Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern surprised even some of her own closest confidantes with the appointment yesterday of Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister.
The spin from the Beehive since the election had been that it would be either David Parker or Andrew Little with Little favoured because Parker was needed at home for the Resource Management Act reforms.
That need to keep Parker in New Zealand would appear to be one reason why he is no longer Trade Minister. That position has gone to Damien O’Connor, who was Associate Trade Minister in the last Government.
Little has been drafted into the health portfolio where his long union experience will be invaluable as the Government negotiates its way through the Simpson report’s health reforms.
Mahuta is one of an unprecedented five Maori Ministers in Cabinet along with three Pasifika and one Maldivian and another Maori outside Cabinet and a new Maori Under Secretary (Rino Tirikatene).
It is by far the most ethnically diverse Ministry we have ever seen and must serve as a chilling wakeup call to National with its two Maori caucus members because, as Ardern said, the Ministers reflect the New Zealand that elected them.
“And we all should be proud of that,” she said.
Mahuta appears to have proposed to Ardern that she take Foreign Affairs.
“Like many other colleagues, we identified a number of areas of interest, and then the Prime Minister pondered on that,” she said.
In some ways, Mahuta’s claim to Foreign Affairs would have seemed like a proposal from left field, but in others, it may make sense and Ardern obviously took that view.
Mahuta has established a reputation as a thoughtful and careful Minister of Local Government in her administration of the three waters reforms.
Her work there obviously impressed Ardern.
“For me, it was a natural decision to take,” she said.
“Nanaia has in the course of the last term held an associate trade role, which has given her experience in that area.
“I’ve seen first hand the relationships that she formed through that role.
“She is someone who builds fantastic relationships very, very quickly, and that is one of the key jobs in a foreign affairs role.
“You only need to look at the difficult work that she has had to conduct over, for instance, her local government portfolio And that, to me, demonstrates those diplomacy skills that we need to represent New Zealand on the world stage.”
And Mahuta yesterday showed off those diplomatic skills as she deftly deflected questions on China: New Zealand is a small country and values the many relationships that we have across the globe.”; Australia: “We retain the good relationship we have with Australia.”
And on the Pacific reset launched by her predecessor, Winston Peters: ”I expect that we will continue our commitment again to our closest neighbouring area and our cousins in the Pacific.”
Mahuta is ranked nine in the Cabinet, but one Maori caucus colleague, Kelvin Davis, is ranked higher.
Davis remains deputy Labour leader but has surrendered the deputy Prime Ministership to Grant Robertson. In many ways, this simply confirms what over Covid has been a reality. Ardern and Robertson have been joined at the hip giving rise to their colleagues calling their leadership the “Gracinda” show.
Davis however now heads up a team of Maori Ministers in Cabinet; Mahuta, Peeni Henare, Willie Jackson, Kiri Allan and outside cabinet Meka Whaitiri.
Expectations from Maori will be high, and the revitalised Maori Party will be ever-present to remind them when they fail to meet those expectations.
Davis said Maori had been asking for the level of representation it got yesterday for 160 years.
“This government has the interest of Maoridom at heart,” he said.
“We are very proud to be here representing Maori.
“Our portfolios are very diverse.
“So we are part of the Government that is also here for all New Zealanders.
“But we are also very happy with the role that we will play in Maoridom.”
Nevertheless, there will be tensions.
The Simpson “Health and Disability review” has already attracted criticism from within Maoridom for its proposal for a Maori Health Authority whose role would be limited to policy advice.
There are those who would like it to operate on the so-called “Anglican Church model” which would, in effect, lead to the creation of a separate Maori health service.
Peeni Henare has been appointed an Associate health Minister with specific responsibility for Maori health.
“We made it clear that for Maori health, in particular, there is an opportunity here for an individual Maori health authority and we believe that will go some way to better serving the Maori people of this country,” he said.
“But having said that, I’ve made it clear, and we did during the campaign that actually the institutional racism that exists for Maori exists throughout the entire health system.
“Simply developing an individual Maori health authority won’t solve that.
“So we’ve got large a large piece of work in front of us to deal both with the authority while continuing to push for strong equity for Maori across the entire portfolio.”
The Prime Minister identified health as being one of two key areas that her Government would focus on; the other would be the economic recovery.
And Finance Minister (and now, Deputy Prime Minister) Grant Robertson had some sobering words on that.
“I think it’s important to know Covid 19 from an economic perspective is far from over,” he said at a media conference yesterday.
“And you would have seen it in the pre-election fiscal update, the Treasury’s view that while the New Zealand economy is doing well in the short term, in the medium to long term, those global challenges are going to have an impact on New Zealand so we have a very important job to do to lead New Zealand through its recovery and it’s rebuilt in a balanced way.”
In the short term that will mean discussions with the Reserve Bank about next week’s Monetary Policy Statement. The question will be whether those discussions will embrace the current runaway house price inflation.
And then he is proposing to make a speech (or possibly a series of speeches) outlining the Government’s overall economic trajectory which will presumably draw on questions he asked Treasury back in April at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak.
The five questions were: ”what should we make and do here to ensure our sustainability; what institutions do we need to support our economy; what is the role of the state; how do we trade with the rest of the world in this new environment; and how will the financial system, both here and globally, cope?”
Robertson is now also the Minister of Infrastructure which will mean working with Stuart Nash who has become Minister of Regional Economic Development.
But this time around there will be no Provincial Growth Fund. (PGF)
“We campaigned on resetting our regional development policy,” he said.
“PGF created some very good projects which are rolling out.
“But we wanted to take a more strategic approach around regional development.
“Stuart Nash is now the Minister of Economic and Regional Development.
“I’m going to work very closely with him and in tune with those local councils, business community iwi and so on, to make sure that we are building on what we did in that first term but making sure that we are taking a genuinely strategic approach.”
Yesterday’s announcement was not bloodless; Phil Twyford was demoted and left a Minister outside Cabinet but takes over Damien O’Connor’s role as Minister of State for Trade and Export Growth which means he will understudy O’Connor as O’Connor did Parker and (presumably) take over negotiations on some trade agreements.
Jenny Salesa has no portfolios and will now become an assistant Speaker.
Ardern said all her MPs knew that if they didn’t deliver they would be gone.
“If they wish to succeed, we do have very high expectations, but that’s because the New Zealand public does,” she said.