With the Green deal done, attention moves to the top table. Here are some of the problems the PM will be hoping to solve.
The deal with the Greens signed and sealed, the next order of business for Jacinda Ardern is to announce her cabinet. That’s expected to happen today, with the ceremonial business starring the governor general in the diary for Friday.
Ardern has been working away in recent days at the “dreaded whiteboard” to assign the roles, “matching people’s skills and talents with the different jobs we have,” she exclusively revealed on the American app Instagram. “I also want to make sure we use the experience in the team but also the great talent in the wider caucus.”
Under party rules, the caucus elects the cabinet, but the leader assigns the roles. It’s safe to assume that the caucus would go along pretty much to the letter with Ardern’s suggestions on who should make the list, however.
With no NZ First in the picture, four spots become available. That’s assuming there are no demotions, and that Ardern sticks with the slimmer than usual 18-member cabinet, which allows the possibility to promote through the term without jettisoning anyone.
Here are some of the questions we’ll get the answers to this afternoon.
The second ranked cabinet minister in the last parliament was Winston Peters. Remember him? With no New Zealand First, and no need for any coalition with an outright parliamentary majority, the deputy PM position would be expected to go to the deputy leader of the Labour Party: Kelvin Davis.
There has been some speculation, however, that Davis might not end up there. Of his many talents, wide-ranging media interviews – a key part of the deputy PM job in the PM’s absence – does not rank highly. And finance minister and long-standing Ardern confidant Grant Robertson is, let’s be honesty, 2ic in all but name. One of the suggestions that has been circulating is that Davis would decline the deputy spot, while hinting that he had done so in the cause of getting more members of the Māori caucus to the cabinet table.
Yet Davis was there in his capacity as Labour deputy leader yesterday to sign the agreement with the Greens; my guess is he’ll be sworn in as deputy prime minister at the end of the week.
Were the cloning technology available, Ardern would very likely give more than half the ministerial warrants to a group of five: Grant Robertson, David Parker, Andrew Little, Megan Woods and the indefatigable Chris Hipkins. With a few months to go to the election, Hipkins was chucked the health portfolio – one of the highest pressure jobs at the best of times, dramatically more so in these pandemic times.
He tackled that task at the same time as holding one of the other massive portfolios: education. The indication was always that he wouldn’t be able to do both after the election. With major overhauls under way for schools and polytechnics – and the university sector desperately needing its own root-and-branch rethink – the likelihood is Hipkins will stick with that job.
Ardern could, of course, resolve that health is just too important to change the guard again, and have Hipkins stay on, relinquishing education. Peeni Henare, an associate health minister in the last term, has put his hand up for health, but that won’t happen. I’d put money on Megan Woods. Having been whisked in as the fix-it minister for the isolation and quarantine system, she has been closely involved in the Covid response – that and health could be integrated back together. Woods just chaired for the Labour Party the most disciplined election campaign I’ve ever seen, and you get the sense Ardern would trust her as much as just about anyone. That said, it would mean reassigning some of what’s stacked already on her plate – housing and energy, for example – elsewhere.
Who will replace Winston Peters as the face of New Zealand diplomacy? Andrew Little and David Parker are the likeliest options, though both already have big workloads. Given the state of things, of course, it’s likely to be less of a travel demand – more zoom-joining than jet-setting. Little seems a slim favourite, though he’d need to hand off some of his portfolio pile – workplace relations, for a start.
Outside runner: Ardern pulls a Lange and takes the job herself.
Ron Mark and Tracy Martin leave holes, respectively, in defence and children. Shane Jones has vacated infrastructure (more on that in a moment) and regional development. The latter role comes without a big swag bag marked Champion of the Provinces, so assuming it survives could be an extra feather for, say, Stuart Nash. One of Poto Williams, Peeni Henare or Kiri Allan is a decent shout for children.
Defence is a tricky one. If Little were to take foreign affairs, Parker could get defence – a heap of experience and good in an emergency.
Peeni Henare and Willie Jackson look sure to make the leap from ministers outside cabinet to cabinet proper. Poto Williams is a strong chance. Michael Wood, currently chief whip, is an option for workplace relations – or transport, even. Other runners and riders: Deborah Russell, Aupito William Sio and Kieran McAnulty – for minister of utes at very least.
Also: Do David Clark and Meka Whaitiri win reprieves? Maybe places outside cabinet is the best they can hope for for the time being.
When the big $12 billion infrastructure spend-up was announced in January – it’s since been topped up by Covid response cash – Grant Robertson said he’d personally be all over the projects. Making him minister of infrastructure would really sheet that home, in the hope of bulldozing through the sluggish efforts, or non-delivery even, in housing and transport. Speaking of which, while Phil Twyford is the most at risk of sliding down the rankings. For all his hints of hubris it would be unfair to pin the delivery shortcoming all on him – but could he slide all the way out of the cabinet room?
There must be a temptation to move people around a bit – the likes of Nanaia Mahuta and Carmel Sepuloni, who has the background for an education minister, have the talents to take on new roles. But this is, as the prime minister reminded us time and time again during the campaign, a moment for stability. There aren’t likely to be any huge surprises.
Below, a punt at how the ministerial line up might shake down. This guess would see Ardern falling short of her ambition of a gender-balanced cabinet again, with six of the 18 cabinet posts women, or nine out of 24 minister positions. There’d be five Māori cabinet ministers of the 18; seven of the 24 posts. Eight of the 18, and 12 of the 24, would be non-white.
Ministers outside cabinet: Aupito William Sio, Poto Williams, David Clark, Meka Whaitiri, plus the Greens’ James Shaw and Marama Davidson.
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