OPINION: About the Beehive, the swagger of some Government MPs has shifted.
Under-siege Housing Minister Phil Twyford has retreated from public interviews on the policy quickly becoming his Waterloo.
Happy to talk about transport, his shoulders hunch and his chin drops a few degrees to cut a visibly downcast figure whenever the K-word is brought up.
Meanwhile, backbenchers and lower-tiered ministers expecting promotion are positively suppressing urges to skip down the hallways.
* Government facing serious questions over vaccine rations during meningitis outbreak
* Budget botchup shows the need for ministers to distrust officials and ask questions
* Jacinda Ardern’s ‘minor’ Cabinet reshuffle shows lack of depth, not quality of lineup
* Minister made Karel Sroubek residency decision in less than an hour
Nothing like the threat of a reshuffle to make ministers question their performance.
Some of them well might. Although the increasing trend to duck for cover behind the human cannon fodder officials are providing as an added service might have lulled a few into a false sense of security.
Much has been made about the level of competence Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has to work with in the Cabinet ranks.
A string of recent political controversies seem to point to a common response: “We were acting on the best advice of officials”.
That might have paid off for a few, having escaped scandal with only flesh wounds to lick. But it’s a problematic approach and one day a minister will have their head lopped off for it.
So here’s a basic lesson on the mechanics of government.
Government sets the policy, and government departments enact the policy.
But it’s the Government’s political policy.
Ministers have to do their homework first because some officials may be boffins, but they’re not miracle workers.
KiwiBuild is an unmitigated disaster. Dreamed up by Annette King in the back seat of a car, she latched on to it and set the original target of 50,000 houses because it sounded good in her head. A wish-list, not a policy.
Legend has it the close breathing of David Cunliffe down David Shearer’s neck was precisely what prompted the last-minute decision to blurt out 100,000 homes on the day of the announcement.
And here sits Twyford. He is the man responsible, because if officials start telling him he’ll need to build the equivalent of two Hamiltons, the red flag should have been raised and the question asked: Is this actually possible?
Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway might now apply more scrutiny to his own decisions, having made a spectacularly wrong call in initially allowing convicted passport fraudster, drug smuggler and known gang associate Karel Sroubek to stay in the country following his prison stint for those crimes.
The advice from officials at the outset may have been found wanting. But the political risk is obvious and it’s another example of a minister asking next to no questions of his officials as to the credibility of Sroubek’s claim (again, convicted of dishonesty charges) he would be killed on his return.
Had Finance Minister Grant Robertson simply asked his Treasury Secretary how he knew his department had been hacked, he may not have prevented Gabriel Makhlouf from knowingly making an incorrect public statement about the leak of Budget documents, but he may have gleaned enough to know the folly of sending out his own matcher.
Most recently, Health Minister David Clark said he was acting on the best advice of medical officials when it was revealed he had no clue there was another 30,000 meningitis vaccines waiting in the wings for purchase that could have ensured every adolescent could be immunised against an outbreak.
He was advised early on there was a cache we had access to, but asked no questions as to whether it was better to vaccinate all children in an infected area, rather than ration the response.
Clark is on surer footing here – the response, as designed by officials, worked and it was in line with international vaccine campaigns.
But political pressure was valid, when questioning whether the lives of some children were needlessly put at risk. His failure to ask for further vaccine details didn’t inoculate him from responsibility when it comes to the politics of health.
Politics is not the job of the neutral public service – that’s the role of the politician.
If a minister is not across their portfolio enough to ask the right questions of officials, then scandal will likely not be far behind. If a minister doesn’t appear to have the political radar to spot political risk then they become the risk.
Sir John Key made a rare return to news headlines this week, sacking his ANZ chief executive David Hisco for his mischaracterisation of spending company funds.
It was a reminder of his complete zero tolerance approach of anyone who made him look bad. He knew he had a finite amount of political capital and he wasn’t prepared to spend any on anyone who wasn’t worth it.
Where Ardern dragged her heels in forcing out ministerial flops Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri, Key was clinical in his removal of dead weight.
Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson can attest to the insult of being ousted for simply failing to deliver. It’s understood Heatley’s crime was showing up to Cabinet four times in a row with a paper full of gaping holes and not remotely up to snuff.
While that was never the problem with Judith Collins, her demise proved no-one was irreplaceable.
It might seem cold, callous even, but New Zealanders do also have a right to expect a high performance from the people they appoint to the highest offices.
Arguably, it forced competence where newbie ministers understood the standard early on and those waiting on the sidelines knew to pull their socks up before stepping on the field.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s “next man up” mentality might be a more palatable example for some Ministers. Every New Zealander knows there’s no going easy on a player who lets the side down, even if they’re the second-stringer.
Blaming mistakes on the rest of the team doesn’t tend to foster trust with the ball.
Much the same way, claiming “the public servants made me do it” doesn’t exactly instil confidence a minister is on top of their portfolio