Peter Dunne: PM’s delay does not equal weakness

Seldom has a Cabinet reshuffle been as drawn out or as downplayed as that the Prime Minister is due to announce imminently. Nine months have passed since the Government’s horror month last September when two ministers were forced to hand back their warrants. Nine months of quiet speculation waiting for a permanent response from the Prime Minister to the gaps these two departures had created in her Ministry. 

Many reasons have been advanced to justify and explain this unusual delay. Some have speculated that part of the reason is that the Prime Minister has a limited pool of talent to choose from in her Caucus. That may be so overall, but, as the better performers of the last Caucus intake have been all female, and it is likely that at least one of the new Ministers will be female, the weak talent pool argument is somewhat diminished. There are at least two or three Labour women MPs who could step up to Ministerial office immediately (Deborah Russell and Ginny Andersen come readily to mind), a claim that could not be made credibly in respect of any of its new male MPs. 

Others have seen the drawn-out process as a consequence of the Prime Minister’s personal style, and the perception that, consistent with her oft-stated view that she wishes to make politics less brutal and confrontational, she is reluctant to face tough decisions when it comes to confronting poor performances by colleagues. They point to her perceived unwillingness to rebuke errant ministers, often citing the tolerance for Shane Jones’ many lapses as the prime example, and her ongoing support for embattled Labour Ministers like Phil Twyford, David Clark and Iain Lees-Galloway, and conclude bluntly that she finds the process of dealing with poor performers just all too difficult. While this may be so in respect of her own colleagues, it overlooks the fact that she has little immediate control over her New Zealand First and Green Ministerial colleagues, a direct consequence of the coalition and confidence supply agreements after the last election. 

It is often said that Prime Ministers need to be good butchers, able to dispatch non-performing ministers easily, in the manner of the "Smiling Assassin”, former Prime Minister, Sir John Key. While Sir John made regular Cabinet reshuffles – usually at the start of election year – they were more about replacing ministers who had signalled their intention to stand down at the coming election, although there were cases where he moved ministers on to signal to them that it was time for them to leave Parliament. 

For all that, Cabinet reshuffles are comparatively rare in New Zealand. In part, that is because there is not the tradition here of ministerial resignations on matters of policy differences within the Government as there is in Britain, or even Australia. Nor is there much of a tradition of Ministers resigning because of poor performances within their departments – the last such occasion where that occurred was in 1934 when Sir Apirana Ngata resigned over performance issues in the then Department of Native Affairs for which he was responsible. Contrast that with the failure of Finance Minister Grant Robertson to resign after the leaking of part of this year’s Budget, ignoring the precedent set by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, who resigned in 1947 after inadvertently revealing, in advance, details of the Budget he was about to present. In New Zealand, by contrast, Ministers just tend to knuckle down and carry on, upholding, it would seem, Bob Semple’s notorious comment when his Department was found deficient on one occasion, that “while I am responsible, I am not to blame”. 

All that means that the prevailing political culture means Prime Ministers here do not need to be good butchers like their Australian or British counterparts. We would be unlikely to ever see here a situation akin to that in 1962 when then British Prime Harold Macmillan fired one third of his Cabinet because of falling poll ratings, a move described at the time as Britain’s “Night of the Long Knives”, and prompting the response from then Liberal MP Jeremy Thorpe paraphrasing the Biblical phrase that “greater love hath no man than he lay down his friends for his life”. Or, the type of shenanigans played out with monotonous regularity under both Labor and Liberal Governments in Australia in the last few years, where ministers came and went on a fairly regular basis. 

Against that background, the mystery as to why this reshuffle has taken so long to finalise deepens. Given the limited options available to the Prime Minister, it cannot have been all that difficult. The promotion of Kris Faafoi to the Cabinet seems obvious and overdue. Finding two new female ministers to replace Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri is relatively straightforward, as is a reshuffle removing Phil Twyford from Housing and any responsibility for Kiwibuild, shifting Iain Lees-Galloway to a role less demanding than Immigration, and giving David Clark more assistance. 

It is possible, of course, that the reshuffle may go beyond this, but that would be contrary to all the indications given by the Prime Minister to date. And, as has been acknowledged elsewhere, the Green and New Zealand First ministers are virtually bullet proof, a situation the performance of the Green ministers to date certainly justifies, although on strict performance and competence grounds none of the New Zealand First ministers merit retention.

Overall, therefore, it becomes difficult to escape the conclusion that the major reason this reshuffle has taken so long to finalise is because of the Prime Minister’s distaste for this side of politics. But those who would see this as proof of the Prime Minister’s weakness are getting way ahead of themselves. For all that has been said, the reality is that the circumstances giving rise to this reshuffle have been comparatively minor, making so much of the speculation about it unnecessary and overdone.

Nevertheless, it remains a concern that a comparatively straightforward internal management exercise has taken so long to finalise.

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