The most striking and welcome feature of the Cabinet named yesterday is the spreading of responsibility for the security intelligence agencies. The Prime Minister was probably glad to be rid of sole responsibility after the trouble it caused him in the last term of Parliament, but it is a change that should have been made many governments ago. It has always seemed unhealthy that the surveillance of individuals by the SIS and the GCSB should have been known only to prime ministers apart from a warranting judge.
It was knowledge that one or two prime ministers have possibly relished too much, though not this one. John Key's admission of "brain fade" over a briefing on Kim Dotcom suggests he did not find pieces of intelligence particularly riveting. He will pass direct oversight of the agencies to the Attorney General, which should sit comfortably with that role. While Chris Finlayson will be solely responsible for applications for interception warrants and other authorisations, Mr Key will head a new system of general oversight of security needs.
As a newly designated Minister of National Security, he will have regular briefings from the heads of the SIS and GCSB on developments within New Zealand and internationally, and he will chair a Cabinet committee of senior ministers, including the Attorney General, that will be responsible for policy and legislation for the agencies.
The system has been modelled on those in Australia and Britain and looks capable of being continued by future New Zealand governments, particularly if Mr Key can gain Labour's support for legislation to set it up. Security has usually had a high degree of bipartisan agreement in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. The sooner that can resume with Labour's next leader, the better.
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The new Cabinet line up is also interesting for the personalities it brings to the fore. Paula Bennett is now the highest ranking woman in the Government, taking Judith Collins' place at number five and putting her in the "kitchen Cabinet" that meets informally with the Prime Minister before Cabinet meetings. She may be less excited by her portfolios though. Mr Key had made it known she wanted to relinquish Social Development and take on an economic role. She has been given an associate position in Finance along with State Services, Local Government and Social Housing. The last is part of three-way division of the housing portfolio.
Other notable promotions are Simon Bridges, who adds Transport to his Energy portfolio, and Amy Adams, entrusted with Justice and Courts. Both will move to a front bench in Parliament, indicating the potential Mr Key must see in them. Perhaps the most surprising new front bencher is Jonathan Coleman. As a doctor he would be an obvious pick for health except that the retiring Tony Ryall had shown the portfolio could be adeptly handled by someone outside the medical profession, and Dr Coleman has made some mistakes in other roles, notably immigration when Mr Dotcom's residency was approved.
There are disappointingly few fresh Cabinet faces. Maggie Barry comes in to do Conservation and Arts, Culture and Heritage and Paul Goldsmith becomes a Minister outside Cabinet with Commerce and Consumer Affairs. As a reward perhaps for being the fall guy in Epsom, Mr Goldsmith will get higher status and pay than its young Act MP who is to be an under-secretary. But from a caucus that has been so large for six years, we expected more promotions yesterday. Mr Key has proven capable of renewing his ranks ruthlessly when he wants to. The talent pool must be shallow.