Editorial: Lack of depth in Cabinet starts to show

Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Several recent Government decisions give cause for concern about the Cabinet's calibre beyond the first few chairs at the table.

One decision, outlined by the Prime Minister to the National Party conference, was a social welfare scheme to supervise young unemployed and control their spending.

Another, announced by Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson last week, was to put more inspectors into coal mines.

Both were perfectly sensible decisions. The reason for concern is that not long before the announcements, the ministers in charge of each portfolio had been following a different line.

Social Welfare Minister Paula Bennett had told a correspondent who suggested closer benefit supervision that "such oversight by the Crown would be highly intrusive and rob individuals of their freedom of choice".

And Ms Wilkinson had rejected repeated calls for more mines inspectors, saying she would wait for the conclusions of the Pike River inquiry.

Their embarrassment echoes that of Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne a few weeks ago when he was obliged to take hasty steps to ban the sale of synthetic cannabis products after insisting for months that he could not act without better evidence that they were unsafe.

In each case, it is not hard to imagine what changed these positions. Senior Cabinet members - certainly John Key, probably Finance Minister Bill English and Transport Minister Steven Joyce and maybe one or two others - would have taken a sudden interest.

The issue might have just come to Cabinet level, or somebody was mine-sweeping for issues that could bite the Government at the election, or the issue simply became clearer to a fresh set of eyes. It does not much matter how it happened, it is an admission the earlier positions were wrong.

In each case, the position of the portfolio holders sounded like advice of officials. It was standard procedure to wait for the Pike River inquiry, to be wary of intrusive welfare reforms and prohibition of new mood-altering substances. But politicians are elected to bring common sense to an issue when institutional advice is unduly cautious.

Ms Bennett, Ms Wilkinson and Mr Dunne made the wrong calls and Ms Bennett is now so unnerved that she declines to say whether she can rule out an extension of the new, "intrusive" youth unemployment reforms to all beneficiaries. Clearly she is wary lest Mr Key and the others decide to expand the idea. Clearly she is not in that loop.

It is not usual for governments to be dominated by as few as two or three individuals, but not ideal either. A prime minister, finance minister and all others have enough to do without having to second-guess colleagues. Governments can be rated on how confidently all ministers handle their patch. On that score, this one is not measuring well.

Mr Key's popularity is of course its greatest asset but it is becoming hard to see anyone behind him. His political instincts are well honed to neutralise controversy and pick issues he can win. Perhaps he does not trust many in his ministry to tread as carefully.

When we look down the list, just a few stand out: Mr Joyce, Justice Minister Simon Power - but he is leaving at the election - Health Minister Tony Ryall, who appears to have pacified that restive sector, and Judith Collins, who has had her moments. But in a Cabinet of 20, more members of conspicuous talent could be desired.

Several impending retirements allow Mr Key to freshen his ranks now if he wishes. It would do him no harm. It is risky for any government to rely too much on its Prime Minister for too long. Sooner or later he will tire or the public will tire of him. If he wins a second term, he might need a better team.

- NZ Herald

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