John Armstrong’s opinion: Rating the ministers in the Labour-NZ First Cabinet

Our columnist rates Cabinet Ministers after their first year in the Labour-NZ First Government.

The Prime Minister is due to give birth and start maternity leave in just one week.
Source: 1 NEWS

Labour Party Cabinet Ministers listed according to their official ranking in the Cabinet and rated on a score between zero and 10.

JACINDA ARDERN, Prime Minister, Arts, Culture and Heritage, Child Poverty Reduction. Score: 9/10

National tried to spin last week’s 1 News-Colmar Brunton poll as good news for the party on the basis that the party had braced itself for much worse. In your dreams, Simon.

The poll was bad news for National full stop. Not only is support for Labour back at levels which prevailed during the Ardern Administration’s honeymoon with voters.

That support seems to be solidifying around that level of between 43 to 45 per  cent. That is around six to eight points higher than the just under 37 per cent of the vote which Labour recorded in last year’s general election.

Put that down to Jacinda Ardern. If National is to have even a slim chance of winning the next election, it needs to pull the rug from under the Prime Minister in dramatic fashion on multiple occasions. That is not happening now.

There is no reason why that should suddenly start to happen from hereon. It has been a very tough first 12 months in the job for Ardern.

Her government covers very broad territory from the reactionary right represented by the more antediluvian elements of New Zealand First to the unbending and stultifying surrender to conformity into which the Greens have at times straitjacketed themselves.

Under such circumstances, disagreement is bound to be the norm. Truth be told, the forced exit of two of Ardern’s ministers is a reminder that she is as likely to be let down as much by MPs from her own party as those from her partners.

In short, Ardern is a class act. The public is entranced by her.

National’s task is to break that spell.

The dilemma for Simon Bridges and company is that no-one is going to thank them for doing that, at least this side of the 2020 election, if not longer.

Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis
Corrections Minister Kelvin Davis. Source: 1 NEWS

KELVIN DAVIS, Corrections, Maori Crown Relations, Tourism. Score: 2/10

Shone in Opposition, but has been a huge disappointment in Government. Appears to have suffered a crisis of confidence.

Now displaying ambivalence about his continuing to hold the post of Labour’s deputy leader — the sole reason for his lofty Cabinet ranking.

GRANT ROBERTSON, Finance, Sport and Recreation. Score: 8/10

As solid as the proverbial rock. Has done much to dispel Labour’s “spend, spend, spend” reputation.

Could be  accused of being slow to realise potential damage to the Government of a slump in business confidence.

Alternatively could be credited with holding his nerve in the face of the corporate sector’s dubious use of the drop in confidence as a weapon to freak Labour out and force the Government to ditch key parts of its industrial relations policy.

Robertson has so far proved to be reluctant to blow his own trumpet.

He has consequently not stamped his authority on the Ardern Administration to the extent that Sir Michael Cullen’s name was synonymous with Helen Clark’s minority regime.

PHIL TWYFORD, Housing and Urban Development, Transport.  Score: 7/10

Unlikely to meet Kiwibuild target of constructing houses at a rate sufficient to meet target of 100,000 new “affordable” homes over 10 years. But it won’t be for lack of trying.

And he may well get close enough to claim victory from the jaws of defeat. 

Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods
Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods Source: 1 NEWS

MEGAN WOODS, Energy and Resources, Christchurch Regeneration, Research, Science and Innovation. Score: 6/10

Found herself on the receiving end of a hospital pass from the Prime Minister after the latter canned the granting of new licences for exploration of oil and gas reserves.

Confronted oil companies with a “please explain” notice over cost of petrol.

Petrol prices then went up - not down. Despite that, Woods’ value as a Cabinet minister is on the rise. Smart and feisty, she is one to watch.

CHRIS HIPKINS, Education, State Services. Score: 6/10

Walking a tightrope on teachers’ pay. If he offers them too little, he will be accused of being mean.

If he offers them too much, he will face the same charges levelled at Education ministers in previous Labour governments — namely that he is a soft touch for the profession and puts teaches’ interests ahead of those of pupils and parents.

ANDREW LITTLE, Justice, Courts, Treaty Negotiations. Pike River Re-Entry.  Score: 8/10

Shod of the yoke of leadership, Little has flowered into being one of Labour’s ministerial stars.

That will have surprised no-one who has known him. The qualities which propelled him into the leadership of Labour are now on full display.

His failure as leader was down to voters’ predilection for style as much as substance.

He no longer has to worry about style. He can concentrate on the substance.

And the results are starting to show.

CARMEL SEPULONI, Social Development, Disability Issues. Score: 5/10

Parliament’s version of Waiting for Godot. Like Samuel Beckett’s play, it is taking a long time for anything to happen in her portfolio.

The blame for that rests not on Sepuloni’s shoulders but the Cabinet’s decision to establish an advisory committee comprised of a veritable who’s who in the world of welfare to make recommendations on how best to overhaul the benefit system.

The group is not scheduled to report back to the Government until this coming February. In the interim, Sepuloni is left twiddling her thumbs.

DAVID CLARK, Health. Score: 6.5/10

No politician ever emerges from a stint in this most demanding of portfolios being credited as a winner.

The trick is to avoid ending up looking like a loser. And, so far, Clark is not looking like ending up being a loser.

DAVID PARKER, Attorney General, Trade, Environment, Economic Development. Score: 7.5/10

Labour’s wise owl. Not just smart, but street-smart to boot. More than willing to confront the tough issues that others would leave untouched.

Keeps his focus on the big picture, rather than getting lost in detail. Shows a tendency to be more frank and honest in his public statements than is normally the case with politicians.

That does not always make him popular. But he would not give a hoot about that.

Nanaia Mahuta at Ratana Pa being interviewed by Te Karere
Minister for Māori Development Nanaia Mahuta. Source: Te Karere

NANAIA MAHUTA, Māori Development, Local Government. Score: 5/10

Pretty much invisible media-wise. But has quietly worked away at engendering a nationwide conversation on what needs to be done to protect New Zealand’s most valuable asset — fresh water.

If Labour is to make progress on that front, it needs to have Māori on board. Mahuta is the lynchpin in achieving that.

STUART NASH, Police, Fisheries, Revenue. Score: 6/10

Has hardly set the world alight. But does not hold the right portfolios to do that. His job is to make sure Labour does not get labelled as soft on law and order.

Nash talks the kind of language which means there is little danger of that happening. 

IAIN LEES-GALLOWAY, Workplace Relations, Immigration, ACC. Score: 5/10

Prior to this week’s snafu over his decision to grant New Zealand residency to a Czech kick-boxer serving time for drug-smuggling, he had impressed as someone solid, careful and unflappable in portfolios which go to the very core of what it means to be Labour.

But as they say, a week is a long time in politics.

JENNY SALESA, Building and Construction, Ethnic Communities. Score: 3/10

Who? Provoked a minor flutter of excitement with a hefty travel bill for her first three months in the job. Barely sighted or heard from since.

DAMIEN O’CONNOR, Agriculture, Biosecurity. Score: 7/10

Experience counts. The farming community’s election campaign fury with Labour has abated considerably. Put that down to O’Connor.

The Tasman-West Coast MP faced a major test in his handling of the Mycoplasma bovis crisis. So far, his decisions seem to have been all the right ones.

***

New Zealand First Cabinet Ministers

WINSTON PETERS, Foreign Affairs, Deputy Prime Minister, State Owned Enterprises, Racing. Score: 8.5/10

Deserving of huge plaudits for refocusing New Zealand’s foreign policy on where it matters and where it can make a difference— namely the South Pacific.

Likewise deserving of praise for having the gumption and fortitude to confront China’s burgeoning influence in the region.

Deserving of equivalent-sized brickbat for his obvious, but yet-to-be explained, reluctance to admonish Russia for the Salisbury novichok poison attack on a former Russian spy.

TRACEY MARTIN, Children, Internal Affairs, Seniors. Score: 6/10

As Minister of Internal Affairs, Martin stumbled badly in her handling of the inquiry into the appointment of Wally Haumaha as the Deputy Police Commissioner.

Far more important as far as her party is concerned is that the flow of bad-news stories seeping out of Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Children, has lessened considerably since she became Children’s minister.

RON MARK, Defence. Score: 6/10

At long last, New Zealand has a defence minister who actually wanted the portfolio.

There is the associated risk, however, that the ex-serviceman gets “captured” by the Defence Force when formulating policy. But there is no sign of that happening yet. 

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones
Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones Source: 1 NEWS

SHANE JONES, Regional Economic Development, Infrastructure. Score: 8/10

Loves to quote Shakespeare, but it is still too early to gauge whether the $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund whose success or failure will determine Jones’ political fate will turn out to be a Comedy of Errors or All’s Well Which Ends Well.

On his current form, you have to lean towards the latter.

Has grabbed a second chance to make a difference as a politician - and is not going to waste it. Has trodden the political stage in the past year in dominating, in-your-face fashion as if he had never been off it.