Fresh Faces, Old Hands in New Zealand’s Cabinet Reshuffle

By Jason Schulman

The Beehive, the common name of the Executive Wing of the New Zealand Parliament Buildings. The top floor holds the Cabinet room. Source: Lens_Flare's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

New Zealand prime minister John Key announced several changes to the National Party cabinet on January 22. The announcement came as a surprise to many observers, including the New Zealand Herald’s chief political commentator John Armstrong, who characterized Key’s changes as “dramatic” and “ruthless.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, MP Nick Smith returned to the cabinet. Smith resigned in March 2012 following a scandal that shook the popularity of the National Party. The National Party’s opposition unsurprisingly reacted to Smith’s reappointment with outrage. Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei reacted to the news by saying that Smith should not return.

Smith now takes over the portfolios of housing and conservation from Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson, respectively, who were haunted by lingering scandals of their own.  Heatley, who was also stripped of the responsibility of energy and resources, faced allegations of misuse of ministerial expenses in February 2010. With Key’s backing, an investigation cleared Heatley of wrongdoing and he was reinstated the next month.

Wilkinson, who resigned as Minister of Labor in November 2012 after the Pike River Mine Royal Commission concluded her office had failed to prevent a mining disaster which killed twenty-nine people in November 2010, also lost her portfolio for food safety and associate immigration.

Smith will face big challenges in his new position, as housing affordability in New Zealand cities has deteriorated recently, according to the 2013 Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.

Key also used the reshuffle to rejuvenate the cabinet with some fresh faces, saying “it is very important that we have constant renewal.” Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye became Minister for Food Safety, Civil Defense, and Youth Affairs, as well as Associate Minister of Immigration and Associate Minister of Education, to which she brings experience in the area of digital education.

In addition, Simon Bridges joins the cabinet for energy and resources and labor and Chief Government Whip Michael Woodhouse was appointed outside of the cabinet with the portfolios of immigration and veteran affairs. Woodhouse’s continued ascent is not surprising to his fellow parliamentarians, who have predicted his political rise for several years. Nathan Guy was given the agriculture portfolio.

Minister of Education Hekia Parata kept her role, a move that surprised many New Zealanders as the ministry suffered from multiple controversies last year. Minister for Economic Development Steven Joyce, however, has been tapped to deal with the scandal around Novopay, a teacher payroll system that left many schools without pay for months.

By bringing in rising newcomers like Kaye and Woodhouse and seasoned veterans like Smith and Joyce, Key is hoping that the combination of youth and experience will re-brand his cabinet and propel National’s agenda in the near future.  While the cabinet reshuffle does not significantly impact New Zealand’s relationship to its Asia-Pacific neighbors, the political maneuvering has implications for the country’s 2014 elections.

In opposition, Labour will try to highlight what it sees as the scandals and failed policies of the National party, which required the reshuffle at this point in Key’s term.  National will try to stay in government by riding the tide of what it considers not only a rejuvenated Cabinet but also a decisive leader in the prime minister, who is willing to sack ineffective ministers swiftly and replace them as necessary.  Housing will be a flashpoint in the lead-up to the election, and Smith’s performance could determine whether Key remains in power next year.  As the Greens’ Turei noted, “Next year we get to have a real reshuffle—the General Election.”

Jason Schulman is a researcher with the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.


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