Cabinet reshuffle 'a fresh lick of paint for Labour'

8:34 pm on 13 June 2022

Opinion - Well, if that's "minor" I'd be interested to see what a major reshuffle looks like.

Jacinda Ardern has reminded New Zealand of the steel behind the spin in her Cabinet refresh announced today.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announces the new Cabinet.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

While the prime minister stressed that the changes were "triggered" by Kris Faafoi and Trevor Mallard and their decisions to leave politics, Ardern has used this moment to pull the trigger on a number of issues that have bedevilled her government for some time.

A government that has looked stale and listless is making the most of some new faces in the hope that it can achieve a reset not just in personnel but in public perception.

As Ardern said quite frankly, today's announcement is "a nod to the future".

Labour Minister Kris Faafoi has announced he is leaving politics

Kris Faafoi at the Beehive. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Labour needs the public to start to see it in a post-Covid light and an emphasis on younger talent such as Kiri Allan and Michael Wood is an obvious way to attempt that. That pair stand out as a potential leadership combo for the next Labour government when the political cycle has spun its way through this government and another National era.

So the next 18 months is a chance for them to burnish their reputations (or sully them). Both have work to do and weaknesses to work through, but the party will be heavily invested in ensuring they perform well.

Ardern gave Allan as big a boost as she could at this time stating that she has "a big future in front of her". The associate finance role is a common means to give someone lacking a financial background an introduction to the books and bean-counting at the heart of government leadership.

Wood retains the workplace relations role that makes him a party favourite with tight union links. Adding immigration is a real test in a portfolio that has scorched a few careers, but also uses his great connections with Auckland's immigrant communities and allows him to build his reputation in a critical voting bloc.

Of other fresher faces, Ayesha Verrall and Jan Tinetti have been rewarded for a solid start to their ministerial careers, given added responsibility.

Poto Williams' brief stay as police minister is over, however, punishment for her less solid efforts.

Ardern used the age-old phrase that "focus had been lost" and said Williams was still an able minister. Just not able enough to sort out the current crime spree New Zealand is weathering.

With Williams and Speaker Trevor Mallard both gone (we'll get to him shortly), Ardern has removed Labour's two biggest distractions of the moment.

National can reasonably claim scalps, proof-positive of the pressure it has been putting on the government all year. But once the scalp celebration is over, Ardern knows she has a steadier ship and that her opponents will have to find new weak spots to probe.

Kieran McAnulty and Priyanca Radhakrishnan.

Kieran McAnulty and Priyanca Radhakrishnan. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Ardern has also brought Priyanca Radhakrishnan into Cabinet and made Kieran McAnulty a minister outside Cabinet, showing that Labour can speak to a wider constituency.

On the defensive front, Labour's 'safe pair of hands' Chris Hipkins has been given the job of being Batman to Auckland's Gotham, making the mean streets safe for decent New Zealanders before they go to the polls next year. He has his work cut out as the problems do not look like they have simple domestic policy solutions. But if Labour has anyone who can make a dent, it's Hipkins. He's a good hit with the policy hierarchy and bureaucracy as well as being popular with many in the media, meaning he's better placed to handle the heat in that kitchen.

Signalling that housing remains a real worry for this administration, Ardern has given Megan Woods the whole kit and caboodle - building and construction as well as housing - to just get more houses built, whatever it takes. It's pretty clear, before November 2023 she has one job. Lots more houses.

Ardern's other age-old play is to send her good mate Trevor Mallard off to Europe. His departure is overdue, his light treatment by Ardern and co a sign of loyalty over judgement of the kind we saw with Helen Clark and Jonathan Hunt.

Mallard's career, covering 13 different ministerial portfolios, has been remarkable and storied, but he can consider himself lucky to have landed such a plum exit job given his performance as speaker.

This is a fresh lick of paint for Labour at a time it desperately needs one. But new faces can only take you so far.

The real test for Ardern and whatever Cabinet she pulls together is whether she can paint her government in a new post-Covid light and re-engage with a public that is looking to the future; where we're going, not where we've been.

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