Aces in their places: Luxon plays coy over ministers' competence

6:30 pm on 24 April 2024
Prime Minister Christopher Luxon speaking at post-cab

Prime Minister Christopher Luxon (File photo). Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Analysis - Christopher Luxon framing the demotion of two of his ministers as the portfolios getting "too complex" is a charitable way of saying they weren't up to the job.

In Penny Simmonds' case, the now former Minister for Disability Issues could have started writing her own resignation letter when she said in the House that disability carers were using flexible funding to buy lotto tickets, alcohol, and tobacco.

Simmonds has failed to provide any evidence of that, despite many attempts from the disability community, the opposition, and the media, for her to do so.

Melissa Lee is the other minister who was sacked on Wednesday, and faced the extra humiliation of losing her seat at the Cabinet table.

She's been drowning in the Media and Communications portfolio as closures and cuts at both Newshub and TVNZ have put pressure on her to articulate what, if anything, the government might do to prevent the industry collapsing.

The prime minister fronted a media conference at Parliament armed with a few prepared responses he relentlessly stuck to regardless of the question being asked.

It's a tactic used often by leaders but Luxon has only more recently learnt the political strategy - in the early months of his tenure he could often be distracted and diverted while answering questions as he tried to be agile.

In politics a few short answers to deal with a tricky situation might frustrate the media, but will avoid any further bad headlines when done well.

Luxon was intentionally vague when asked what led to him stripping Simmonds and Lee of their duties - their portfolios have "significant challenges" and "have evolved" since they were given those jobs five months ago to the day.

In short he repeated ad nausem that the portfolios had become "too complex".

He evaded questions about whether it was the ministers not being cut out for the job if they couldn't handle the complexities, or what exactly the ministers had done wrong to warrant being sacked.

Lee, for example, had been opposition spokesperson for Broadcasting and Media for six years and shouldn't have been surprised by any of the problems in her portfolio, which have all been long-signalled both in New Zealand and abroad.

National MP Melissa Lee at caucus run

Former Media and Communications Minister Melissa Lee. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Luxon says he came to the view that he needed to have "senior Cabinet ministers considering these issues".

In recent weeks Lee and Simmonds have crumbled under the spotlight as they've tried to communicate problems in their portfolios and what they're doing to try fix them.

At first Lee avoided interviews to protect herself from the spiralling headlines, but when that only fuelled them further she pivoted and started fronting live on air, only to end up sounding out of her depth.

Simmonds also tried the missing in action strategy, and when she couldn't avoid questions at regular media opportunities she ended up trailing off on answers, leaving the interviewer none the wiser.

Then in the House, on several occasions, she doubled down on her comments about the disability sector and its carers using flexible funding for inappropriate purchases.

The end result is the sector lost faith in her ability to do the job, and repeatedly called for an apology for the comments they described as "offensive".

National Party MP Penny Simmonds in select committee.

Penny Simmonds at a select committee. Photo: Phil Smith

Luxon's decision to sack both women and replace Lee in Cabinet with Simon Watts could raise some eyebrows given the optics test put on leaders in 2024.

But in both these instances competence in the job, or lack thereof, had to trump anything else.

In reality they're both still ministers and Luxon has left the door open to Lee returning to Cabinet.

Performance is the motivation behind Simon Watts' promotion.

He was unlucky to miss out on a spot in Cabinet in November - the number of New Zealand First and ACT ministers negotiated in coalition deals saw him left on the outer - and he's clearly shown Luxon he's up to the job.

It will also bring to an end the frustration from climate and environment quarters over the climate change portfolio being outside Cabinet in the first place.

What this announcement does is send a warning shot to every other National Party minister that underperformance is a sackable offence.

Luxon would have had trouble dealing with this so cleanly if it was an ACT or New Zealand First minister at fault.

It's clear he'd lost faith and confidence in Lee and Simmonds to handle increasingly risky portfolios that will remain in the spotlight. If they had kept their jobs, Luxon may have feared any further damage would extend to him.

While Luxon could have got rid of them in the heat of the negative headlines a few weeks ago, he looks to be making a point of doing things in his own time and in his own way.

Having just completed a successful mission in Southeast Asia he wouldn't have wanted to act before then out of fear that story might follow him overseas and distract from his own objectives.

Luxon told media on Wednesday he'd gone through his portfolio allocations at the five month marker to make sure he had the right people in the right jobs.

"This is how I roll, this is how I lead," he said.

"This is simply about me looking across my team, I want to make sure I've got my aces in their places."

Both Simmonds and Lee, it seems, are not that.