One of the great mistakes that Opposition leaders often make is to match caucus policy interests with spokesmanships. It might seem like the most obvious means of allocating opposition portfolios, but it overlooks one of the fundamental tenets of politics: not all portfolios, and not all Ministers, are equal. Michael Cullen is more competent than Parekura Horomia; Trevor Mallard is a more forceful foe than Judith Tizard; and Phil Goff is more likely to keep a cool head than Ruth Dyson.
Then there are the hot buttons: law and order is more likely to flare up than internal affairs; education provides greater opportunity to expose shoddy Government dealings than Commerce; and Social Development has an inexperienced Minister who has been wounded by the Opposition before.
In putting together the opposition dream-team, Don Brash has several priorities. Firstly, he needs to present a credible alternative government in the key portfolio areas. Secondly, he needs to detail the Labour Government as less than credible, in specific portfolio areas. Thirdly, he needs to show that Labour are generally living a life of bureaucratic excess. Finally—and this is no small task on its own, given that his caucus has doubled—he needs to hold together his own team and isolate weak members from attack.
Labour has obvious weak-points already. It has, in the main, a solid front bench, but the second row is vulnerable. Steve Maharey is a fuck-up waiting to happen: he sees the hits that the Education portfolio took in the last term as a failure of marketing on Labour’s part, as opposed to key flaws in the administration and delivery of education policy. That is an error of judgement on his behalf, and until he takes the education portfolio seriously, he leaves Labour’s flank wide open to assault. Merely selling the NCEA better will not solve the basic flaws in the delivery of the NCEA.
Annette King, as Minister of Police, has a safe pair of hands. Yet Ministerial competence is not enough on its own to insulate a department from public scrutiny. To sort out the problems with the Police, she has to rebuild police force morale at an all-time low, which seems like an impossible feat for a Minister who is new to that post. It is not simply a public relations exercise: every time a youth in Otara commits a violent crime, that reflects back on the Police’s ability to deal with the social dysfunction in South Auckland.
Parekura Horomia is a bumbler and a waffler. Miraculous to many that somebody as obese as he is has managed to live this long, he’s not physically or mentally fit for ministerial office. Te Puni Kokiri has exploded in size over the past six years, employing policy analysts who do little more than create more work for other Government departments. If their purpose is to improve the lot of Maori in the community, then they don’t actually have any connection with that outcome.
Ruth Dyson is easily flustered. She is a hard-line unionist, of proud Labour Party stock. Whereas Margaret Wilson appeared to be disconnected from the needs of business and employment, Dyson is an all-out CTU stooge. She will be a key driver behind raising the minimum wage to unaffordable levels, and will likely be instrumental in making the labour market even less flexible than it is now. In ACC, she inherited a government agency that was already taking a far more pragmatic and business-oriented approach to delivering accident rehabilitation, but her instinct is to nationalize where possible. It irks her that ACC uses the private hospital system to deliver medical treatment for ACC recipients.
David Benson-Pope is a newish Minister. In Social Development, he will need to defend the bloating of the Ministry of Social Development with policy advisers, and a no-fault welfare system that quite happily transfers unemployment beneficiaries into student allowances and low-quality courses, or alternatively onto sickness benefits. The swollen Welfare State, by any reasonable analysis, has not produced lower unemployment. That is evident in the ghettoes that exist in and around New Zealand’s main centres. More precisely, unemployment numbers have principally been reassigned to other expenditure lines; many of the attendees of polytechnics and wananga are unemployed by any other name.
David Parker will need to front the Kyoto debacle, and has responsibility for energy and transport. Helen Clark has shown obvious faith in him to dish him such significant portfolios. But he is a vulnerability through inexperience.
Nanaia Mahuta is of the Parekura Horomia school: difficult to see what she’s done to deserve a Cabinet placing, and as Minister of Youth Affairs and Customs, she hardly has the workload to justify it, either. Youth Affairs, at least, leaves her open to entrapment on youth crime. She is a key Minister to hold to account, for the main reason that the more it is shown just how little she does in Cabinet, the greater the image of an indolent Government taking the Treasury benches for granted becomes.
Next we have the Ministers outside Cabinet: Judith Tizard, Dover Samuels, Mita Ririnui and Mahara Okeroa hold their positions for no reason other than pure political patronage on Helen Clark’s part. They hold no portfolios of any merit, and nor do they play central roles in the administration of the portfolios that they assist. They are joke Ministers that taxpayers are funding, in a culture of administrative overindulgence.
Now we get to Winston: Foreign Minister outside Cabinet. One of the great—and few—hits that Labour had in the last campaign was the pro-US, pro-nuke smear. They tried to make foreign policy a key election issue. It may have circulated in the liberal Wellington set as an issue, but it will come back to bite Labour with a vengeance with Winston’s appointment. Labour’s projection of a sophisticated, independent, non-aligned foreign policy, where we can tell whomever we like that they’re a bunch of morons—provided that the audience isn’t Scandinavia or France—is dead in the water. Instead, all discussion in diplomatic circles will be Winston’s latest dalliances.
So how has National fared, in this task of setting competent spokesman against competent Ministers, and more importantly, brawlers who can tear apart Labour’s incompetent ones?
In Finance, John Key demonstrated during the campaign that he can foot it with Michael Cullen. He also has Bill English supporting him to the hilt, and the strategically very smart Craig Foss behind him. That is a more than fair match.
Steve Maharey is up against the quintumvirate of Bill English, Tau Henare, Pansy Wong, Colin King, and Allan Peachey. The ones to watch are English, who can shoot through a bureaucratic brief better than any Minister, and Peachey, who has the ammunition from the coal-face to tear Maharey apart, on the one hand, on the state of secondary education standards, and on the other, on the outrageous strains that schools face while the Ministry of Education feasts on its own organizational gluttony. Peachey is a lucid and eloquent communicator: fifteen years of speech-making to school children has been a perfect apprenticeship to life in the debating chamber. He will fire early, and fire often.
Law and Order may well be Simon Power’s making as a major contender in the next National Government. With the Police in a state of perpetual crisis, despite the release of Government crime figures (that nobody believes), Power has been given the opportunity to sink his teeth into every Police scandal, bungle, and inappropriate Government directive on offer. He has the chance to do that by blaming Government policy, rather than the ranks themselves: Government is responsible for poor recruitment numbers; Government is responsible for poor allocation of resources to the ghettoes; Government is responsible for appointing the next Commissioner, who will inevitably walk into a firestorm. Power has a creative and energetic assistant in Chester Borrows: a former detective sergeant himself, Chester has the opening to break into informal police information channels and help expose Government mismanagement.
Maori Affairs is one area that National risks dropping the ball. Gerry Brownlee is already stretched with other duties, and he’s not part of the Maori grapevine. Georgina TeHeuHeu is not naturally combative. Tau Henare has the balls to go after Horomia’s throat, and is probably the only person in the National caucus who can pull it off.
Wayne Mapp will struggle to land major hits against Ruth Dyson in Labour and industrial relations, unless Dyson lands own-goals. Mapp has a tendency to get bogged down in detail and the minutiae of policy argument. He doesn’t have a cut-throat sensibility about him. Dyson should, by virtue of her extreme dogma, be a prime target for National.
Judith Collins will be a formidable foil for David Benson-Pope. She has held the shadow Welfare portfolio for some time already, and was beginning to land some major strikes on Maharey. Benson-Pope’s approach in his portfolios appears to be to bore listeners to tears, to kill an issue; Collins won’t stand for that kind of nonsense.
In Energy, National’s Nick Smith is an erratic creature at the best of times. He’s up against David Parker, a new Minister, with the superb prospect of rattling him early. If that’s going to work, Smith needs to focus himself. Maurice Williamson was always going to have the Transport portfolio, but a clear strategy of stringing David Parker up by the carbon tax noose needs to be devised between the two of them.
Nanaia Mahuta invites a savaging. Realistically, Judith Collins and Katherine Rich are probably the only ones who can carry it off publicly. There’s little to gain from the Customs or Youth Affairs portfolios in a policy sense, but a strong move highlighting her incompetence and/or superfluousness in the Clark Government will be timely at some point this term.
Likewise, I tend to think that Judith Tizard, Dover, Mita and Ririnui should be key Opposition targets. Even if they’re competent—and they mostly aren’t—there simply isn’t enough work for them to do. It’s a classic example of Ministerial excess, of a Government that does not care about the taxpayer.
And lastly we have Foreign Affairs. Murray McCully will never be Foreign Minister in a National Government. If Phil Goff had remained in that post, then the spokesman would have been Wayne Mapp, or Simon Power. But with Winston as the Minister, it is right and proper to bring out the biggest attack-dog of all in McCully as the Opposition spokesman.
McCully thrives on scandal and gossip. Winston will be a key cause of scandal and gossip in Foreign Affairs this term. And while McCully doesn’t have the MFAT networks that the combined sixty-five years’ of service have given associate spokesmen Tim Groser and John Hayes, McCully does have the political instinct, and downright ruthlessness, to go after Winston when Groser and Hayes may have resisted. McCully understands how Winston operates, probably better than any other MP in the House. McCully will teach Groser and Hayes a fair lesson in opposition tactics, to a pair who, while they can manage international politics and bureaucratic functions, are instinctively parliamentary political greenhorns. By the time McCully has made the most of Groser and Hayes’ backgrounds to leave Winston in tatters, Groser will be sufficiently trained to take up the reins as Foreign Minister in a National Government.
Critically, whereas in the past, National was competing with United Future, the Greens, New Zealand First, and Act for media coverage in opposition, National has established itself as the be-all and end-all of opposition this term. Despite Winston’s curiously semantic definition of an Opposition party, neither the public, nor the media, believe that he is not part of the Government. United Future, and only to a slightly lesser extent, the Greens are at least Labour’s cheerleaders. The Maori Party is too dysfunctional to make an impact, or to land hits on the Government, and Act are too small to dominate the agenda. So how National performs this term will dictate the size of its majority and its preparedness for office next election.
The clock has started. We have a weak Labour Government with some feeble Ministers on the one side, and an awesome National-led opposition on the other side. That alone is almost sufficient to feel good about the future of government, and to continue hoping that one day in the not-too-distant future, I will get my tax cut.