and reach is often wielded with a soft but certain hand.

* Richard Pamatatau is a journalism academic at AUT University. He teaches public affairs reporting, journalism law and ethics and writing.

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