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Chris Ford: National's Cabinet reshuffle - Hekia Parata's still in but why is Phil Heatley and Kate Wilkinson out?

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 I'm a bit surprised by today's Cabine reshuffle news.

We all knew it was coming as Prime Minister John Key had foreshadowed it prior to Christmas. What Kate Wilkinson and Phil Heatley. What they could never have realised, though, was that they would be completely dumped to make way for former Conservation Minister Nick Smith and a whole swag of new talent including Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye and future leadership prospect Simon Bridges.

Not that Heatley or Wilkinson will be missed, mind you. Wilkinson is detested by the union movement for having introduced the first slew of serious anti-worker law changes since the Employment Contracts Act of 1991. Some employers have also been critical of Wilkinson for being too slow in reforming Section 6A of the Employment Relations Act. This is the clause that the Labour-Alliance Government introduced around workers being transferred from one employer to another as part of a business sale process being able to keep the same pay, terms and conditions they enjoyed under a previous employer. In other words, she wasn't keeping either the bosses or the workers happy. In Conservation, she fronted the first National Government backdown in overturning earlier proposals to mine Schedule Four protected Conservation land.

Mind you, she will always have some kudos with me for resigning her Labour portfolio in the wake of the Pike River Royal Commission's report last year. This made her the only minister in recent living memory to resign on the basis of taking ministerial responsibility for any inaction and omissions in her portfolio which led to that tragedy. She also knew when to back down over the mining of Schedule Four land. Apparently, she was the staunchest opponent of then Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee's ecologically dangerous plan in Cabinet. For being the only minister to recognise the strength of public opinion on both these issues, she gets dumped.

And what did Phil Heatley do to get shafted? All of the early emerging early commentary points to Heatley's pathetic handling of the re-emerging housing affordability crisis and his presiding over Housing New Zealand Corporation's shambolic change from having actual walk-in offices to an 0800 call centre operation. However, Heatley has been the second-most honest minister (after Wilkinson) in the entire National Government following his well-publicised (and brief) resignation over his misspending on a bottle of red wine. And for being an honest politician, he gets shafted too.

When you look at the shortcomings of both sacked ministers, then why is Hekia Parata still in Cabinet - and as Minister of Education?

Parata is an example (and almost a by-word) for ministerial incompetence. Her litany of mistakes and missteps is well known - but why has Key kept her on? The missteps of both Wilkinson and Heatley pale in comparison to those made by Parata. As John Armstrong on the New Zealand Herald website opined this afternoon: "Both ministers can justifiably ask why they have been axed and Parata has not."

The PM has justified letting Parata stay on on the basis that she is new to the portfolio and communicates well. But the teachers and parents of Christchurch and the thousands of teachers still waiting for Novopay to work might well beg to differ. Her communication and planning around the Christchurch school restructurings has been a shambles and she's been a no-show when asked for comment on the Novopay crisis.

I think John Key might have made the second biggest error of his prime ministership. While National's poll ratings are holding up now, any further stuff ups by Parata (and I guess there might be more coming) could see her demoted or pushed out of Cabinet altogether. The short-term beneficiaries of this decision will be (apart from Parata) the opposition parties who will be salivating over their continued ability to question Parata in the House. And she's the Government's weakest link by a country mile.

I would add to all the speculation around Parata's retention by guessing (and it's only a guess) that she is being retained to mollify the Bill English 'Brat Pack' faction. Remember, Key is National leader today by virtue of the fact that English initially was the second contestant in the leadership contest that followed Don Brash's resignation in 2006. English's dropping out of the contest and his declaration of support for Key in return for the deputy leadership ensured that Key could achieve his lifetime ambition of becoming leader - and this is something he hasn't forgotten. While Key might be planning an early retirement within the next two years, he wants to remain in office to give himself a legacy. Privatisation and regressive welfare reforms don't sound like much of a legacy but this is what Key wants to be remembered for (among other things). Key isn't prepared to piss off English and his supporters at any cost as, if he did, it would destabilise his leadership. That's why Brat Packer Nick Smith will be sitting in Cabinet again come next week. And Key is also said to be genuinely impressed with Parata's abilities - even if the rest of New Zealand isn't.

Still, Parata is being shadowed by two very able ministers - and on purpose. One, Nikki Kaye, has made an incredible mark in her first two terms as an MP and is said to have a good grasp of IT education issues. The other is National's Mr Fixit man Steven Joyce who, as Associate Education Minister, is about to get heavy with Novopay over the teacher's pay debacle - one hopes! It's clear that while Key might be impressed about Parata's abilities and is wanting to retain her services for politically expedient reasons, the PM might be prepared to demote or sack her should things continue to go bad in education - as I predict they will do this year.

It's clear then that one minister - Parata - has been the most surprised by the last week's news. And she probably has a very powerful ally to thank for that - Bill English. For Key, though, he might well come to regret this decision.

 

 

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