A poser for Clark: how to renew and refresh her cabinet

The cabinet meets today for the first time this year. How much different will the cabinet be this time next year?

In four years Clark has made only two major changes: Parekura Horomia into Maori affairs and Paul Swain from commerce to transport. Both were forced: by Dover Samuels’ economy with facts about his past and by Mark Gosche’s family tragedy.

Can she go to the next election with no more major changes? Conventional wisdom says no, for two reasons.

One is that, while the same ageing faces can be reassuring in a competent government, eventually there is a risk of unfavourable comparisons by voters if the opposition rejuvenates. Ministers may accumulate wisdom through longevity in a portfolio but they also accumulate detractors and a list of things gone wrong.

The second reason is that a long-lived government, which this one aspires to be — talk of a fourth term wafted through Labour’s conference in November — needs constantly to renew itself to maintain vigour and generate new ideas.

An obvious comparison is with Sir Keith Holyoake, whose government went four terms from 1960. The 1969 election was touch and go against Norman Kirk’s refreshed Labour lineup. Holyoake’s winning margin may well have been clinched by his renewal of his cabinet in 1966.

Holyoake left his strong inner cabinet — deputy Sir John Marshall, Ralph Hanan and Tom Shand — in the same major portfolios for nine years. So there is precedent for Clark leaving, say, Michael Cullen and one or two other senior ministers unchanged for the next term.

But after the 1966 election Holyoake brought in three future high flyers, Duncan MacIntyre (Deputy Prime Minister in1983-84), Peter Gordon and Sir Robert Muldoon (Prime Minister in 1975-83) among five new appointments.

Muldoon in particular quickly won a following as a tough-minded, straight-talking Finance Minister. His appointment alone may have saved Holyoake’s bacon in 1969. Certainly the reshuffle injected vigour.

Holyoake could do this in his 16-member cabinet because three ministers retired, one died and he expanded the cabinet by one.

Clark has no impending retirements. Her ministry is relatively young and so less likely than Holyoake’s to oblige with untimely deaths. And, while she has expanded the executive outside the cabinet to accommodate ambition and factional balance, she cannot creditably expand a 20-member cabinet already larger than the job it does.

The only movement in prospect is Speaker Jonathan Hunt, slotted to take over from former Foreign Minister Russell Marshall as High Commissioner in London early next year. Though there have been recent doubts in some high quarters about Hunt’s suitability for the job, the word is still that he is going.

That would enable Clark to move Annette King, who is said to want out of health, into the Speaker’s chair — and (to indulge in unfounded speculation) to elevate, say, Lianne Dalziel to health and open up a bigger job, in commerce, for the energetic if occasionally wayward John Tamihere or to move in Margaret Wilson, who by end-2004 will have got through most of the labour agenda.

Trevor Mallard has been accumulating enemies in education. Pete Hodgson’s impressive ability has been tarnished with obduracy in tight corners. George Hawkins has not lived up to fond hopes. So there is scope for change.

Of course, Clark could leave major change until after the 2005 election, as Holyoake did in 1966. But that just moves the issue out 18 months.

In any case, renewal depends on two preconditions.

One is that ministers depart. Holyoake nudged some substandard or misbehaving ministers into retirement. Clark shies away from bawling out ministers (and people who cross her). Emissaries usually do that dirty work, which reduces the potency of the message. So don’t count on Clark bouncing ministers.

The second precondition is that there are replacements of stature and ability at hand. There is no point replacing one time server with another.

Clark has none of the Muldoon/MacIntyre/Gordon stripe: junior minister David Cunliffe has real ability but a problematic personal manner; Tim Barnett has guts and can get things done but is too often too independent-minded; some add 2002 newcomer Russell Fairbrother, who has been entrusted with the tough job of chairing the foreshore/seabed committee, but he needs much more time and experience.

This dearth reflects another failure: to ensure top candidates at elections. For all its troubles, National has done better at the past two and looks likely to do so in 2005. Labour has been largely rewarding loyal placemen and placewomen.

If Clark wants the backbench wherewithal to regenerate her cabinet for a fourth term four years from now, she and president Mike Williams need to be shoulder-tapping them now to stand in 2005. Evidence of that is patchy.

But all that is in a misty future. Today’s cabinet meeting, you can bet, will be confident and comfortable. As the country is. For the moment.