Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has announced a new Cabinet Minister and, for the first time in the country’s history, half of the executive will be women.
Hipkins said Northland MP Willow-Jean Prime would join Cabinet, replacing disgraced former minister Stuart Nash who was stripped of his portfolios after leaking confidential Cabinet information to two donors.
“This means for the first time in New Zealand’s history half of the people sitting around the Cabinet table will be women,” Hipkins said.
New Zealand reached a 50/50 gender split in Parliament for the first time last year.
“Clearly, it is nice to have a Cabinet that reflects the New Zealand population,” Hipkins said, adding that factor did not play into the decision.
“It was a combination of her skills as a person, and the portfolios that she currently holds,” Hipkins said of her appointment.
“I’m confident she will be a very active contributor around the Cabinet table.”
Prime holds the Conservation and Youth ministerial portfolios.
Hipkins also announced Peeni Henare picks up Nash’s Forestry portfolio and Barbara Edmonds takes over Economic Development.
Finance and Expenditure Committee committee chairwoman Rachel Brooking will become a Minister outside Cabinet, picking up Oceans and Fisheries.
The Government also announced changes to its fast-track residency policy, adding 32 health sector roles to the Green List to help prepare the health system for winter.
Hipkins said the Government acknowledged more needed to be done to attract skilled workers from overseas, and that immigration was not an unnecessary barrier to health workers. They had been working since December with the health sector to identify critical areas of shortages.
Dr Ayesha Verrall said when she became Health Minister the workforce was “one of my three key areas of priority” and today’s announcement is a “significant step in attracting more people to come and work in our health system”.
“The 32 health roles being added to the Green List’s Straight to Residence pathway span the wider health sector from enrolled nurses, nurse practitioners, dentists and dental technicians, MRI scanning technologists, paramedics, optometrists and pharmacists to counselling,” Verrall said.
“The Green List now has a total of 48 health roles, all of which are nationally important and all of which will be on the Straight to Residence pathway.”
The list already includes midwives and registered nurses, Verrall said, roles added to the Green List in December. Last month alone almost 900 overseas nurses applied to register to work in New Zealand.
Nurses had earlier been controversially excluded from the Green List.
“These immigration settings will be among the most competitive in the world, and are yet another positive step, along with better wages for nurses and immigration support, to influence the number of health workers who come to New Zealand,” Verrall said.
“These changes are in addition to the steps we have taken to make pay fairer for nurses working in our health sector, some of whom saw up to a 15 per cent increase to their base pay last month.
“We want to train and retain as many local health workers as possible but we have immediate shortages we need to address and today’s changes alongside improvements to pay will go some way to removing barriers to working in New Zealand.”
Immigration Minister Michael Wood said New Zealand had to be competitive as the world faced a global health worker shortage.
“We need more qualified people to help us deliver on our record health investments and help improve access to good healthcare in New Zealand.”
Wood said the Government has “listened” to the health sector and these changes “ensure that immigration settings are as helpful and competitive as possible.”
Transport sector agreement to be extended to skippers and deckhands
Wood said after a discussion with the sector skippers and deckhands will be added to the transport sector agreement.
“In our seaside cities, ferries form an essential part of the public transport system, so it is critical that ferry service operators have access to key workers to enhance the reliability of these services,” Wood said.
“The market rate for skippers is already above the median wage. Operators will need to continue to pay migrant worker skippers the market rate and migrant worker deckhands will need to be paid at least the median wage to utilise this sector agreement.”
Wood said the Government is providing a time-limited pathway to residence for skippers piloting boats essential to public transport routes, the supply chain, tourism operators and other operators.
“Final details of the transport sector agreement will be confirmed shortly, with implementation expected to begin from late May,” Wood said.
Green Party immigration spokesman Ricardo Menendez March said they welcomed the broadening of immigration settings but should not only be focused on filling labour shortages.
”Migrants do not deserve to be kept in limbo on a temporary visa.
“Having your visa attached to a single employer contributes to exploitation, which is an unfortunate reality for many migrants.”
Covid-19 settings to remain for next two months
The Government also looked at Covid-19 settings, including dropping the seven-day isolation requirement, but Hipkins confirmed the Covid-19 settings would remain the same for the next two months.
It was a “difficult balancing act”, Hipkins said.
They had asked for specific advice on testing to return to work to help inform their next decision.
The isolation period not only relieved the health system but also meant there were no labour market issues, Hipkins said.
Some of the biggest issues in the education sector last year was teachers being off sick.
Hipkins said international experiences were considered, and the country was heading towards a situation where Covid-19 was normal.
“Pretty much all of the other restrictions are gone now. We are moving to that era where Covid-19 is just one of those things the Ministry of Health manages.”
Hipkins said despite increasing capacity New Zealand was not yet at a point where it could treat Covid-19 as yet another illness.
Hipkins said he believed the health system was in a better place now than it was pre-Covid but a major challenge remained in the workforce, which he said was being addressed in today’s announcement.
Hipkins earlier told RNZ’s Morning Report the Government would “consider all of the ins and outs of removing restrictions, and the risk associated with that. And we’ve also then got to look at the benefits of keeping restrictions in place as.”
Hipkins noted that removing restrictions may alleviate labour shortages for some businesses, as workers would no longer be required to isolate.
The Prime Minister said very few Covid-19 restrictions are still in place, but isolation is one of them.
Nato: PM invited to meeting in Lithuania
Hipkins confirmed he had been invited to a Nato meeting in Lithuania this year but had not made a decision on attending yet. He hoped to announce a travel programme in the next week.
Hipkins said Nato played an important role and New Zealand worked with like-minded countries on certain issues, including the Russia-Ukraine war.
No more ‘Three Waters’, now ‘Affordable Water Infrastructure’
Hipkins said he would not comment on a BusinessDesk report today that the Government had decided to expand the four water entities involved in the contentious Three Waters reforms into 10.
Hipkins had previously signalled while the water infrastructure reforms would not be on the policy “bonfire” of reprioritisation, it would be changed to reflect concerns.
BusinessDesk also reported the new model would retain co-governance elements and take ownership away from local councils, which would enable the entities to borrow more but drew concerns over a loss of control.
Hipkins refused to comment on any of the reports but said the public can expect “further announcements imminently”.
Hipkins was also asked about comments he made to The Hui about how he felt Nanaia Mahuta, who was minister responsible for the reforms, had been let down and forced to face abuse alone.
“We have been reflecting critically on that, I’ve made that observation to her as well.
“I think it was unfortunate that she ended up copping the level of disgusting abuse that she did during that period.”
Asked what the Government would do differently this time, Hipkins said it would be a combination of better explaining the policy while also better supporting the minister responsible, Kieran McAnulty.
“I think you will see the Government will taking more of a team approach to communicating what we’re doing around the future of water infrastructure.
“I think we probably should have provided more support to [Mahuta] through that.”
Hipkins said his comment was not a reflection on former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
”All of the decisions we make as a Government are collective decisions.”
Asked why he no longer used the phrase “Three Waters” to describe the long-planned reforms, Hipkins said the term had become “somewhat confused”.
“Because fundamentally, it’s about water infrastructure. And it’s about making sure that we’re dealing with the country’s water infrastructure deficit.
“Let’s call it what it is. It’s about making sure we have affordable water infrastructure improvements.
“There is a massive bill coming down the pipeline, if you’ll excuse the pun. That’s what these reforms are about.”