As Transport Minister, Michael Wood is used to traipsing about with hard hats on and he may well need them in his new role as Auckland Minister.
Wood is the real winner of Prime Minister Chris Hipkins’ reshuffle. His portfolio mix and promotion to the front bench give him a lot more clout than he enjoyed before - including the newly created (or at least reincarnated) role of Minister for Auckland.
The latter could be important. It is aimed as a pre-emptive counter to the inevitable attacks from Auckland-based Opposition leaders such as Christopher Luxon and David Seymour that the Wellington-based Hipkins is a beltway creation and out of touch with Aucklanders’ concerns.
It sends a signal Hipkins has his eye on Auckland and knows its importance. Auckland mayor Wayne Brown tweeted that Hipkins had made an “excellent choice”. It remains unclear whether that is good news or bad news for Wood.
There is a risk it could turn out to be little more than symbolic window dressing. There is also risk Wood has just found himself doomed to a year of stalemates and loggerheads with Brown.
Such a role is what a minister makes it and what the rest of Cabinet lets them do with it. That can depend on how much clout the particular minister has.
In Helen Clark’s time it was held by Judith Tizard and it was scrapped by National, who thought Auckland was a pretty critical cog for all ministers’ portfolios anyway.
Hipkins has given it to Wood with some clout: Wood keeps his transport portfolio, critical for Auckland, and gets a promotion to the front bench and an associate finance role.
That is a sign that perhaps Hipkins also sees him as a potential successor as Minister of Finance in the event the role opens up at some future point. It could also be seen as a sign he considers Wood a future leader if the election does not pan out as Hipkins hopes.
Hipkins had set out his plan for a new “bread and butter” focus from Labour, but his first job was selecting the cutlery for it. His first Cabinet reshuffle went further than many probably expected.
It is the line-up he hopes will help win him the election. He was brutal enough for it to be actual change, rather than just shuffling Jacinda Ardern’s deck.
But he kept the tight-five at the top intact to offer stability and experience. Of Ardern’s top five, the only one missing is Ardern: Carmel Sepuloni is there instead.
Hipkins set out his reshuffle by reminding people of his plan to focus on the cost of living and not Labour’s nice-to-haves. All ministers should bear that in mind. Act leader David Seymour’s first response was that changing who sat where meant diddly-squat if policies didn’t also change. That is next on Hipkins’ to-do list.
There will be a test ahead for some: the new ministers and for Ayesha Verrall, who in her first term in Parliament now holds the most politically fraught portfolio of them all: health.
There is no doubt Verrall has the qualifications and intelligence to do it. Her test will be in contending with the politics of it. New Education Minister Jan Tinetti will have a similar challenge.
There was some careful balancing for the Māori caucus – the slip down the rankings for Nanaia Mahuta and Peeni Henare were compensated for with promotions for Willie Jackson and Kiri Allan, one urban, one regional.
In the end it was a reshuffle with no real losers – only one person, poor old Phil Twyford, ended up being kicked out of a ministerial post and on to the back benches.
Plenty of spaces were opened up by the four ministers who had already said they were leaving – including Ardern herself.
Some of the remaining ministers will be stinging at losing their preferred portfolios or being shunted off the front bench. Others may well be relieved.
Hipkins’ next job will be scrubbing out the arrogance that has crept into some of those longer-serving ministers who might feel the first way. There is no time for sulking.
Some of the shifts were what Ardern would likely have done anyway.
Mahuta’s demotion and portfolio loss will be seen as a punishment by some for the fraught management of the Three Waters reforms. But it had long been thought likely that Mahuta would lose Local Government and be left only with Foreign Affairs – the two portfolios were never compatible, given one requires the minister to travel around New Zealand a lot and the other requires them to be overseas a lot.
The big question mark is whether Mahuta will now go overseas: she has done precious little international travel, especially compared to Trade Minister Damien O’Connor and Ardern. Former Foreign Minister Murray McCully also only held that one portfolio.
If she does indeed spend more time overseas, there is little point having her on the front bench back home.