Second term government, third term problems
Thomas Cranmer, Contributing Writer
22 June 2023
They say a new broom sweeps clean, and that is certainly the case with the premiership of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins. However, even he couldn’t have anticipated the rapid exodus of ministers under his premiership. The fallout has left reputations tarnished, with survivors like Kiri Allan grappling after a series of missteps. Meanwhile, Jan Tinetti’s fate hangs in the balance as the Privileges Committee investigates allegations of misleading the House regarding her office’s role in the release of school truancy data.
What has prompted this state of affairs and what does it mean for the next government?
Undoubtedly many of these mini-scandals can be traced back to former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her more relaxed and permissive approach to managing her ministers. During 2022 it was apparent that problems were beginning to mount.
By her own admission, much of the Prime Minister’s time during the last year was spent on the road telling the world that New Zealand was open for business again. Three set-piece speeches at the UN, Nato and Harvard gave Ardern a global platform to promote her own brand of empathetic leadership and advocate for greater online content curation under the guise of the Christchurch Call.
But her travels came at a price. It meant that Ardern was not as close to the domestic agenda as she had previously been. She was slow to acknowledge that a cost-of-living crisis had emerged and was not energetic enough to defend her government’s flagship reforms, the most notable being Three Waters.
By June, one of her senior ministers, Nanaia Mahuta, was facing questions from National and Act about her involvement in the appointment of her sister to senior positions within the Māori Health Authority and Taumata Arowai, the new water regulator. Further revelations that Mahuta’s husband had been awarded multiple government contracts increased the pressure on the government.
Ardern, however, failed to get a grip on the situation. It wasn’t until mid-September that it was reported that Mahuta had had a conversation with the then Minister for the Public Service, Chris Hipkins, about the issue. From those conversations, Mahuta relented and asked the Public Service Commissioner, Peter Hughes, to review the awarding of government contracts to her husband.
At the same time, Mahuta was under intense pressure as she guided key pieces of Three Waters legislation through Parliament. However, in large part due to the nationwide roadshow conducted by the New Zealand Taxpayers’ Union, opposition to the reforms was consolidated. Despite vocal concerns about the co-governance structure of the proposed water entities and opposition more broadly from a number of local councils, the government pressed ahead and passed a key bill in the package under urgency in the House.
It was a chaotic final few weeks in the House before it adjourned for Christmas. Ardern was left stumped when challenged by Barry Soper about whether Three Waters had in fact become Five Waters, and was then humiliated when her minister Nanaia Mahuta had the audacity to entrench a provision within the Bill when it became clear that the Labour caucus had not expressly approved such a position. It was again left to the Leader of the House, Chris Hipkins, to guide the government through the process of undoing the entrenchment mistake.
It was in the immediate aftermath of this debacle that Ardern had her first conversations with Hipkins about potentially standing down from the leadership in the new year. When Ardern announced her intention to resign from her position in mid-January her stated reason was that she had nothing left in the tank but perhaps a more accurate description would have been that she had simply lost her grip on Cabinet.
Upon taking over the leadership, Hipkins set about reshuffling his team, most notably removing Mahuta from the Local Government portfolio and knocking her down to number 16 in the Cabinet pecking order.
A refresh of government policies followed quickly thereafter whereby Hipkins took an axe to a number of unpopular policies. That meant that the unemployment insurance scheme was deferred, the TVNZ/RNZ merger was halted, the introduction of the biofuels mandate was delayed and Three Waters was tinkered with.
The aim was to allow the government to respond to the cost-of-living crisis, as part of a broader shift towards bread-and-butter issues: the economy, education, health, housing, keeping communities and businesses safe, and action on climate change.
Although Hipkins must have had some inkling as to potential problems that could emerge for one or two of his ministers, he appears to have been genuinely frustrated and angry at what has emerged over the last few months. And it is not just the issues but the manner in which his ministers have chosen to respond to them which has been eye-opening.
When Minister Meka Whaitiri decided to jump ship to Te Pāti Māori she did not inform the Prime Minister before her decision became public. Even when Hipkins indicated in media interviews that he expected to hear directly from Whaitiri at some point, his former minister defied him and simply moved on.
Similarly, both Nash and Wood gave several assurances to the Prime Minister that there was nothing else that required attention before further revelations from each minister appeared and forced his hand.
Standing next to the Prime Minister, Kiri Allan confirmed to media that she had only received an in-kind donation from a company connected to Race Relations Commissioner, Meng Foon, before correcting her statement later that day.
Foon, of course, was forced to resign last week in another shambolic episode in which he attempted to go over the head of Associate Minister of Justice, Dr Deborah Russell, by emailing the Prime Minister directly. When his communications were leaked by the Prime Minister’s Office to the press, Foon attempted to revoke his resignation. An attempt which was given short shrift by Hipkins.
On Wednesday, at his press conference announcing the resignation of Wood, Hipkins was asked whether his ministers failed to respect him as Prime Minister. Hipkins would have none of it but he must now realise that this is a Cabinet that has been indulged for far too long. Although he indicated that new “guardrails” would be put in place to better manage conflicts it very much looks like this group of ministers is being placed under close supervision. A response driven by the fact that the Prime Minister now knows that he cannot trust any assurance given by any of his ministers.
It will be for the next government to implement more thorough reforms that regulate appointments, conflicts, donations and lobbying rules. These are also tricky areas to get right and they do, in part, rely upon good judgment to work properly. But if we are to learn anything from the last few months, it is that small indiscretions in these areas can create big problems for any government.
Thomas Cranmer is a lawyer with over 25 years experience in some of the world’s biggest law firms. He divides his time between the UK and NZ. He writes on Substack exploring issues facing NZ under his nom du plume, Cranmer.
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