Prime minister Chris Hipkins has lost three ministers in five months including Michael Wood, Stuart Nash and Meka Whatiri (Image design: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)
Prime minister Chris Hipkins has lost three ministers in five months including Michael Wood, Stuart Nash and Meka Whatiri (Image design: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

The BulletinJune 22, 2023

Three ministers down but not out?

Prime minister Chris Hipkins has lost three ministers in five months including Michael Wood, Stuart Nash and Meka Whatiri (Image design: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)
Prime minister Chris Hipkins has lost three ministers in five months including Michael Wood, Stuart Nash and Meka Whatiri (Image design: Anna Rawhiti-Connell)

Five months into the job and Chris Hipkins has dealt with the loss of three ministers. The question now is how that affects the government’s popularity and its work agenda, writes Anna Rawhiti-Connell in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

How many shares would Michael Wood share if Michael Wood could share shares?

Michael Wood resigned as a minister yesterday after it came to light that he owned more shares, including shares in Chorus, Spark, and National Australia Bank. As Toby Manhire writes, prime minister Chris Hipkins seemed genuinely perplexed, angry and frustrated yesterday noting that “if the earlier chapters of the Wood shareholding mystery, surrounding his non-disclosure and failure to divest shares in Auckland Airport despite being asked a dozen times by the Cabinet Office, were perplexing, this is beyond baffling.” As far as risk to the government’s popularity in an election year goes, I think Manhire’s point about the appearance of “third-termitis” during a second term encapsulates one of greatest risks. That goes beyond the realm of individual scandal and taps into public sentiment.

Two resignations and one defection in five months

In the wake of the first tranche of news about Michael Wood, the Herald’s Thomas Coughlan wrote (paywalled) that “ministerial scandals – even repeated ones – rarely bring down governments.” But two resignations prompted by conflicts of interest and the perception that creates, and one defection in five months in an election year? It’s hard to know what kind of impact this may have. This is exactly where the current Labour government finds itself following the resignations of Stuart Nash in March, Wood yesterday, and the defection of Meka Whatiri to Te Pāti Māori in May. The latest polling this week had Labour up, despite the Nash and Whatiri situations.

The counter-narrative

The most empirical thing I could find about the impact of ministerial resignations on popularity was this pretty old paper (2005) from the London School of Economics which uses some hardcore data analysis to draw the conclusion that these kinds of scandals, when cauterised quickly and where accountability can be sheeted towards an individual, can positively affect government popularity. The results go so far as to suggest that prime ministers should welcome a certain number of resignation issues so that they can fire ministers thereby enhancing government popularity. It’s 2023 and we live in New Zealand and not the United Kingdom, so take that with a grain of salt, but the research does give credence to Coughlan’s line of thinking. The Herald’s Audrey Young also writes (paywalled) that the “one vaguely positive feature for prime minister Chris Hipkins in forcing Michael Wood’s ministerial resignation…is that Hipkins was given the opportunity to control the process, to fast-forward Wood’s resignation, and to impose a raft of measures to tighten up the management of ministerial conflicts of interest.” Hipkins has made five changes to the conflict of interest disclosure rules which apply to ministers, outlined here by interest.co.nz’s Dan Brunskill.

The workload and the work agenda

Hipkins moved quickly to assign Wood’s portfolios to senior ministers. Andrew Little will pick up immigration, Carmel Sepuloni takes Auckland and workplace relations and safety, David Parker takes transport and Kiritapu Allan will take Wood’s associate finance minister role. That splits the transport and Auckland portfolios. The logic of unifying these portfolios with one minister was a key selling point when Wood was announced as the minister for Auckland and as BusinessDesk’s Dileepa Fonseka writes (paywalled), the Auckland Light Rail project has lost a champion following his resignation. Because I am a sad nerd, I’ve done a quick count on portfolio reshuffles since Nash resigned in March. Sepuloni and Peeni Henare have picked an additional two portfolios each, while Little and Parker add one hefty portfolio each to their existing hefty portfolios. Parker, in particular, as environment minister has the RMA reforms on his plate. Perhaps, aside from the early onset of “third-termitis”, one of the biggest risks facing Hipkins and his desire to focus on the issues New Zealanders care about the most, is the sheer amount of work left for the government to do, down a very capable minister and with a limited number of sitting days remaining before the House rises. It is not so much the scandal of these events that’s the problem, but the practical reality of managing ministerial workload and the work programme, while having to fight these kinds of fires.

Keep going!