• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Bill Ralston: Why Jacinda Ardern needs a serious cabinet reshuffle

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo/Getty Images

If this Government is serious about tackling the big issues, it needs the best possible line-up of Cabinet ministers.

Despite its many downsides, being as ancient as I now seem does not appear to impair recall of events in the distant past. I may forget what I had for breakfast this morning, but I clearly remember occurrences of decades ago.

I still recall hearing, nearly 30 years ago, new Prime Minister Jim Bolger warmly telling us he wanted to create a “kinder, gentler” society. That was a lovely sentiment, but he appointed Ruth Richardson Finance Minister and she almost immediately slashed welfare benefits.

This resulted in a “nasty, brutal” society for those trapped at the bottom of the social heap. And it has remained so almost ever since for low-income earners and beneficiaries, although, in 2015, Bill English did award beneficiaries their first real benefit increase above the level of inflation since the 1970s.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

In the most recent Budget, the Government indexed benefit levels to wage growth rates, which is fairer and better than inflation-adjustment. Yet inequality has continued to grow. Social activist groups claim that about 300,000 children live in what we in New Zealand would describe as poverty. The poverty line is about 60% of the median income, which puts it at just over $29,000 a year.

But academic studies use different baselines and put the figure at one in six kids (183,000) living below a “before-housing-cost” poverty measure, although that figure jumps to one in four (254,000) once housing costs are included.

No matter how you slice the numbers, there is a lot of hardship in the community and last year the Government brought in a Child Poverty Reduction Act and then announced targets to reduce the number of kids in poverty. Targets are one thing but acts by which poverty can be reduced are another. If this Government wants to be anything more than another “aspirational” administration in the Bolger mould, it needs to tackle this problem decisively.

The huge “after-housing-cost” figure underlines the failure of Housing Minister Phil Twyford to make any significant change that might reduce housing costs for low-income earners and help ease their way out of poverty. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will announce a Cabinet reshuffle around the end of this month. Surely she will have to replace “KiwiBuild” Twyford with someone who can actually get the job done.

If we are looking for other candidates for a quick slide downwards in the snakes-and-ladders game of a reshuffle, Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway should take a tumble after some clumsy stumbles in his portfolio, notably granting convicted Czech drug runner Karel Sroubek residency. Health Minister David Clark has not shone and also repeatedly stubbed his toe on big issues, raising questions about his competence.

One of the safest pair of ministerial hands Ardern has is Kris Faafoi, but he is the wrong gender and has yet to make it into Cabinet because of some weird gender-quota formula Labour invented.

Another who should be a candidate for elevation to ministerial status is the highly competent parliamentary under-Secretary Michael Wood, but judging by Faafoi’s snail-like elevation to the inner sanctum, he may have a long wait.

Pundits forecast a minimal realignment in the reshuffle, which is disappointing. If this Government is serious about tackling big problems, such as child poverty, it needs the best possible line-up of Cabinet ministers to do it.

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.