Just like his spaghetti pizza, Bill English has served up another mostly predictable – but also a little surprising – cabinet reshuffle, writes Ben Thomas.
One of the more surprising elements of today’s announcement was that the Prime Minister resisted the temptation to use the media attention on the event to campaign. He failed to draw a line under problem areas like housing and the environment by sacking Nick Smith, choosing to simply remove his troubled confidante from frontline housing projects such as the Tamaki Regeneration Project in Auckland in favour of Amy Adams. Instead English concentrated on filling the gaps created by the departure of foreign minister Murray McCully and education minister Hekia Parata.
Nikki Kaye’s appointment to Education Minister is like protein-filled, predictable cheese. Kaye was the associate education minister, is a very capable politician, the promotion has been flagged since December, and she has now returned to Cabinet after dealing with health issues. It’s welcome, and just what you would expect.
The announcement of Gerry Brownlee as foreign affairs minister is like pineapple on the pizza. Not to everyone’s tastes, but a heartland New Zealand favourite. He’s also been one of the government’s best performers. As Leader of the House, and former minister in charge of the Economic Development, Transport and Energy portfolios, he has a rock solid appreciation of the government’s agenda. As Defence Minister, he has continued to navigate the friendly but thorny relationship with the United States, and do it well. Even more significantly, he is seen as one of the government’s most deserving ministers, having shouldered the hard job of Christchurch minister following the earthquakes in his city.
Much has been made of his supposed bluntness and lack of tact. And only a robot or a political opponent determined to see malice everywhere would fail to notice the personal toll that overseeing the Christchurch recovery has exacted on Brownlee. He’s become much more brusque with journalists – and, regrettably, at times with residents. But it’s wrong to draw conclusions from this about his ability to rub shoulders with world leaders in backroom meetings. His predecessor Murray McCully is notoriously volatile, but by all accounts handled the foreign ministry job with few problems, unless you are concerned about due process or are a sheep. Brownlee is a less polarising figure, and as Leader of the House routinely engages with opposition parties to ensure Parliament runs smoothly.
Succession in his other roles is more straightforward as well, with a well-regarded associate minister in Nicky Wagner taking over the Christchurch regeneration job. She won the blood-Red seat of Christchurch Central for National for the first time in 2011, and then extended her majority in 2014. Christchurch residents may bristle that the minister overseeing government efforts in the city now sits outside cabinet, but the crisis period in the city has long since passed.
The spaghetti on top – the delightful surprise – is Brownlee’s replacement as Defence Minister, 2011 MP Mark Mitchell, who has been singled out for big things. Counting in Mitchell’s favour is that he used to run a private security firm in the Middle East, and is regarded as having particular insights into the geopolitics of the region. He impressed as chair of the Foreign Affairs and Trade select committee, skillfully steering through changes to surveillance law, as well as the ultimately doomed Trans Pacific Partnership legislation. He’s well-liked, and has a crowd-pleasing story about how as a Police dog handler he once left his canine charge behind at a crime scene. Counting against Mitchell, he reported on Facebook this month that he had lost his dog again (Stig was later found safe and well).
That easy line of succession was not as clear cut for the other contenders for foreign minister. Chris Finlayson is important in intelligence and essentially indispensable in the Treaty of Waitangi negotiations portfolio. As for Jonathan Coleman, replacing him in Health with Michael Woodhouse would have created a domino effect and forced a reshuffle of the entire front bench.
The spectre of Winston Peters also hung over the announcement. It’s widely believed he’ll seek the foreign ministry for his chosen successor Shane Jones, as the price for supporting a National government (the same holds true for Labour, which is one reason why approximately 90% of that party’s portfolios, including foreign affairs, are currently parked with David Parker). English immediately denied Brownlee would be going anywhere after the election, but given Brownlee hasn’t yet been given his warrant and Jones is still happily employed as a neutral civil servant travelling the Pacific, that’s obviously subject to change.
Ben Thomas is a public relations consultant with Exceltium and a panelist on The Spinoff’s politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime. He is a former National government press secretary and political editor of the National Business Review.
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