Jane Clifton: a gutsy and weirdly blinkered National reshuffle

By Jane Clifton In Politics

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Hekia Parata/ photo Mark Taylor

To the traditional snakes and ladders rules of Cabinet reshuffles, John Key has peculiarly added some Monopoly features: the get-out-of-jail-free card for Hekia Parata and a very mean do-not pass-go for poor old Phil Heatley.

Craig Foss is lucky to get off with a hand-smacky miss-a-turn, and the surprisingly undistinguished Nathan Guy and Chris Tremain have lucked into the “you have won first prize in a beauty contest”, advancing a few squares seemingly undeservingly.

This is both a gutsy and a weirdly blinkered reshuffle.

Not since the Labour government ditched the lacklustre Mark Burton has a prime minister transparently dumped a poorly performing minister without pretending too hard that the minister concerned genuinely believed they had “made their contribution” and was ready to stand down.

In this case, however, while dumped conservation minister Kate Wilkinson was already halfway out the door, having accepted responsibility – though not all of it fairly hers – for Pike River safety failings and standing down as Labour Minister, the dumping of Heatley is less obviously merited. His cock-ups in housing were trivial, and while it’s true he never got to grips with the mainspring issue of housing affordability, he was never the horse for that course in the first place.

The housing pickle is a government-wide failure (and the previous government is just as culpable).

If you want a minister to grab a meaty issue by the scruff, you don’t assign the portfolio to a mild-mannered chap like Heatley. He is the one for the just-ticking-over portfolio and policy areas. And for all that, he gave the energy and mining development issue heaps in terms of useful rhetoric, echoing faithfully the gung-ho thrust of Steven Joyce.

Heatley is not a hard-bitten type, and will have taken this setback very much to heart.

Conversely, Key has given two portfolios that notionally were to receive the big step-change treatment to two junior ministers who have so far demonstrated the same mild, unadventurous form for which Heatley has been demoted.

Guy, in the supposedly going-forward primary industries job, will have to light a serious fire under himself to achieve the momentum the Government has portended for the intensification of farming. In customs, he notoriously deflected questions about the worrying dearth of trained sniffer dogs at our key ports by boasting that the number of dog handlers had been greatly increased.

Similarly, Tremain, who takes over the local-bodies job after supposedly massive and repressive reform, which already falls well short of the revolution promised by its architect, Nick Smith, has not hurtled out of the ministerial blocks like a man determined to stamp his mark.

Both men are affable and able – an unusual combination in top politicians – so may yet impress. But on the evidence so far, farming and local body wallahs might reasonably anticipate little excitement.

Screeds of verbiage has already been devoted to the riddle of Key’s unshaken faith in the haughty Parata, whose failure to either get fixed, or finesse for PR purposes, a series of extremely serious cock-ups in education has been legend.

My guess is as good as anyone’s, but Key seems to have bought one successful piece of spin from her: that she is a battling Maori girl from the back blocks who, like him, has succeeded against the odds. This is a stretch given her rather aristocratic lineage. But Key, in his highly successful career as a currency trader, can be assumed to know a thing or two about long-odds gambling, which is what his backing of this minister amounts to.

Nick Smith/ photo Mark Mitchell

No surprise about the reinstatement of Smith. He is a fearless 100-mile-an-hour operator who works well with Finance Minister Bill English, so is a logical choice for housing, given the new and perishingly elusive grail of housing affordability.

Few would quarrel, either, with the promotion of juniors Simon Bridges and Nikki Kaye to the full Cabinet, the junior ministerial poster-whip Michael Woodhouse, or the ranking advancement of Amy Adams. These are among the most promising of the 2005 intake, and fully justify Key’s drive to “refresh” his team.

The grandest, steepest ladder in this upheaval which to its ascender feels a lot like a snake, is that extended to outgoing Primary Industries Minister David Carter, who, to make room for the Cabinet “refresh”, has been frogmarched toward the Speaker’s chair.

It’s a plum job, coming with bowing and scraping, a big swishy cape and platinum-blonde wig for special occasions, pleasant free digs in Parliament itself, and the notional ability to imprison anyone who displeases one at will.

It also pays well and ends in a knighthood or damehood if one isn’t a republican. But though several Nats – notably colourful old-timers Maurice Williamson and Tau Henare – would practically auction their grannies for the job, and in Williamson’s case probably do a cracking job, it’s an ill-kept secret that Carter’s first love is primary industries. He’s also not one of those MPs who has a particular fondness or feeling for Parliament as the endearingly idiosyncratic institution it is. A Speaker needs to be fast on his or her feet, and demonstrably even-handed. Carter is affable, but has always been sharply partisan.

Most riskily, the opposition parties are not wildly keen on the choice of Carter, and Speaker is a job most happily undertaken by someone who commands the genuine affection (or at least cheerful tolerance) of the House.

The most trouble-free reigns have been by mild-mannered, even-handed types: Sir Peter Tapsell, Sir Kerry Burke, and Sir Basil Arthur, who used to defuse ructions across the House by blaming himself for letting rivals play the advantage, sighing, “My kind heart has got me into trouble again!”

David Carter/ photo Ross Setford

Outgoing Speaker Lockwood Smith was a surprise hit for his blithe rejection of the growing trend – under Margaret Wilson’s speakership – to apply a strict legalistic ruler to parliamentary interactions. He preferred common sense, fair play and the ability for exchanges to flow. He’s a hard act to follow.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is specially resistant to the Carter speakership, which, given Winston’s genius for parliamentry disruption, is a combustible state of affairs.

Brutally, Key’s choice of Carter will be taken as a show of, if not contempt, then certainly a lack of decent feeling for the functionality and goodwill that Parliament at its finest needs for fuel.

More by Jane Clifton

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