Rating Jacinda Arderns second-term cabinet after first anniversary

Jacinda Ardern’s Cabinet has effectively been split into two – those who deal with Covid-19 and the rest.

The rest have not had much of a chance to shine publicly because of the sheer dominance of the pandemic on the political agenda for the second-term Government, which was sworn in a year ago today.

But one minister, Damien O’Connor, who had a dismal start in Trade by making a strained relationship with Australia even worse, is among three ministers rated highest in the Cabinet report card, with 9 out of 10. That is down to his delivery of an agreement in principle for a free trade agreement with Britain.

The other two ministers to rate highest are Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Grant Robertson, and Social Development Carmel Sepuloni.

Both are involved in protecting people and businesses against the worst economic effects of Covid-19 and both have been involved in delivering Labour Party policy, such as lifting benefits and reinstating the training incentive allowance.

The report card finds one minister, Poto Williams, struggling to justify her No 10 ranking in Cabinet, while a more capable minister, Megan Woods, is not being used to capacity.

It finds that Michael Wood, despite an embarrassing backdown over the Auckland cycle bridge, is still the best of the newest ministers.

The performance of the Prime Minister and her Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins have both slipped as the Delta outbreak has gone on.

Ardern’s crown for gold-standard communications has slipped in the past six weeks. Some of her press conferences led to greater confusion than clarification, and tolerance of waffle vanished as the lockdown wore on. But she must take credit for New Zealand having one of the lowest Covid death rates in the world.

Hipkins has done a reasonable job, with the biggest exception being MIQ. He was too slow to respond.

And he sometimes gets himself into trouble for telling the truth, as he did this week when he revealed one option being considered to reduce Christmas chaos was allocating timeslots for the vaccinated to leave Auckland.

While Covid has dominated the agenda, Ardern has handled other major events as Prime Minister.

Publicly she responded to a lone-wolf terrorist attack in Auckland, although she failed to order a comprehensive Government inquiry.

Behind closed doors, she oversaw a perilous military evacuation in Afghanistan – although the Government had four years in which it could have acted earlier to get some of the Afghanis out.

Next week she will have a once-in-20-years-opportunity to chair the Apec Leader’s Summit – but the pandemic has forced it to become a virtual event.


Prime Minister, Child Poverty Reduction, National Security and Intelligence

Has lost her gloss with the onset of Delta; her abundance of caution has been translated into an absence of urgency over vaccinations. Needs to exhibit more steel and less waffle. But on the up side, she has been deeply immersed in all aspects of the response, and after almost two years, NZ has almost the lowest Covid death rate in the world. In the Herald’s Cabinet report card six months ago, she rated an 8.

Finance, Infrastructure, Sport, Racing

Continues to enhance his reputation as a political manager and steward of the economy. Has continually adapted business support during Covid, including a doubling of the resurgence support payment last month. Has to take some credit that, measured by debt, growth, and unemployment, the NZ economy has done relatively better than most. Plus he got to deliver a Labour Budget in May which lifted benefits by up to $55 a week. Previously 9.

Corrections, Children, Māori Crown Relations

Has laid low this term with not much to show. Oversaw a major review of Oranga Tamariki from its most trenchant critics, and accepted all recommendations. The bigger challenge will be to oversee its implementation. Has largely kept Corrections out of the headlines. Previously 7.

Housing, Energy, Research and Science, Associate Finance

Underworked given her ability. Housing is under control. She has some interesting work in the Finance delegation but Woods is not using her considerable organisational skills to capacity. Demerit points for the power blackouts in August and her rush to judgment in blaming a commercial decision by Genesis, before ordering an inquiry. Previously 7.

Covid-19 Response, Education, Public Service

Once a breath of fresh air in the Covid management space, he is suffering from association with slow vaccination, slow adaption of technology and the weeping problem of MIQ. The new lottery for MIQ exposed the extent of citizens locked out of NZ and amplified the horror stories. However, he gets points for his clear communications, and for saying more than he should at times. That happened this week when he revealed one of the options being looked at was allocating timeslots for the vaccinated to leave Auckland. The least waffling of the Covid ministers. Massive workload. Deserves an uninterrupted day off soon. Previously 8.

Social Development and Employment, ACC, Arts, Culture and Heritage

Showing the advantage of continuity in her main portfolio, she is much better this term. Has not put a foot wrong, has lost her snarky responses in the House and is getting Labour policy through. Establishing a standalone minister for the disability sector is a plus. Deserved her extra duties in Arts, Culture and Heritage and ACC but has been let down by recent appalling privacy breaches at ACC. Previously 7.

Health, Royal Commission, GCSB, SIS, Treaty Negotiations, Pike River

Reaping the consequences of being an efficient minister with sound judgment – a huge workload including the ultimate hospital pass, Health. One of the few ministers to admit when things are sub-standard – e.g. the pace of mental health reforms. Fronting more on behalf of the Government, which is a good thing. Great direct style; waiting for the substance to be implemented. Previously 9.

Environment, Attorney-General, Revenue, Oceans and Fisheries

Continuing to do what he does best, head down into the detail and getting on with it. Consumed with reform of the Resource Management Act, the proposed Natural and Built Environments Act. Now if only he could find a solution to the Kermadecs marine sanctuary. Previously 7.

Foreign Affairs, Local Government

Strong on Local Government, in her sixth year of having held the portfolio. Refusal to budge of Three Waters reforms shows just how resolute she can be in the face of opposition. Largely unproven in Foreign Affairs. Has brought a Labour flavour to the portfolio with less deference to Five Eyes and plans for emphasis on human rights. She should have travelled by now to at least Australia and the Pacific. Previously 8.

Police, Building and Construction, Associate Housing (Public Housing), Associate Children

Has made no impact in either Police or Building and Construction – and has done nothing to justify her ranking as No 10 in the Cabinet. Law and order has become a weak point for the Government. Would be better suited to a portfolio aligned with her interests in the social sector. Both portfolios could be given to Megan Woods who could do them blindfolded. Previously 6.

Agriculture, Trade, Biosecurity, Land Information

From almost zero to hero. Six months ago, O’Connor was the lowest-rated minister because he had little to show in his portfolio except for having offended Australia with a lecture on how to handle China. But last month’s NZ-UK agreement in principle last month is a great achievement, helped by his willingness to travel to Britain and Europe twice in six months and isolate twice. The EU deal is almost done and CPTPP is trucking along well. Credit where it’s due. Previously 4.

Economic and Regional Development, Small Business, Tourism, Forestry

The energetic Nash is sadly constrained by Covid-19 and is reduced to putting out press statements with contrived milestones, e.g. this week’s release about $2 billion having been spent on NZ First’s PFG and its puny replacement, or last month’s release on repairs to cycle tracks. Is likely to come into his own next year when tourism takes off again. Lost Lord of the Rings season two under his watch. Previously 7.

Justice, Broadcasting and Media, Immigration

Has gone from a star performer in the first term to a bit of a worry in the second term, particularly in Immigration where responses to Covid have been painfully slow. Has seen Covid as an opportunity for slow major reform instead of urgent crisis response. Is overseeing important work in Justice including hate speech laws, outlawing conversion therapy, reviewing adoption laws, and reviewing election laws. Needs to resume normal transmission. Previously 7.

Defence, Whanau Ora, Associate Health, Associate Housing, Associate Tourism

Has been the most visible face among Māori ministers in getting higher vaccination rates for Māori. Has encouraged Māori to take responsibility for vaxxing and contested the Māori Party narrative that low rates must be the Government’s fault. Has also progressed the Māori Health Authority from concept to development. In Defence, will have his work cut out keeping NZ First’s procurement plan. Previously 7.

Māori Development, Associate ACC, Associate Justice

Still the go-to guy for hands-on co-ordination within the Māori caucus and within Māoridom peak groups and iwi leaders. Has played a valuable role with Henare and Davis in getting wider support for expanding Māori vaccinations, supported by $120 million extra in funding. Previously 6.

Internal Affairs, Women, Associate Education

Nothing fantastic, nothing disastrous. Coming along well enough and could be Education Minister one day, but not too soon. Ably stood in for Sepuloni in the House recently on the issue of ACC patient privacy. Previously 5.

Transport, Workplace Relations, Deputy Leader of House

Marked down for proposing the Auckland harbour cycle bridge. But he swallowed his own dead rat without choking and backed down with trademark efficiency. Has set up an orderly process to reassess light rail in Auckland. Ever mindful of advantages of getting business and unions co-operating on the big issues such as vaccination certificates. Still the best of the new ministers. Previously 9.

Conservation, Emergency Management, Associate Environment, Associate Arts, Culture, Heritage

The young minister is still finding her feet after a three-month absence to fight cervical cancer. Returned in July with lighter workload and has only recently regained Emergency Management. Putting in a lot of work behind the scenes on getting Māori onside for what will replace the RMA Act – and vaccinations on the Coast. Previously 7.

Commerce and Consumer Affairs, SOEs, Earthquake Commission, Statistics, Digital Economy and Communications.

Much of what he does in his varied portfolios goes under the radar. Having better success in Commerce and Consumer Affairs than the Digital Economy.Oversaw changes to Kiwisaver default schemes designed to lower fees, received the Commerce Commission draft report into supermarkets, and passed a bill boosting protections in the Fair Trading Act but all were started under other ministers. Previously 6.

Seniors, Food Safety, Associate Health

Gives expert input at the centre of Covid management, as a recently practising infectious diseases specialist, but there is no shortage of health advice. The more important commodity of political acumen is still developing. Kudos for finally getting folic acid in non-organic bread mandated to reduce birth defects. Still quite a nervous performer in the media and in Parliament. Previously 6.

Courts, Pacific Peoples, Associate Foreign Affairs

Has come into his own this term with clear leadership over the Covid-19 response and his central role in the Government apology for the dawn raids. Also has a more active role as Associate Foreign Affairs supporting Nanaia Mahuta. Previously 5.

Customs, Veterans, Associate Agriculture

Customs is the name but animal welfare seems to be the main game. Picked up her old portfolio of Customs when she was brought back to the ministry last year. But is making her mark in animal welfare, be it over the review of the greyhound racing industry or support to phase out live exports by sea. Previously 6.

Disarmament, Associate Trade, Associate Immigration, Associate Environment

Is making the best of a bad situation. Having been demoted out of Cabinet for a hopeless first-term performance in housing and transport, is approaching lesser responsibilities with purpose. That includes Disarmament and work towards the Nuclear Non-Proliferation review conference in 2022.Also played a key role in getting the right approvals for the Afghanistan evacuations in his Immigration role. Previously 5.

Community and Voluntary Sector, Diversity, Inclusion and Ethnic Communities, Youth, Associate Social Development and Employment

Now responsible for a new stand-alone Ministry for Ethnic Communities which launched on July 1 with a budget of $15 million. It is early days but she has not made much of an impact.
Previously 7.

Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence, Associate Housing (Homelessness)

After a lacklustre start has got some serious work under way in the Family and Sexual Violence space, and has been developing a new strategy. The same can’t be said for the Homelessness responsibility. Needs to show leadership instead of leaving it to Megan Woods. Previously 5.

Climate Change

Has done a great job juggling the competing interests in policy and politics in preparation for COP26, not least those in his own Green Party vs the extremes in the farming sector. Managed to get $1.3 billion for climate aid over four years and a nationally determined contribution (NDC) of a 50 per cent cut of emissions by 2030 (up from 30 per cent). Might have rated higher were it not for the debacle over SNAs (sensitive natural areas) in which he made a difficult situation with councils even worse.Previously 8.

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