Peter Dunne: What Labour needs now

Strong Governments have strong enforcers and Labour lacks one right now. Peter Dunne argues Grant Robertson should step up.

Over the years, whatever their composition, New Zealand Cabinets have had two constant features: a strong enforcer or fixer minister, and a very long tail. The enforcer/fixer minister usually spends a lot of time babysitting or cleaning up after the weaker ministers, and generally keeping them out of the limelight to the greatest extent possible.

The current Cabinet is a little different, however. It certainly has a long tail, probably the longest tail of any Cabinet in the last 50 years, which seems to grow longer as each week passes. 

But it does yet appear to have the enforcer/fixer minister it so desperately needs.

With the exception of the Muldoon Government, where Sir Robert was his own enforcer/fixer to disastrous effect, Governments in recent times have relied upon a senior minister, usually the Deputy Prime Minister or the Finance Minister to be the enforcer/fixer.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer as Deputy Prime Minister was the admirable foil for David Lange's capriciousness, keeping both the Government on track, fixing all manner of problems that cropped up along the way, and doing his best to keep a restive backbench in line. Sir William Birch was the classic "eminence grise" of the Bolger years, mastering all the detail and, in his own words, "keeping things tidy". Sir Michael Cullen performed a similar role during the Clark Government, and Steven Joyce was the enforcer/fixer during the Key and English eras.

The current Government's problem is that there is no-one performing that role. 

Coalition politics and a general loatheness to become enmeshed in detail rule out the current Deputy (presently Acting) Prime Minister. 

The present Minister of Finance, probably the most affable and laid back Finance Minister since Harry Lake in the early 1960s, is generally missing in action, and has failed so far to stamp much authority on the operations of the Government, the recent Budget notwithstanding. 

Kelvin Davis, the current Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, is more part of the problem, so can hardly be seen as the solution. Indeed, on performance grounds, he must be close to top of the ministerial demotion list. 

The senior Minister, Andrew Little, looked for a time as though he might be stepping into the role, but his credibility and authority were kneecapped by New Zealand First over the "three strikes" issue. 

All of which leaves David Parker, as one with the authority and experience to step up, but he is too bogged down as Trade Minister, Environment Minister and Attorney-General to have much time to do so.

Yet the need is great and growing and must be met if the Government is to avoid locking-in the mounting perception of its failing competence. 

At the time of its formation, ministers Clare Curran and Tracey Martin were seen as its weakest links. Minister Curran's performance continues to enhance that perception, while Minister Martin has done little to dispel the misgivings in her regard. 

But now they are by no means alone. Kelvin Davis has proven to be a disaster and there must be questions as to how long he can remain as Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, let alone a minister. Former touted high-flyers, Phil Twyford and David Clark look increasingly shaky and out of their depths in major portfolios; Ministers Jones and Mark remain ticking time-bombs, possibly joined by Minister Nash and his self-proclaimed penchant for ignoring official advice, while Minister Hipkins could yet go the way of previous "nice" Labour Education Ministers like Phil Amos and Russell Marshall - very popular with the sector, well-intentioned Ministers, who, in the end, were unable to make progress.

Now, these trials and tribulations are not unusual. They happen to a greater or lesser extent in every Government. What is unusual here, though, is the absence of countervailing processes, such as the emergence of the enforcer/fixer, or the minister or ministers performing above their expected levels and becoming Cabinet power-houses who are listened to. 

Paula Bennett was the obvious example in the previous Government, but there were others like Amy Adams and Anne Tolley as well.

This Government is almost a quarter of the way through its term. Despite all its talk, there is as yet not much to show for it. Flagship policies like Kiwibuild or Addressing Child Poverty are either too bogged down in bureaucracy or detail, or too early in their life-span to be showing results. Yet the Government probably has, at best, no more than 18 months from now to demonstrate progress in those areas. The combination of a lax management style from the top, and the absence of key, competent ministers willing to step up to ensure the rest of the team gets on with the job in a focused and disciplined way could prove its undoing.

While political realities and coalition management issues mean the scope for tidying up or reducing the Cabinet tail is pretty limited, the enforcer/fixer issue cannot be ignored. So it is time for "no more Mr Nice Guy" from Grant Robertson. Whether he likes to or not, he has to emulate Finance Ministers before him and become the Government's public no-nonsense, enforcer/fixer. Otherwise the still premature whispers of a one-term Government risk becoming a deafening roar.

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