There are not many problems in life where “Bring back Nick Smith!” seems like an ideal solution. Nor will the public be inclined to think that keeping Hekia Parata on a Ministerial salary is a very wise use of the scarce resources in Education. Which suggests that yesterday’s Cabinet mini-reshuffle is unlikely to convince the public that the government is serious about (a) rejuvenation or (b) rewarding achievement.
Nick Smith hasn’t been a fount of new ideas since…well, lets just say that his young fogeyness was already evident in the 1980s when he was National’s youth spokesperson. In this role as the party’s in touch with youth guy, a 27 year old Smith told the Listener how much he disliked rap music, and how Simon and Garfunkel was more his thing. Now, Smith’s re-instatement to Cabinet so soon after his attempt to use his Ministerial clout to influence the Bronwyn Pullar case, makes a mockery of John Key’s promise to hold his team to the highest possible ethical standards.
If Key was serious about that, Smith would have been out of contention for this entire term, rather than being re-instated mere months after his fall from grace. Talk about being slapped with a wet bus ticket. (Smith is getting a new Ministerial ticket before the old one has had a chance to dry.) Still, at least Smith’s placement in the Housing portfolio means that the government has recognized that it needs to counter the Labour/Greens attack on the housing front with someone more substantial than Phil Heatley.
As nearly everyone has already noticed, Parata will be the Education Minister in name (and salary) only. From here until the election, Parata will be surrounded with colleagues to handle most of the combustible issues. Apparently, Parata will be ring fenced and confined to what she does best : photo opportunities, school galas and other general duties as the Cabinet’s de facto greeter and resident smiley face.
It is a teaching point, too. By keeping Parata in Cabinet the government is sending a message that no-one fails in Education, and everyone takes home a prize – starting at the top, with the Minister. Learning is a lifelong experience, and Parata appears to have a job for life. (The 90 day trial doesn’t seem to have been applied to her.)
Parata’s retention can only be taken as a sign that Ministers who fail in senior portfolios cannot be replaced, for fear of the blowback on the government as a whole. After all, if Parata was held accountable where would it stop? The public might even begin to hold Steven Joyce, the Cabinet’s erstwhile jobs czar, responsible for his dismal performance on the jobs front, for his track record in stimulating economic growth, and for the ongoing collapse of the government’s overtures in oil and gas exploration .
In other words, this reshuffle was really about finding token, expendable victims. One can feel some sympathy for Kate Wilkinson and Phil Heatley. Normally, the Aztecs felt that regeneration required the spilling of young and vital blood – and not the sacrifice of loyal timeservers like these two. Wilkinson can hardly be held solely responsible for what has been two decades of de-regulating workplace health and safety, under successive governments. Wilkinson did her bit by resigning when the Pike River findings were made public, but that gesture has not been enough to save her Ministerial career.
The real question in the Pike River aftermath – whether the government will accept the Commission’s recommendation to create a truly independent regulatory agency to promote health and safety in the workplace still remains unanswered. Steven Joyce might like to give that one his full attention. In the wake of the reshuffle, sorting out Novopay is to become Joyce’s responsibility. While an urgent issue, it is not that urgent. No-one after all, is dying as a result of Novopay’s failings. They are dying unnecessarily on New Zealand’s farms, and in our forests and other workplaces. In the same fashion to Wilkinson, Heatley has been made a scapegoat for the government’s dereliction of duty in affordable housing, for which Key himself (as Brian Rudman recently reminded us ) should be taking a major share of the responsibility.
The fate of Wilkinson and Heatley sends an interesting message to the National party caucus. Is this Cabinet reshuffle a sign that the young and ambitious have a chance to advance – which is how Key has been spinning it – or is it a sign that even if you do get a foot in the Cabinet door, you still risk becoming one of the expendables who regularly get thrown overboard to promote the fiction of an accountability that plainly does not apply to the front bench?
It must be something of a dilemma. Because the same ingratiating qualities of being pliable and biddable that are necessary to get you into Cabinet can set you up for being disposable a bit further down the track. As Christopher Moltisanti found out in The Sopranos, when you become a made guy is when your worries really begin.