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Risky shake-up as PM gets down to business

Prime Minister John Key’s cabinet reshuffle went further than anticipated, but it would be wrong to call it a major shake-up.

The defenestration of two under-performing ministers – Kate Wilkinson and Phil Heatley – was not unexpected but they are not enough in themselves to depict this as any sort of major reconstruction of the government.

The administration’s key ministers – Bill English, Steven Joyce, Tony Ryall, Murray McCully – all remain in their previous roles.

All reshuffles are risky: it is why timid prime ministers (Helen Clark being the most recent example) tend to avoid them until there is little option. Reshuffles aggrieve anyone who misses out, and, of course, also anyone who is fired.

Jim Bolger fired several ministers in 1996 to make room for coalition partners and it was telling that all those demoted were firmly behind the move to unseat him the following year.

The government seems reasonably assured of avoiding any collateral damage from a disgruntled Mr Heatley or Ms Wilkinson, although there will be a few backbenchers wondering why they did not get the nod.

Don't give up hope

Mr Key’s implicit message today to those backbenchers was not to give up hope.

The other risk, of course, is the new appointments will not be up to the job.

Two more specific risks stand out with the reshuffle.

One is overloading Steven Joyce. Responsibility for sorting out the shambles that is the Novopay education payroll system has been passed over to the Economic Development Minister from Commerce Minister Craig Foss. 

The prime minister cited Mr Joyce’s commercial skills as being needed to sort out the long-running problem.

“Novopay is now a commercial issue,” Mr Key says, and the company is now “on notice” that it will need to deliver on its promise to pay teachers the right amount on time.

Novopay is “not INCIS”, Mr Key says, citing the aborted police IT project which ended up costing the country hundreds of millions of dollars in the late 1990s.

In fact, Novopay is potentially worse than INCIS – perhaps not in direct costs, but in the diversion of ministerial time and energy into the problem.

Mr Joyce’s principal ministerial role is to work out ways to speed up economic growth: it is why he was given the unique combination of portfolios comprising economic development, science, skills and tertiary education.

The Novopay problem will divert him away from this. Sorting out the tangled mess of a problem will be a huge draw on time, focus and, probably, political capital. There is not a lot a payroll system will add to economic growth, even when it does get working properly. 

Novopay is potentially political more damaging than INCIS because the project, while a fiscal shambles, did not directly affect thousands of people.

Most New Zealanders know someone who has been adversely affected by the Novopay screw up. That brings the issue into the tearooms and shopping malls of the nation in a way INCIS never was.

That is the main risk in the reshuffle.

Second risk

The second risk is to do with the appointment of Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye to a group of mostly minor portfolios such as food safety and civil defence and youth affairs.

She also has an associate education role and Mr Key signalled this is likely to be where most of her work will be focused.

Ms Kaye has turned the formerly solid Labour Auckland Central seat into a reasonably safe National one, but she will have to be wary of the Harry Duynhoven syndrome.

The former Labour MP turned marginal New Plymouth into a solid Labour seat when he was a backbencher, and held onto it even as other provincial Labour MPs were losing their seats.

Once appointed to a ministerial role he no longer had the time to be as assiduous in his electorate and support ebbed. There is a risk of Ms Kaye suffering the same problem.

The main reason Mr Key gives for sacking Mr Heatley and Ms Wilkinson but keeping beleaguered Education Minister Hekia Parata in her job is that while Ms Parata has made mistakes, she has only been minister for a year.

The other two were ministers for four years and Mr Key says in that time they made a valuable contribution – just not valuable enough.

They have done nothing wrong, the prime minister said several times at his press conference this afternoon.

Nick Smith reinstated

As signalled, former minister Nick Smith is reinstated to the cabinet and gathers the housing and conservation jobs.

Local government, previously held by David Carter (who will be elected to the Speakership when Parliament resumes on January 29) goes not go to Dr Smith - who previously held the job -  but to Chris Tremain.

However, Mr Key says Dr Smith’s housing role will still put in him the forefront of local government issues and the prime minister signalled these, linked with reforms to the Resource Management Act being developed by Environment Minister Amy Adams, are “top of the government’s current agenda”.

Other new faces are Simon Bridges, who moves from a group of associate portfolios outside the cabinet to take over Mr Heatley’s Energy and Resources portfolio, along with Ms Wilkinson’s former role as Minister of Labour.

The new minister outside cabinet is Dunedin list MP and former senior whip Michael Woodhouse, who gets the always-tricky immigration portfolio, along with veterans affairs and an associate transport role.

More by Rob Hosking

Comments and questions

Good on Mr Hosking for seeing through all the bluster that John Key can so often portray. I guess those in attendance could barely contain their sniggers when John Key said Novopay is “not INCIS”.
Mr Hosking is quite correct to remind us "in fact, Novopay is potentially worse than INCIS".
I read the remainder without enjoyment as the day is ruined by the return of the idiot Smith.
I am no longer optimistic that John Key might deliver one day the economic mastery many had us believe he was capable of and I have more faith that Kim Dotcom has more ability to deliver a financially beneficial and employment miracle to these sorry isles than anyone in politics.

Lousy boring PM. No ideas no vision.

Yawn. Nick Smith? Talk about reheated leftovers.

I imagine Key is discovering that there are few people who make it into parliament who are competent enough to run a corner dairy, let alone a government ministry. More empty suits and waffle-heads.

This is essentially just rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

And our sub-literate PM's feel-good notion of prioritising computers in schools is certainly not going to help raise our education standards. On the contrary, it offers even further possibilities for the large majority of our barely competent teachers to avoid teaching enthusiastically and well - and sending young NZers off to cut and paste instead.

Worst of all is that Chris Finlayson has been left to carry on dividing the country with these multimillion-dollar payouts to iwi for claims that received proper recompense in the past.

We are at the stage where every important area of taxpayer funding (yours and mine) such as medical care, hospitals, science and technology are being more then squeezed while it is no problem to the gullible Finlayson to throw unreal amounts of money for what are now merely alleged, not proven, claims to opportunistic iwi.

We are being impoverished by the straight-out rorts that are being ratified by this government, and the alternative is just as bad.

Time to claim back our country from the politicians.

Interesting analysis, Rob. Nit picker's point. Duynhoven was never in cabinet - he was briefly a minister outside cabinet.

Dean - you are quite right (and as a fellow nit picker I should have picked this myself).

Fixed. Cheers!

Helen Clark timid? Don't think so. She ruled with an iron fist and didn't let any of her ministers speak to the media unless she told them to, rather like the current PM. Our first true PR-driven PM is really quite transparent if you take notice: Surround yourself with cowed yes-men, including a few hate figures who take the heat off you and spend a lot of time overseas and grab all photo-ops and twist them to shape the image you wish to create. The public and media have lapped it up so far and looks like they will continue to.

Good to see Key acting decisively. Let's hope he is proved right. Certainly, the two who have been dropped have apparently not made positive contributions.
On the other hand, his dedication to Nick Smith is hard to fathom. The Chief Wizard can be dangerous (see ETS) and will need to be watched closely.
liberte

A bold move would have been to have got Kim Dotcom somehow involved; he has the sort of chutzpah and moxie that would get things moving.
But probably that would be a bridge too far for this administration.
And the "loss of face" factor would probably be too hard to stomach.
liberte

Dotcom is a buffoon and a convicted fraudster. He may well still end up in a US jail over Megaupload. He has nothing to offer NZ of any value, and the sooner our media wise up to him and move on the better.

Sounds like he could fit in well in our finance company industry.

Dotcom's new venture Mega has the potential to deliver to NZ increased income from services provided. More so if government co-operates and we get more internet capacity to host more servers here. It never ceases to amaze me how the NZ government got involved in what is at best a commercial business issue of the Megaupload charges.

Negative comments by some seem to be driven by those that are envious of his success, despite their negative thinking and comments.

I don't see why Novopay should take much of Joyce's time after a short burst of assessment and putting someone with a clue in charge of managing it. He just has to stop the putting up with nonsense and incompetence.

Interesting on Novopay. Hardly a union in sight as they let all the principals front on the issue. If I was a teacher I'd save some dosh and cut the union as they have given no support to its members on their most important issue: getting paid correctly!

It seems strange that a politician needs to come in over the top of ministry bureaucrats to "sort out a commercial matter". Where are the supposedly high-paid expert civil servants in sorting this mess out? A minister getting involved in contractual issues seems to be verging on the problem of 'governance' interfering with 'management', which is not tolerated in the commercial world.

Where management has proved incompetent and incapable it is up to the board to step in and change the management. Hopefully, that is exactly what Joyce will do.

The real problem for everyone may be that Novis is, in fact, a dog, as was INCS, and even JC himself could not resolve the problem.

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