90s Cabinet Gets Key Coat of Varnish

Prime Minister in waiting John Key announces his Cabinet


The new Cabinet has been greeted with such hosannas from the mainstream media we can only assume some of those articles were really job applications, disguised as commentary. Get a grip. Has there ever been an incoming administration that hasn’t promised high work rates, quality outcomes, accountability and a mix of fresh talent and canny experience among its slate of Ministers?

Hate to be a curmudgeon, but I can’t get too excited about a fresher/more inclusive team when the entire National front bench is unchanged – save for Chris Finlayson, who is only there because Katherine Rich isn’t. Bill English, Gerry Brownlee, Tony Ryall, Nick Smith…stop me if you need an introduction to any of these people. Should we be feeling re-assured that as we head down the slope of a recession/global meltdown, the welfare safety net has been entrusted to a one term MP whose main credential and emblem of compassion is that she used to be a solo parent? So was Christine Rankin, I seem to recall.

It is only slightly less alarming that the IT sector has been entrusted to someone – Steven Joyce – who confesses he knows very little about it. Great. This sector is just emerging from a complex regulatory phase that has finally brought Telecom to heel, and created something like a genuine free market at last, in telecommunications. Telecom must be rubbing their hands at the prospect of a newbie Minister and a $1.5 billion broadband rollout that could so easily re-entrench their old position of dominance. Joyce’s task will be to prove that he isn’t a Telecom patsy like Maurice Williamson was, throughout the 1990s.

As for work rate and performance, my answer is two words …Jonathan Coleman. Minister of Immigration, Minister of Broadcasting, associate Health Minister. How hard can this be ? The major rewrite of the Immigration Bill has been done and gone through select committee, and we can expect bi-partisan support for it from Labour. A reasonably alert Springer Spaniel could take it from here.

And Broadcasting? National has scrapped the social charter, and told TVNZ to focus only on making money, just as it did in the 1990s. Wake me when its time to count the dividend. Oh, and National’s policy is to pare the Ministry for Culture and Heritage back to its “core functions’ – which sound like code to that broadcasting may effectively end up back under its old umbrella at the Ministry of Economic Development. Which would make Gerry Brownlee the real Minister of Broadcasting, not Coleman. If there are any easier ways of picking up $250k, its hard to imagine what they could be.

Will Coleman be willing for instance, to resist the lobbying of Sky, who have formerly found National to be so highly sympathetic and compliant to whatever has been on their wish-list? This time round, Sky will certainly be wanting Coleman to dump the idea of a single regulatory body – along the lines of Ofcom in Britain – to regulate the convergence of broadcasting and telecommunications. Count that as a done deal.

What this should be telling us is that in this new Cabinet there are real Ministers – a tight group making the big calls and policy settings – and a wider crew of Ministers whose job is mainly to come in early, switch on the lights and punch in the policy co-ordinates they’ve been given. Paula Bennett is not going to be devising welfare policy. One of Paula Bennett’s main jobs will be to appear sensitive and caring on television, and put the ‘compassion” into the compassionate conservative. Zing ! Another $250k. Memo : must crack down on wasteful government spending.

Among the Ministers, the tight group would be Key, English, Steven Joyce and Simon Power, with Brownlee, Tony Ryall and Nick Smith in there by necessity. Murray McCully will become the new Winston Peters, a potentially disruptive force dispatched for long periods of time overseas as Foreign Minister. Take your time, Murray. Like many a complex work of art, McCully can often be best appreciated from a distance.

The real test for John Key will be how he manages the ministers outside his Cabinet, not the ones within it. Rodney Hide is the new Minister of Local Government – will he be enacting National Party policy on local government, or Act Party policy on local government – and if the latter, what responsibility does Key take for the outcomes ? Because, as The Standard web site has just reminded us, Act’s local government policy is an extremist libertarian document, that requires councils to turn over their commercial activities to the private sector. It also says : “roads and piped water will be supplied on a fully commercial basis….Act will promote contracting out of many council services.”

Correct me if I’m wrong. But did John Key tell the country in the television debates that his government would privatize roads and the water supply and advocate the wholesale contracting out of the work of local and regional councils ?

If Key isn’t going to let Hide do this, shouldn’t he be re-assuring the country that Hide is not going to be allowed to head off down a path of hijacking local democracy for commercial and ideological ends? The NZ Herald, to its credit, has done an excellent reminder piece here about Act’s radical programme for local government. Only four voters in a hundred voted for this agenda. Yet the entire country may soon have to wear its impact on their communities, unless John Key shows some leadership.

There is another, related line of inquiry worth pursuing at the national level, as well. The Key government has made it clear that public –private partnerships (PPPs) will be a major part of the country’s planning over the next decade. These projects entail a major commitment of taxpayer funds and public liabilities.

Before we begin down that track, what kind of commitments will the new government provide that ‘commercial sensitivity” will NOT be invoked to conceal from the public the details of these contracts ? Upfront, there needs to be a commitment to utter transparency in the structure and ongoing outcomes of PPP contracts – and the firms bidding for the work need to be told beforehand that their acceptance of such transparency will be a condition of them getting the work. In Canada and in Australia, it has proved extremely difficult for the public to find out just how PPP contracts involving hundreds of millions of dollars of their money are structured, and how the patterns of risk and profit will actually play out, over time.

Why, without a commitment to forego commercial sensitivity on PPPs, we may never know how well or badly the Key government is performing in one of its pet areas. Key has promised “outcomes, results and accountability” from the new Cabinet that is being sworn in today. The media is currently celebrating that kind of talk – without bothering its pretty little head unduly about how, and whether, they will be able to measure the walk.