Economist Brian Easton takes a look at the political issues facing Labor and the ministers who undertake them

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This is a re-post of a article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It’s here with permission.


We get the impression that any government is faced with two major problems. One is policy management and the other is political management – not just policies.

As a result, New Zealand’s political leadership has often been a kind of dual prime minister in which, basically, the prime minister manages politics and the co-prime minister manages politics.

The second is often, but not always, the Minister of Finance and may or may not be the Deputy Prime Minister. Candidates for duality include Ardern and Robertson; Key and English; Clark and Cullen; Bolger and Birch; Lange and Douglas; Muldoon and Muldoon.

When the two are both capable and working together, they form a powerful partnership. Below them – certainly below them – is the cabinet. Chris Finlayson in He Kupu Taurangi describes well how to classify them, almost like a college degree.

Before becoming a minister, I had already heard a theory about three categories of ministers of the Crown. The first category is made up of ministers who know exactly what they want to accomplish and who work constructively and productively with their officials to advance their goals. The second category is those who do largely what their officials want them to do. They are administrators. The third category is that of those who might be better suited to other areas of work. These ministers usually don’t last very long in office, although some last longer than they should.

I am not proposing to classify ministers in the current cabinet. However, when Ardern and Robertson assigned portfolios last year, they gave those they thought were the first big tasks. So far, most of the work has been at the civil servant level, but given that the government wants to implement (or make serious progress) ahead of the next election, you can expect a few announcements before Christmas.

Here is my list, with ministers ranked according to their ministerial position. Maybe we wouldn’t give them all first.

Oranga Tamariki (Kelvin Davis: 3) Sorting out the area of ​​struggling families has been a constant problem since at least Michael Cullen’s Youth and Their Families Act of 1989. It is not clear that there has been much progress other than relentless reorganization. I remain puzzled as to why Ann Tolley approved the new ministry which has been unfortunately known as the Ministry for Vulnerable Children. It showed how confused the thought was. Davis will eliminate some of the messy edges of Tolley and Tracey Martin’s regime, but it will remain a mess. I would expect that, until they task a really first-rate thinker – if there is one – to look at reorganizations since Cullen and try to learn from past failures, rather than assume the next fad reorganization will work.

Lodging (Megan Woods: 4) Housing is a portfolio that has been turned upside down since the early 1990s under the mistaken belief that housing policy only needs neoliberal remedies. (There were a lot of third-class ministers around this time.) The impression is that Woods is slowly taking over, but the backlog means she might break her promises in the next election.

Response to Covid-19 (Chris Hipkins: 5 backed by debutante Ayesha Verrall: 20) In my opinion, and apparently to most New Zealanders, the government has handled the crisis reasonably well. However, the danger remains that the Covid-Delta will escape, as it did in New South Wales and Victoria. The back-to-school challenge – how to reconnect with the rest of the world – will become increasingly relevant next year. Sadly, both the virus and policy responses to it continue to mutate, internationally. I have a headache trying to follow them.

Child poverty (Carmel Sepuloni: 6) I suspect that the real responsible minister is neither Sepuloni nor Ardern but Robertson. There has been some progress but not enough to keep up with the government’s medium-term goal. We do not have the impression that someone close to the government is really up to the challenge.

Health (Andrew Little: 7) Reorganizing the healthcare system has been an obsession with governments for 40+ years, convinced it will give us better healthcare rather than more administrators. There is a trend towards increasing centralization with the 80-year ambition to integrate primary and secondary health care. The central problem of reconciling control of financial resources in the face of growing demand will remain after this reorganization. Charging the Ministry of Health with yet another reorganization as it tries to deal with Covid flies in the face of understanding. It cannot simply be a matter of getting rid of the elected officials of the DHB before the 2022 elections.

Resource Management Act (David Parker: 8) When the law was touted 30 years ago as the best thing since sliced ​​bread (it abolished a jumbled scheme involving at least 59 acts of Parliament), it created two problems. First, it has localized a range of property rights over environmental resources (including to future generations; this is the effect of its sustainability provisions). Inevitably, these rights have been contested by those who believe they have been wronged. Second, he ignored the burden of transaction costs. I suppose that the main objective of the replacement acts will be a simplification of the administration. Of course, something must be done, but changing the law may not fix it.

(Climate change (James Shaw: 25 although David Parker: 8 will be responsible in Cabinet).)

Three Waters (Nanaia Mahuta: 9) It is not clear that the government intended to have this on its agenda. The current proposal has all the characteristics of civil servants with their own limited agendas and inattentive to real issues and political reality. We await the announcement of more realistic proposals.

The list is an indication of the ambition of the “transforming” Ardern-Robertson government. It seems unlikely that everything will be achieved before the 2023 election and some of the eventual proposals could be very different from their current form.

Adding to the list, there is a need to reorganize the two miscellaneous business departments. Part of the problem is that the Minister of State Services (Chris Hipkins: 5) is overwhelmed by his other portfolios.

The megalomaniac business, industry and employment ministry of Stephen Joyce (nicknamed Mobie as in “dick”) lacks focus and does not perform well. The labor market is a particular problem. There has been no attempt to link immigration policy with labor market policy, with labor relations and with skills development. Responsibilities are also lost somewhere in the bureaucracy and dispersed among three ministers (there is no Minister of Labor).

I have argued in previous columns that the “cultural” divisions (Archives New Zealand and the National Library) did not fit well with the Home Affairs Department, which turned out to be a poor steward.

The above are policy matters. Political problems include rural unrest and the advancement of Maori development without upsetting most of the rest of the country, as well as the political management of policies.


Brian Easton, independent researcher, is an economist, social statistician, public policy analyst and historian. He was the Listener economic columnist from 1978 to 2014. This is a re-post of a article originally published on pundit.co.nz. It’s here with permission.


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