Restocking the Cabinet: Ardern spring clean packs surprise or two

7:15 pm on 2 November 2020

Power Play - The bolt out of the blue in Jacinda Ardern's new Cabinet is Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Affairs Minister.

Nanaia Mahuta

Nanaia Mahuta. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The job became vacant with New Zealand First and its leader Winston Peters out of Parliament and the role is as important as ever.

Mahuta's appointment comes as such a surprise mainly because it's a portfolio where she has had little to no experience.

Ardern cites her previous role as associate trade and export growth minister, but it is a major step up to become Foreign Minister.

It was a "natural decision" for her to take, says Ardern who says she is struck by Mahuta's ability to "build fantastic relationships, very, very quickly - one of the key jobs in a foreign affairs role".

Mahuta will need to complement those backroom skills with some hard work; she will have plenty of official advice and can call on the experience of colleagues like David Parker, but not necessarily access to the former minister Winston Peters.

The portfolio will only become more challenging as the world grapples with Covid and the geopolitical tussle between the United States and China.

New Zealand will need a deft hand to navigate through the coming years, and someone who can harness relationships with New Zealand's current and potential trading partners, and with the Five Eyes alliance.

Her focus will be on the "multilateral, rules-based system" New Zealand relies on in such turbulent times, and the 'Pacific reset' started under Winston Peters.

When asked about his tenure, Mahuta said Peters had made a "huge contribution" and had shown that if you get the relationships right, New Zealand can benefit.

In her first media conference, she was asked about China's more aggressive presence in the Pacific but said she'd need a bit more time to get her head around many of the "substantial issues".

"I'm still getting my feet under the table," she told reporters.

"I'm inheriting the portfolio from a predecessor who had views and I'll form my views once I've read the BIM [Briefing to Incoming Ministers] and received some advice."

Much of the foreign affairs load will be taken by the Prime Minister herself, and giving Mahuta the portfolio, when the job will mainly be New Zealand-based, frees up other senior ministers who could have been in the running, with big workloads, and major reforms to get on with.

The key messages on foreign affairs will come from the ninth floor, and with Labour holding Foreign Affairs the potential for differing positions should be removed, compared with arrangments in the last government.

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Dr Ayesha Verrall. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Dr Ayesha Verrall straight into Cabinet is another belter - not without precedent; Labour's Margaret Wilson became a Cabinet minister in 1999, and Steven Joyce in 2008 under National's John Key.

Ardern made no bones about wanting immediate access to Verrall's expertise in infectious diseases around the Cabinet table - right time, right place.

Health goes into the safe hands of Andrew Little; Ardern has put her faith in him as someone with no health background to lead one of the most important portfolios in the Covid response.

David Clark and Meka Whaitiri have rehabilitated themselves.

Clark was turfed out of Health ahead of the election more for a lack of judgement than a lack of skill or competence and the more business-focused portfolios may be a better fit.

Ardern's rolling the dice on bringing back Whaitiri, in whom she lost confidence in 2018 after an altercation with a press secretary. She says Whaitiri has done everything asked of her since losing her ministerial job and she wouldn't be back if that confidence hadn't been restored.

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Phil Twyford is out of Cabinet. Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

But to those who have not fared so well.

Jenny Salesa is out as a minister altogether.

RNZ understands a combination of underperformance and the political risk of a very high staff turnover in her office were the deciding factors.

Phil Twyford is the other demotion - while still a minister he's out of Cabinet and loses transport. It looks like he's very much on the way out, with no signal from Ardern he has a potential path back to Cabinet.

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Grant Robertson. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Overall the structure of the Covid ministers makes sense, to have details man Chris Hipkins oversee the nuts and bolts of the response without having to become enmired in the broader Health portfolio; that's been taken up by Andrew Little with back up from infectious disease specialist Verrall.

The most trusted of Ardern's colleagues, Grant Robertson, takes his place beside her as Deputy Prime Minister and will continue to lead the economic response, including the massive infrastructure spend.

Across the executive the stamp of the Māori caucus is obvious, featuring as many of the new promotions both inside and outside Cabinet.

One person who did not make it as a minister was Keiran McAnulty; he'll become senior whip and with 64 MPs (before specials are counted) keeping everything under control with such a big caucus will almost be worthy of a ministerial position in itself.

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