This column is not about the Government successes nor the Opposition failures. Its purpose is to learn from the various flapdoodles, some of which are significant, some of which are trivial.

Own Goals

A number have been own goals. They include those by ex-ministers Clare Curran and Meka Whaitiri and by Julie-Anne Genter whose remarks about ‘old white males’ were partly true but put more tactfully should have led to a useful discussion rather than closing the topic off. Kelvin Davis’ performance as acting Prime Minister in parliament probably belongs here.

I puzzle over Iain Lees-Galloway’s decision about Karel Sroubek. We do not have all the facts; many were happy to take a minute or two to criticise Lees-Galloway taking only an hour to make the decision. (Can ministers afford that amount of time?) What is clear is that when trying to defend himself, he turned firmly towards his own goal and booted the ball.

While these may all be one-offs, they may also reflect how little preparation politicians have to become ministers. Whining in opposition hardly prepares a cabined minister. The experience of watching is not enough. I am not arguing for a university course (no doubt taught badly) on how to be a minister but I wonder if parliament should institute a case studies program for opposition and junior backbenchers.

Some own goals also involved the arrogance of position. Those who become MPs or ministers suddenly think themselves better than they are. Perhaps Aaron Gilmore should be forgotten, but how the new MP began threatening a waiter illustrates the blatant arrogance that promotion can generate. Ministers can be no better. In truth the average MP is – well, er – average and the average minister only a little better.

Too frequently politicians forget they are the servants of the people, not their masters. This is well illustrated by the British MPs who think that there should not be another referendum on Brexit because consulting the people would undermine democracy.


Legacy contretemps are carryovers from past decisions which were not made by the current minister or even the current government. Any list would include:

  • 1080 (Eugenie Sage)
  • Biosecurity including M Bovis (Damien O’Connor)
  • Census (James Shaw)
  • Christchurch Earthquake Settlements (Megan Woods)
  • Double bunking of prisoners (Kelvin Davis)
  • Funded Family Care (David Clark)
  • Immigration Fraud (Iain Lees-Galloway)
  • Middlemore Hospital (David Clark)
  • Operation Burnham (Ron Mark)
  • P Contamination of State Housing (Carmel Sepuloni)
  • Pike River (Andrew Little)
  • Polytech Struggles (Chris Hipkins)
  • Private Investigators (Chris Hipkins)
  • Quality of Private Training Establishments (Chris Hipkins)
  • TPP (David Parker)
  • Treaty Settlements (Andrew Little)
  • Warrants of Fitness (Phil Twyford)

In addition there are numerous cases of past failure to provide adequate funding which have been overwhelming the new government.

Some issues have been handled well, some clumsily, some badly. In many cases ministers have failed to get across the point that the problems arose before their watch. In some cases the minister may have handled the fracas badly enough for the legacy issue to damage them eventually.


Hard decisions which have generated a lot of public flak:

  • Capital Gains Taxes (Michael Cullen)
  • Petrol Taxes (Phil Twyford)
  • The Budget Responsibility Rules (Grant Robertson)

Taxes will always cause a public outcry. However, those involved have, thus far, defended their decisions poorly by failing to highlight the benefits of the measures. I do not agree with the precise Budget Responsibility Rules but fiscal conservativism is a politically challenging, but necessary position, for a Minister of Finance to take.

It reminds that this government has very few friends or sympathetic critics in the public discourse. This is inept political management; they may recognise the deficiency shortly before the next election.

Policy Implementation Problems

Some not-necessarily bad policies which appear to be being badly implemented:

  • Housing (Phil Twyford)
  • Regional Development (Shane Jones)
  • Wages Claims (various)
  • Working Parties (numerous)

I’ve included the pressure of wage claims because the neoliberals abolished the Minister of Labour. A plethora of working parties is common among new governments but the unusually high numbers reflects that the new government frequently had no policy plans and was scurrying around trying to find them.

The bureaucracy seems to have been unprepared for these policy initiatives. Did the insufficient forward planning reflecting their inherent deficiencies or lack of resources? It is possible that there was a conscious direction from previous politicians that they should not expend any effort on alternative policy development. The current law would mean that departments would obey, although I am sure that is not what the public wants.

Political Mismanagement?

There are probably more. It is not that the policies are necessarily wrong; just that they were dealt with badly.

  • Oil and Gas Exploration Ban (Eugenie Sage)
  • Student Fees (Chris Hipkins)

Coalition Contretemps

Much of our head space is still in a pre-MMP environment in which deals and compromises were almost always done behind the scenes. (A famous exception was backbencher Michael Minogue’s public pressuring for an Official Information Act in the early 1980s, despite reluctance from Rob Muldoon and officials.)

  • Changes in Labour Laws
  • Third Strike
  • Waka Jumping Bill.
  • Zero Carbon Bill.

We need to grow up and expect – even celebrate – political deals especially when the negotiations are reasonably transparent and even when the outcome is not our preferred one.

Failure of Bureaucracy

In some cases, ministers seems to be being steam-rolled by the bureaucracy. It will be interesting if ministers finally take charge.

  • National Library and Archives (Grant Robertson/Tracey Martin)
  • State Service Changes (Chris Hipkins)
  • Wally Haumaha (Stuart Nash)

I am not sure where to put the kafuffle over core education. (Chris Hipkins)

That’s my list. There are, no doubt, omissions and there will be more items this year. You may not always agree with my interpretation, but there seem to be four main themes:

First, many ministers were unprepared for government.

Second, despite their public arrogance, some cabinet ministers do not seem to be in charge of their portfolios

Third, there are worries about the capacity of some state agencies to function at the level that ministers and the public expect of them.

Fourth, one is not happy with the government’s overall political management as presented to the public.

Governing is a harder task than it seems in opposition or to the commentariat. A new government has a lot to learn. We await next year’s report.

Comments (4)

by Charlie on January 27, 2019


Broadly, I agree with what you're saying.

A few years ago I had a long chat over a few beers with a long standing MP who has since retired. He said that being a backbencher was the worst possible training for becoming a minister. "The most creative thing a backbencher gets to do is fill in his expense claim". So a new MP sits in parliament day in day out going mad with boredom whilst a few key players make all the decisions. This can go on for years until one day: Bingo! He/her becomes a minister and is working 12-16 hour days - completely unprepared.

Regarding the Oil & Gas exploration ban and student fees, these weren't just handled badly, they were appalling policy decisions:

The oil & gas exploration ban, if not reversed by the next government, will hurt the NZ economy AND increase our carbon footprint. A double own-goal. It is a true reflection of the technical illiteracy of the Greens.

Free first year student fees was a subsidy for middle and upper class students. Student numbers didn't increase. Bursaries for poor kids would have been a much better idea.

by Fentex on January 27, 2019

I disagree profiundly with some of the thoughts expressed here - as illustrated by this one;

Perhaps Aaron Gilmore should be forgotten, but how the new MP began threatening a waiter illustrates the blatant arrogance that promotion can generate. 

Promotion did not make Gilmore the prat that he is.

It is a oft repeated truism that peoples true characters will out when they are given power, and if you want to know someone you learn more by watching how they treat those serving them than their attitude towards peers.

Gilmore only revealed himself, he was not changed.

So while the idea of preparing to equip people to do these difficult jobs has obvious merit, it's objective should not be confused with avoiding the revelation of character getting those jobs may provide the public.

by Kat on January 27, 2019

The reality is Brian that the worst minister in the present govt is way better than anyone in the opposition. What choice do we have but to let the current crop mature and serve the country well. 99% of this govts decisions have been good and the PM is the best we have seen since Big Norm.

by Pat on January 27, 2019

the sad truth is any politician who manages to navigate their way to a cabinet position has abandoned any public interest they may have set out with...Douglas Adams was on the money with this one.

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