The week in politics: Reshuffles, retirements, budgets and hacks
Former United Future leader and Cabinet minister Peter Dunne has seen a few cabinet reshuffles in his time.
So he was not too surprised by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s refresh of her ministerial line-up this week.
It was, as Ardern said earlier, only a minor reshuffle, with senior minister Phil Twyford the biggest loser as responsibility for housing policy, particularly KiwiBuild, was taken from him and handed to Megan Woods.
“It is really an acknowledgement that the policy dreamed up in opposition was unworkable and that the minister wasn’t up to making it work. So, this is a face-saving formula. The challenge now for Woods is to take that opposition pipe dream and turn it into a government reality, something Phil Twyford couldn’t do,” Dunne said.
This week in politics the National Party also revamped its front bench team after the unexpected announcement from Amy Adams that she would stand down at the next election, with Paul Goldsmith taking over the finance spokesperson role.
The government get a thumbs up for its budget from the OECD and the IMF while outgoing Treasury secretary Gabriel Makhlouf got a thumbs down from State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes over his handling of the so-called budget "hack."
The awaited Cabinet reshuffle was finally announced on Thursday, just as ministers and MPs began a three-week break from the rigours of Parliament.
While Twyford lost overall control of housing, he did keep the urban development portfolio and saved face of sorts by being included as part of Woods’ overall team, designated with the job of sorting out the housing crisis. Faafoi is in charge of social housing while Nanaia Mahuta retains responsibility for Maori housing and Jenny Salesa remains building and construction minister.
Dunne said he felt a degree of sympathy for Twyford. The minister must feel miffed that he had done all “the grunt work” in housing. The policy apparently had not changed but he was being held responsible for it not working.
Ardern said the government was still working on its reset of KiwiBuild and other housing policy but nothing would be announced until Woods and Faafoi had run a fresh set of eyes over it.
Reforming the Resource Management Act to make it easier for housing developments to proceed was still on the agenda. National’s housing spokesperson Judith Collins is even holding out the prospect of an agreement with her party over changes.
Dunne said there a lot of heat generated over the RMA and that National, when it was in government, had spurned the opportunity to fix the problems specifically tied to the housing market.
“It wanted to have a scorched earth approach and couldn’t get political support for a sort of all-or-nothing approach.”
Earlier in the week National announced some changes to its line-up, with Amy Adams declaring she had had enough of politics after three terms. She will stand down at the 2020 election.
“I just wanted to get my life back and I think that’s human and I’ve always sort of said to myself as soon as I got to that point, I needed to be honest enough, just put my hand up and say ‘okay it’s time to step aside and let someone else come through’. I’ve loved what I’ve done. I’ve given it 100% but the day you can’t do that it’s time to step aside,” Adams said.
Dunne said he thought Adams was utterly genuine and he applauded her for that. He thought that more MPs would come in for shorter periods of time and then leave politics.
“Reading the tea leaves about when it’s time for you to make a career change and a lifestyle change is important too. I think I’m probably not the best person to talk about this having spent so long in the place but I think sometimes people can overstay their welcome.”
In the biggest change for National Paul Goldsmith takes over as its finance spokesperson.
Dunne thinks Goldsmith is very capable technically but he has some doubts.
“My query about him though is just the profile. It’s not been that high and being the shadow finance spokesperson particularly demands someone with a fairly high profile to lead the economic attack against government policies.”
He said after Sir Bill English and Steven Joyce retired from politics the cupboard looked a little bare for National. He would give Goldsmith the benefit of the doubt but the MP would need to get out a lot to raise his profile and start formulating views rather than just “looking like a technocrat.”
The irony of the IMF
Goldsmith had immediate problems to deal with after both the OECD and IMF released reports this week praising the budget.
Dunne said that would have been news Finance Minister Grant Robertson would have been desperate to have got.
“Bit ironic really because Labour likes to attack the IMF and the World Bank and those sorts of institutions as being, you know, the worst of international capitalist cronyism and yet, when they get support from them, they’re more than happy to accept it.”
But he said the OECD and IMF reports were credible and that posed a problem for National.
“National built up the surpluses. National built up the sort of the war chest that the government’s now benefiting from and National could be criticised in retrospect for not having been a little looser with the purse strings when it had the opportunity. So, now it’s saying Labour needs to do more in these areas. It’s got the money, so why isn’t it? It’s got the IMF and the OECD basically endorsing the broad approach that’s been taken. It leaves National in a very difficult position, I think, as to how it can credibly carve out an alternative approach to the same thing.”
Meanwhile, Gabriel Makhlouf leaves the country after eight years as Treasury secretary with stinging criticism from State Services Commissioner Peter Hughes over the Treasury "hack."
An SSC report into Makhlouf’s response to the National Party releasing some budget information early said he had acted in good faith and in a politically neutral way. But it found some of his actions had not been reasonable.
Hughes went further, saying Makhlouf should have taken responsibility for the failure of the Treasury to keep budget information secure.
Dunne, who had worked with Makhlouf when he was a minister in the National-led government, said it was still hard to get to grips with what actually happened. But Makhlouf’s judgement and the “extraordinary set of interviews” he gave after the information was made public by National would haunt him.
It was a case where theTreasury could almost be accused of naïvety over its enthusiasm to sort this out, Dunne said.
It would have been better to have owned up to a “cock-up” and say remedial action had been taken to ensure it would not happen again, he said.
But does the public care?
Dunne said "no" and in three months the story would be “fish and chips paper”.