Ardern takes charge and sets up inner cabinet

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The Prime Minister has effectively restructured her Government’s Cabinet committees and anointed an inner Cabinet which looks as though it will now be the powerhouse that drives the Government.

She announced the decision yesterday at her big policy speech in Auckland.

It should consolidate her own power within the Government because it means that most decisions will be filtered through her own hand-picked committee before they make it to Cabinet as a whole.

But as the speech showed she had no new policy to present.

Instead, with the theatre of Winston Peters introducing her with a speech about how united Government was and her unveiling of the new roles for the Cabinet committees, it was clear that she was there really to address the substantial criticism that has been being made about her Government.

Those criticisms have been that the Government did not seem to have a unified message and that its Ministers were not working as a team.

Though she divided the Government’s goals up into three major segments with four points under each, it was the Council of Trade Unions President, Richard Wagstaff, commenting on the speech, who defined what she was trying to say.

"Compassion is at the heart of the Coalition Government," he said.

"A hands-off Government was not working for New Zealand, the big social and environmental crises of our times such as housing, income inequality and the risks of a warming climate were being ignored or downplayed."

"It’s very positive to see a Government that is committed to lifting living standards for all, and we look forward to a Budget next year that will incorporate a wider range of measures of success."

But it was her own admission that the her Cabinet had not been working well which possibly pointed to what the day was all about.

She said that Cabinet and Cabinet committees were “demand driven”.

“Ministers generate papers on their own policy areas and take them to cabinet committees for a decision,” she said.

“They then go up to cabinet.

“It can be reactionary at worst, and siloed at best.

“Hardly the way to deal with the difficult challenges in this modern environment.”

 And so the “plan” she announced yesterday has been split up among the Cabinet Committees.

“ Each has a new job.

“They will help make sure budget bids meet our priorities, that our programmes are being delivered, and that we are making a difference.”

The plan has been divided up between seven Committees, but two have a bigger load than the rest.

The Social Wellbeing Committee, chaired by Carmel Sepuloni will be required to manage four of the 12 priorities listed by Ardern:

They are:

  • To ensure that everyone is either earning, learning, caring or volunteering
  • Support healthier, safer and more connected communities
  • Ensuring everyone has a warm, dry home
  • To make New Zealand the best place in the world to be a child.

And the Economic Development Committee, chaired by Grant Robertson, will have two priorities:

  • Grow and share New Zealand’s prosperity
  • Support thriving and sustainable regions (

But what is new about Ardern’s plan is that all the Cabinet Committees will now report to another Cabinet Committee, the Cabinet Priorities Committee. (CPC)

This will be a super-Committee which will funnel the work of the other Committees into the main Cabinet.

Significantly, it is chaired by Ardern.

Six  Cabinet Ministers;  Ron Mark, Shane Jones, Iain Lees-Galloway, Stuart Nash, Damien O’Connor and Jenny Salesa are not members.

It does, however, include Greens co-Leader, James Shaw, who is not a Cabinet member but who will now have more influence than previously.

The fact that it does not include Jones will raise questions, particularly given the way his Regional Development and Infrastructure portfolios straddle such a wide range of policy areas.

Ardern released a Cabinet paper outlining how the new structure would work.

“Each Cabinet committee  (will) report to the CPC on the key initiatives in the forward work programme and a set of overall indicators, “ it said.

This would suggest that the Priorities Committee will now become a “Cabinet within a Cabinet” where the real power in the Government will reside.

The reaction of the six Ministers who have been excluded will be interesting, but they will have to confront the fact that their ability to influence the overall direction of the Government has now been reduced.

The role of the Cabinet Priorities Committee in essentially managing the whole of Government’s business is set out in the paper.

“t is noted that due to the complexity of the policy challenges facing the country, the priority outcomes and related initiatives support one another (for example, ensuring everyone has a warm, dry home will support thriving regions, and growing and sharing prosperity).

“There will, therefore, be a number of interdependencies.

“Establishing the timetable and managing the delivery of these will be a key task of the relevant Cabinet committees.

“In particular, Cabinet Priorities Committee (CPC) will have a role in ensuring this takes place.”

The paper says that “This approach provides a management tool to coordinate activity across Government.”

But the Priorities Committee is to be more than a coordinating body; it will have the power to demand reports from Ministers “on strategically important issues to ensure the efficient management of issues.”.

Ardern is the author of the paper, and she says: " My expectation is that the Cabinet  Priorities Committee will track progress against the Government's overall agenda and make adjustments to the work programme as appropriate.

“In this regard, I note the Cabinet Priorities Committee includes representation from all Government parties.

“The Committee will itself report through to Cabinet to ensure wider visibility of its deliberations.”

 The Priorities Committee is a new development at the Beehive.

The nearest the National Government has was its Business Committee, a much smaller body than the Priorities Committee, but, like it, chaired by the Prime Minister.

However, its brief was strictly limited: “To consider policy issues, appointments, bills and regulations, and other matters that require decisions before the next scheduled applicable Cabinet committee meeting, when other committees are not meeting, and the House of Representatives is adjourned.

“CBC will meet only on a strictly if required basis.”

Currently, the Priorities Committee meets only monthly. That will surely have to change given its new over-arching powers.

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