Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

< Columns

Chippy's Chickens Fly the Coop


While sympathetic journalists weep over Kiri Allan's mental health woes and her manifold romantic troubles, everyone overlooks the real problem she shares with many other ministers in Chris Hipkins' lack-lustre government - insufficient experience of real life. Getting to know how Parliament operates, spending time in opposition, and watching what is expected of a minister, are vital before becoming one. Three of Chris Hipkins' accident-prone ministers this year - Michael Wood, Jan Tinetti and Kiri Allan - were all promoted far too early in their political careers. One previous term in the House isn't enough. Yet Hipkins has Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Kieran McAnulty, Ginny Andersen and Willow-Jean Prime with only one prior term in the House, all of it under Labour leadership, before starting to grapple with cabinet agendas. Three more ministers outside cabinet - Duncan Webb, Deborah Russell and Jo Luxton are in the same cohort. But wait for it: ministers Ayesha Verrall, Barbara Edmonds and Rachel Brooking are only in their very first terms in Parliament, elected in 2020. That is extremely risky promotion. They are all accidents waiting to happen. What it tells us is how little talent the current Prime Minister has at his disposal. Not surprisingly, Hipkins has chosen not to fill the two latest holes in his cabinet. It's just too much of a gamble. He's facing enough risk as it is.

When you think of today's problems - the world-wide Covid pandemic, unusually high inflation causing a cost-of-living crisis, high interest rates, a shortage of housing and sliding educational standards, not to mention the Maorification craze that Labour has pumped up - it's foolish to promote people you barely know to ministerial rank. For Kiri Allan the aggressive, tempestuous emotional highs and lows in her love-life would have warned her colleagues had she been longer in the caucus. Jan Tinetti's ignorance of parliamentary rules and her general inadequacy as a minister would also have become clear, while Michael Wood's overall lack of common sense, and inadequate respect for the taxpayer that saw him promote a $785 million walking and cycling bridge across the Waitemata Harbour and promise a $29 billion not-so-rapid rail to Auckland's airport were all announced before there had been adequate cabinet discussion. To put it kindly, a cabinet of amateurs fresh off the streets is no guarantee of quality decision-making.

Most of all, effective ministers need to have read copiously before entering cabinet. Labour's most creative minds, Peter Fraser, Roger Douglas, Helen Clark and Michael Cullen knew their history, what had worked, and what hadn't. All of them were to be seen around Parliament with a book in their hands. Each had had lots of political experience and put it to good effect once in cabinet. I found reading a three-page article in a recent Weekend Herald about Chris Hipkins' background very revealing. Yes, he's an enthusiastic landscape gardener and a handyman who builds retaining walls. But there was no mention of reading. I have long suspected that three of our more recent leaders, John Key, Jacinda Ardern and now Chris Hipkins haven't read the 157-word English translation of the Maori version of the Treaty of Waitangi. Jacinda admitted it, while the others simply demonstrated it. It is one reason why all three have made such a mess of race relations. It explains why they each fell so easily for the bumf that tribal leaders spout by the truck load. And none of them has read much, if anything, about New Zealand's history. Ignorance explains why they fell for the notion that Maori are indigenous, when Maori tradition is that they sailed in by waka from Hawaiki - most probably Rarotonga. When Hipkins takes time off, he goes for walks or rides his mountain bike. That, and playing at student-like politics. He's learnt to be cautious. But reading and sopping up knowledge about his party's history isn't his strength.

So, I guess we can't be surprised that Hipkins presides over the least experienced cabinet in our recent history. Putting my political historian's hat on, the only weaker one was the ministry sworn into office at the end of 1928 under the decrepit, re-cycled Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward. Four of his ministers had been elected for the first time to Parliament only days before and found themselves instantly in Cabinet. It's no surprise that they were quickly overwhelmed by the gathering world depression. Let's hope it doesn't come to that before we can despatch Hipkins' so-called "Labour" government.

Another bit of vital knowledge that comes with political experience is the realisation that effective government requires more than voting appropriate sums of money. Nothing happens unless ministers monitor carefully what is then done by their departments. Remember Phil Twyford's Kiwibuild that was going to construct an extra 100,000 houses, and which six years later has given us only 3,000? And the $1.9 billion that was voted for mental health in 2018? It seems never to have been spent. Ministers are not allowed to involve themselves in day-to-day administration. That is the sole responsibility of their departmental CEOs with whom they have a contract. But, along with many other ministers, I met with my senior departmental officials each Monday morning and worked through a check list on progress in key areas, offering help if any was needed. Ministers have to know their departments and their leaders, and be able quickly to identify areas of weakness. From Day One the Ardern-Hipkins ministries revealed themselves to be inadequately prepared to face the challenges of office. We are witnessing the consequent, predictable collapse.