Six months of government – the verdicts are in

Political Roundup: Journalists weigh in on the Coalition's performance.

Is the new government transformational? Or just fighting fires? Who are the strongest performers, and who are the weak links? What are they doing right and wrong? These are the questions at the core of reviews from political commentators of the government’s performance over its first six months in power.

For the most comprehensive review of the new government, see Newsroom’s Grading the Government, written by a number of Newsroom journalists who break down the different areas of performance and hand out grades from B+ through to F. Generally, the government sits around a “B” – with health and education scoring highest (B+). The exceptions are immigration (D) and foreign affairs (C).

In terms of immigration, Tim Murphy asks: “Is this the coalition’s most overpromised and underdelivered policy area?” He points out that “The annual net migration numbers remain close to those assailed in opposition as disastrous and uncontrolled. The supposed low-hanging fruit of low-value international education courses and their student work visas have largely remained in place.”

Sam Sachdeva says the foreign affairs portfolio is “one of the government’s weakest areas,” lacking coherence or obvious guiding principles. He points to the role of Winston Peters and his orientation to Russia.

Political management gets a C+ and on open government and transparency the government scores an F. In terms of open government, Shane Cowlishaw is scathing. Amongst other letdowns in this area, the “Official Information Act continues to be treated with disdain, with many journalists holding the opinion that their requests are taking longer, and returning poorer results, than under Nationa,l which was not exactly known for its transparency.”

Martin van Beynen offers up an intriguing perspective in Jacinda Ardern's idea of government is revolutionary. To start with, the normally conservative journalist and commentator claims he voted for the Greens: “The Greens have always struck me as more of a religion than a political party and that's partly why I voted for them. I sometimes think they represent our only hope with their code of vegetarianism, cycling, organics, public transport, restorative justice, Māori empowerment, minimal packaging, international peace, anti-Americanism, diversity, public ownership, high taxation, interventionist government, severe income re-distribution and, of course, conservation. If Jesus were reborn in New Zealand he would walk straight into the Green Party.”

Not only that, he appears genuinely excited about the promise of “a government based on kindness”. He looks at both the possibilities and limitations of kindness as a guiding principle and concludes: “Kindness, like Christianity, might be one of those great ideas that just hasn't been tried yet. It could be that Jacinda Ardern is exactly the person to lead the way – and what a trip it could be.”

For another enthusiastic and interesting account of the new government, see Simon Wilson’s feature article: The ministry of 'things will be different now' – how are they doing? Wilson argues this government is heading in the direction of being a transformational one, and his column is a nice counterpoint to critics bemoaning the lack of radicalism and progress in the new administration.

Mr Wilson is full of praise for accomplishments so far, and points to factors inhibiting change that the government has had to contend with, including support partners pulling in different directions. And he emphasises the new administration is having to work hard to introduce new directions that will actually take the public along with it, rather than just govern by decree with radical new directions that might easily be reversed in the future.

He points to the oil and gas announcement as “a model of how to introduce radical change without giving those affected any good reason to panic.” And he credits the Greens as being behind the move, highlighting “the importance of the Green Party in setting the government's transformational agenda.”

Other areas that are truly radical, according to Mr Wilson, are in education (with the abolition of National Standards, and the potential major reform of the Tomorrow’s Schools model), transport (with the draft Government Policy Statement) and Grant Robertson’s adoption of the Treasury’s Living Standards Framework.

Even in the area of tax reform, Mr Wilson sees reason to be optimistic about radical change coming. And, although he’s critical of the Budget Responsibility Rules, he says this issue “will not define how transformational this government really is. The big projects that are still possible will do that.”

He laments that the government has failed to make te reo Maori compulsory in schools, which would make New Zealand “culturally, the most resilient nation in the world”. And on wages and pay equity, Mr Wilson is less optimistic about real change.

Writing before Mr van Beynen took up the theme of kindness, Mr Wilson concludes: “Is it possible to run an effective government powered by kindness? If Ardern and her colleagues can show us the answer is yes, what would that change? Almost everything?”

Colin James is much less convinced that we are seeing a radical new government in action, suggesting the administration might instead be one of “transition,” especially in terms of shifting power to “the post-baby-boom generations” – see: Govt looks transitional at this stage but could yet be transformational.

He argues “fixing shortfalls is not transformation – or even transition. Neither, so far, are the dozens – or scores, depending what you count – of reviews, working groups, strategies and so on. They open issues up rather than open up ‘bold'’ (another Ardern word) new vistas. For example, the education review reads more like adjustments to the 2010s than anticipation of the 2020s.”

James does concede incremental change can still add up to transformation. But, like other commentators, he points to factors holding back the new government’s reforming agenda: “First, substandard political management: ministers' slips and skids (Clare Curran, Shane Jones, Eugenie Sage), and off-script support parties (Russia, Air New Zealand) plus a broken promise on fuel tax. Too much of this will, in time, leach public goodwill. Second: support parties' travails. Polls put New Zealand First well below the 5% cutoff point. The Greens' score is steady but Marama Davidson's big win in the co-leader vote deepens their green-red schism and leaves James Shaw as minority co-leader.”

Jo Moir evaluates the performance of government ministers in her article, Six months on the job for the Government – who is up and who is down? And the prize for the strongest performer doesn’t go to the prime minister but to the Minister of Justice, Andrew Little, who gets a rating of 9/10.

Other strong performers, with 8/10 ratings, are David Parker, Shane Jones, and Jacinda Ardern. The PM gets marked down on her failure to deliver on child poverty: “She really focused on it during the campaign and created the Child Poverty Reduction portfolio but that's about where it stopped.” Meanwhile, the regional development minister is praised for his impact and colourfulness: “Shane Jones has been lapping up the headlines and has also had the job of going a bit rogue when necessary. If he was being measured on headlines and sound bytes Jones would be well in the lead.”

At the other end of the spectrum Moir awards only 3/10 to “the invisible trio” of Nanaia Mahuta, Jenny Salesa, and Carmel Sepuloni, all of whom might have been expected to be performing strongly, but haven’t “really been seen or heard.” Labour’s deputy Kelvin Davis scores 2/10, as his “stints as acting prime minister haven't gone too well and he hasn't really stamped his mark on the Corrections portfolio.” And Clare Curran rates a dismal 1/10, as she is “struggling to bounce back” from her scandal and may not hold on to her ministerial position.

Audrey Young also evaluates the ministers in her column, Jacinda Ardern has come through turbulent times but her cabinet has had mixed success. She points to the fact that the PM now knows that “she cannot rely on all ministers to handle difficulties in their portfolios well,” and says Ms Curran is now “a slow-moving target for the Opposition.”

However, Ms Young focuses mainly on ministers who are doing well and helping Ms Ardern make the government a success. She says Grant Robertson and Phil Twyford “are part of her informal kitchen cabinet along with Chris Hipkins, Megan Woods and Kelvin Davis. Andrew Little and David Parker are also highly trusted as ministers of sound judgment with difficult portfolios.”

Winston Peters, too, may have raised some eyebrows as Minister for Foreign Affairs, “but in his duties as Ms Ardern's Deputy Prime Minister by and large he has been very good.” Also from Mr Peters’ party, “Tracey Martin is New Zealand First's best performing minister and showing why Ms Ardern had the confidence to make her Children's Minister. Meanwhile, Mr Jones “is effectively No 2 in the party that put Labour in power. He behaves with impunity because he has impunity.”

Young also points out that, “A couple of low-ranked ministers, Kris Faafoi outside the cabinet and Iain Lee-Galloway in the cabinet have really shone in their diverse portfolios.”

For a more humorous evaluation that also makes serious points, see Jenna Lynch and Anna Bracewell-Worrall’s Six months in: the new Government's report card. As with other commentaries, they point out problems in the first six months: the Labour Party youth camp, the vagueness about Russian issues, and the Clare Curran-RNZ scandal.

This article adds to the consensus that Andrew Little is the surprise star of the new government, David Parker the rock behind the scenes, Kelvin Davis is missing in action, Winston Peters is a good deputy prime minister and Shane Jones is now the front person for New Zealand First.

Mr Davis, in particular, gets a hard time, with these journalists pointing out that he had a lot to say about what was wrong with the status quo when he was in opposition, and he made plenty of promises, but is now not fronting up: “He's yet to make any major – or minor – announcements.”

They warn that Labour’s coalition partners are in danger of blending in too much with Labour. Mr Peters, for example, doesn’t even talk about some of his party’s main policies: “We've heard almost no complaints from him on immigration and he hasn't mentioned the Maori seats at all.” And James Shaw is “too well behaved” and therefore endangering the Greens' identity.

But they regard the government as having made good progress on some core policies, such as fee-free education, the oil and gas issue, the fuel tax and the families package to alleviate hardship.

More progress is demanded from Duncan Garner in his review: Government's six months in a leaky boat – captain overboard. Here’s his main point: “Jacinda Ardern's stardust must turn to something useful and quickly. Voters are impatient. A slew of reviews only leads to paralysis by analysis. The government's hands are full but with not much to show for it. And I haven't even touched on their populist promises to slash immigration and fix the deeply troubled mental health service. The stardust must turn to something more concrete – solutions, not slogans, trains, not talk and houses, not just hope.”

Expectations are high, he says, with promises such as “$28b worth of roads and 100,000 homes in 10 years” but failing to meet these expectations will hurt the government. He identifies the weak links (“Kelvin Davis, Carmel Sepuloni, Clare Curran”) and praises Ardern for pulling “together the loose strands to make it all that more acceptable.”

Mr Garner sums up the first six months: “Things have been a bit average, sometimes chaotic and muddled with a sideshow or two but with the best of intentions and hugely lofty goals and ambitions, if not a little naive.”

Finally, for how the cartoonists see the government’s achievements and problems so far, see my blog post, Cartoons on the first six months of the new government.

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