Jacinda Ardern’s team: New faces, new portfolios, focus on Covid-response as economic advantage

Jacinda Ardern has assembled teams of ministers to oversee the crucial tasks of keeping out Covid-19 and turning New Zealand’s successful response into economic opportunity.

The Prime Minister has unveiled her intentions for the coming term with a new executive including two new portfolios, seven new faces in Cabinet and a new Deputy Prime Minister, Grant Robertson, who will take up the role after Labour deputy leader Kelvin Davis declined it.

“I think Jacinda and Grant are the dream team,” Davis said yesterday. “They will work fantastically together and they have my full support.”

Davis will instead lead an increased Māori presence – five Cabinet Ministers, two outside Cabinet and one under-secretary – to improve outcomes for Māori.

Davis himself will be Minister for Children, while other portfolios with Māori Ministers include Māori Education, Māori Development, Māori Health, Conservation, Foreign Affairs, Fisheries and Defence.

In an unexpected move, Nanaia Mahuta will be the first Māori woman Foreign Affairs Minister in New Zealand, a choice that political commentator Morgan Godfrey said was “a signal of just how far we’ve come as a country”.

Ardern outlined her priorities as the Covid-19 economic recovery and the ongoing health response to keep the deadly virus out of New Zealand communities.

“The world is in a situation we have never seen before,” Ardern said.

“The UK and Europe are re-entering lockdowns, daily case rates are back to the peaks seen in the first wave, and recent cases at our border show we aren’t immune to what is happening in the rest of the world.

“The challenge of Covid will be with us for many, many months to come.”

Robertson will front the economic recovery with the Finance and Infrastructure roles.

Among his team will be Stuart Nash with Economic and Regional Development, Forestry, Small Business and Tourism, Megan Woods with Housing, Energy and Resources (renewable energy being central in the recovery), and Research, Science and Innovation, David Parker with Environment (including RMA reform), Revenue and new portfolio Oceans and Fisheries, and Damien O’Connor with Trade and Agriculture.

The Covid-19 health response will be continue to be led by Chris Hipkins, whose new Covid-19 Response portfolio will cover testing, managed isolation, and border controls.

He will also look at how to better co-ordinate the public sector response, which stretches across multiple agencies including Customs, Health, and Business Innovation and Employment.

Hipkins will keep Education, Public Services, and be Leader of the House. Losing the rest of the Health portfolio prompted him to quip that he may be less busy than he has been in recent months.

The new Health Minister will be Andrew Little, who did not ask for the job but said he was relishing the challenge of implementing the recommendations of the Heather Simpson review.

He will be supported by Associate Health Ministers Aupito William Sio (Pasifika health), Peeni Henare (Māori health), and new MP Ayesha Verrall (public health) – the latter two joining the Cabinet team.

Ardern said it was not reasonable to have a single minister in charge of the Covid health response as well as major reforms to improve health outcomes for Māori, Pasifika and rural communities in particular.

She said Cabinet was a balance of experience, new talent and, in the case of Verrall, specific expertise.

“I believe we would be foolish not to use the considerable expertise Dr Verrall brings in infectious diseases into our response.”

Other new Cabinet Ministers include Poto Williams, Willie Jackson, Jan Tinetti, Michael Wood, and Kiri Allan. The latter three will be first-time ministers along with Verrall, Priyanca Radhakrishnan, and Greens co-leader Marama Davidson.

Tinetti, a former primary school principal who will have Internal Affairs, Women and Associate Education, said she was “completely speechless” when told she would be a Cabinet Minister, and will work hard to earn her place.

Two extra places in Cabinet were available following Phil Twyford’s and Jenny Salesa’s demotions.

Twyford, whose name was synonymous with Kiwibuild failure and inaction on Auckland light rail, will remain in the executive as Disarmament Minister, but Salesa will lose all her ministerial warrants.

David Clark, who resigned as Health Minister this year following his lockdown indiscretions, will return to Cabinet with portfolios in Commerce and Consumer Affairs, the Digital Economy and Communications, State Owned Enterprises, and the Earthquake Commission.

Meka Whaitiri is also making a comeback, having been stripped of her ministerial warrants following allegations of assault in 2018.

She will be a Minister outside Cabinet with the Customs and Veterans portfolios.

She said she was “absolutely honoured to get a call-back but I’m under no illusions about the enormous scrutiny”.

Kieran McAnulty missed out on being a minister but will be chief whip of Labour’s 64-strong caucus.

He will likely be a minister at a later date, Ardern said.

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