What’s eating Kris Faafoi?

3:44 pm on 5 August 2021

By Jo Moir, Political Editor for Newsroom

Once a shining star of Cabinet, Kris Faafoi has gone to ground as pressure mounts in his immigration and justice portfolios.

Opinion - Whether it's hate speech law, split migrant families, a proposed RNZ/TVNZ merger or conversion therapy - Kris Faafoi is struggling to articulate what the government's position is.

Not only that, he's declining a number of media interviews in key areas undergoing reform, making him missing in action at a time when he should be front-footing progressive legislation.

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Kris Faafoi is increasingly missing in action in all his ministerial portfolios. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Faafoi entered Parliament as the MP for Mana after winning a 2010 by-election and comfortably held the seat until 2020, when he stepped aside to make way for Barbara Edmonds.

Quickly after last year's election, he upped sticks and moved to Greytown in the Wairarapa - not the world's shortest or easiest commute to Parliament for a busy minister, and a move more typical of someone heading for retirement than one climbing the political ladder.

Newsroom understands Faafoi wanted to exit Parliament altogether at the last election to spend more time with his young family.

But some in the Labour Party convinced him otherwise, no doubt concerned about losing a pair of safe hands from a list that was already thin on experience.

The danger is that by persuading Faafoi to stay, they've retained a minister whose enthusiasm and drive for the job was already waning - and worse, is now resentful for being stuck with the hospital pass that is the immigration portfolio.

Couple that with justice, an area with an abundance of politically contentious and complex reforms under way, and suddenly the pressure starts mounting.

Newsroom understands Faafoi's performance has not gone unnoticed by those on the ninth floor, and his office was offered an additional political adviser to manage the workload. For reasons that are unclear, that offer was turned down.

When Labour formed a coalition with New Zealand First in 2017, Faafoi became a minister but stayed outside of Cabinet until mid-2019.

The demise of Meka Whaitiri and Clare Curran saw him pick up new portfolios, making him the minister with the most wide-ranging of jobs and Labour's equivalent of National's 'Mr Fix-it' Steven Joyce.

At the end of 2019, he had his first public stuff-up when he was forced to apologise to the Prime Minister for promising to speed up an immigration visa application for the father of Opshop singer Jason Kerrison, a personal friend.

He held the associate immigration portfolio at the time, and just two months later he announced he wasn't seeking re-election in Mana and would instead stand on the list.

It raises the question whether the public misstep knocked his confidence and made him truly question whether missing out on time with his young family was worth it.

Just a few months later, he was tasked with taking on the immigration portfolio after Iain Lees-Galloway's fall from grace.

One of Faafoi's strengths is that he's never been motivated by ego or a desire to be leader, while as a former political journalist he has a fair understanding of the sort of questions that will get lobbed his way when the pressure is on.

But if he wanted to go in 2020 and got convinced to stay for the wrong reasons, it's hardly surprising he's checked out and may well be considering a swift exit by the end of this term.

As recently as Tuesday, Faafoi was being quizzed on when his long-touted immigration reset would actually come to fruition - before the end of the year, he informed the press.

Faafoi was set to outline the reset in a speech to stakeholders and media in May, but after he fell sick, his colleague Stuart Nash stepped in at the last minute.

Nash was ill equipped to deal with the questions that followed about what the reset would mean in practice.

Faafoi has never publicly followed up the speech or answered the questions that remain unanswered three months later.

Criticism from those stuck overseas due to the Covid-19 pandemic has reached new heights, with some battling to be reunited with family members and others simply wanting previously approved visas to be honoured.

On Tuesday, Faafoi stressed that if he makes promises to people, he wants to be able to keep them - but as one journalist quickly pointed out, he hasn't made any promises at all.

"That's because if we have an issue with being able to follow through with managed isolation capacity, then we have an issue where we can't go and make a commitment," the minister responded.

In other words, his promises are intrinsically linked to something he has no ministerial control over.

In the case of hate speech laws], Faafoi did accept a request for a sit-down interview with Newshub Nation but probably ended up regretting that decision after failing to answer basic questions about how the law would work.

And just this week his answers to questions about conversion therapy legislation have left both the public and politicians confused about who will actually be prosecuted.

Jacinda Ardern may well be considering a reshuffle at some point later this year, and that might be an opportunity to lessen the workload of the few ministers doing the brunt of the work.

But that relies on having other safe hands to offload to, and while new ministers like Michael Wood and Dr Ayesha Verrall are performing well, the risk is that loading them up will only shift the problem onto someone else's lap.

- This article originally appeared on Newsroom and is republished with permission.

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