Newsroom Pro's 8 things at 8: Cabinet reshuffle winners and losers

Bill English announces the new Cabinet line up. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In today's email we look into the ministerial line up heading into the election, note how the government's nervousness over migration issues resulted in a temporary suspension of some of Immigration New Zealand's powers, and preview the looming Commerce Commission decision on the proposed NZME-Fairfax merger.

1. Winners and losers

Prime Minister Bill English made his final cabinet tweaks on Monday before making the final turn into the home straight ahead of the September 23 election.

As expected, Nikki Kaye was named as Education Minister to replace the retiring Hekia Parata, and Gerry Brownlee was named as Foreign Minister to replace Murray McCully.

But a few winners and losers were visible within the bowels of an otherwise minor reshuffle designed to show the Government charting a steady course towards election day.

Simon Bridges continued his rise, stepping up to replace Brownlee in the key role of Leader of the House. Up-and-coming back-bencher Mark Mitchell has stepped up into the full Cabinet by being named as Defence Minister.

Nicky Wagner also gets the important role for Christchurch as the replacement for Brownlee as the Minister Supporting the Greater Christchurch Regeneration, although it was not important enough to be inside cabinet.

Shane Cowlishaw's coverage on the day is here on Newsroom, including a closer look at Brownlee's polarising performance around the Christchurch rebuild.

2. Smith nudged further out

Another focus of the minor reshuffle was the role of English's longtime close colleague, Nick Smith.

Smith has been a focus of opposition attacks over housing and water in recent months and some on his own side of Parliament are less than thrilled with his performance.

English demoted Smith from 11th to 15th on the list in his first cabinet reshuffle in December, as well as taking the Housing Minister tag off him -- although leaving him as Construction and Building Minister.

Smith's ranking actually improved by one to 14th in Monday's reshuffle, but that disguised another diminishment in his role around housing. Smith lost responsibility for the programme of building houses on crown land in Auckland, which was consolidated into Amy Adams' role as Social Housing and Housing NZ minister.

English downplayed the change in the news conference.

"These are quite large programmes, so we are just taking the opportunity to consolidate the building programmes under one Minister and the regulation for the whole housing market remains with Nick Smith," English said.

"There is just too much of it to put under one Minister, because of the complexity. So that is how we are tidying it up," he said.

English did preview the potential for some significant new state house building or state house backed housing programmes in the coming months ahead of the election.

"The only thing you should read into it is that the Government has got a large scale building programme so we are consolidating the management of it so it's effective and we can get scale and we'll be talking a bit more about that over the next three or four months," he said.

There is the potential for the Tamaki Redevelopment Corporation project to be ramped up from 7,500 new homes to 10,000 new homes, while the Hobsonville Land Company is expected to add the Housing NZ Mt Roskill site at Akarana (which currently has 320 homes) to the list that includes both Hobsonville and Northcote (where up to 1,200 homes will be built on a site with 300 existing Housing NZ homes).

The Government is expected to launch its own 'lite' version of Labour's Kiwibuild policy before the election, and the consolidation of the various Auckland projects into Adams' portfolios is part of that.

3. Immigration sensitivity

The Government's nervousness about the risks it is seen as soft on migration and crime were evident in a terse announcement on Monday afternoon from Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse.

Woodhouse said he was temporarily suspending Immigration New Zealand's decision making authority on behalf of the Minister on deportation cases for some residence class visa holders convicted of a criminal offence.

The decision followed this NZ Herald report that Sultan Ali Abdul Ali Akbari, a convicted sex offender, was granted a deportation liability suspension by Immigration NZ, which removed the ability to deport him back to Afghanistan for five years.

"I have made my expectations very clear when it comes to deportation decisions involving offending of this nature and those expectations are not being met," Woodhouse said.

"I expect to be able to return the decision making authority to Immigration NZ within a fortnight, provided I can be assured the decision making process aligns with my expectations," he said.

4. The May 2 deadline approaches

Next Tuesday (May 2) is the deadline for the Commerce Commission's decision on the NZME-Fairfax NZ merger application.

Its draft rejection from November last year sparked a heated response from the two media companies and a subsequent debate that saw its final decision delayed at least twice.

We here at Newsroom have a variety of views about what could or should happen on May 2, and afterwards. Here's our compilation of views from Tim Murphy, Mark Jennings and myself.

Tim thinks the Commission is unlikely to overturn its initial rejection of the 'StuffMe' merger, Mark thinks an approval is possible given the risk of a court challenge, and I argue the decision is irrelevant while NZME and Fairfax are locked in a groupthink about how to make money out of news.

5. Coming up...

Steven Joyce will be giving the traditional pre-Budget preview speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce in a luncheon address on Thursday.

The focus will be on the scale and nature of the Government's long-previewed family package of tax cuts and other tweaks to rebates and supplements such as Working For Families and the Accommodation Supplement.

Here's Shane Cowlishaw's in-depth piece via Newsroom Pro on how the Accommodation Supplement for a reminder of the issues at stake and the detail involved.

Lisa Owen's interview with Steven Joyce on The Nation on Saturday is also a useful preview of what he might say in the speech on Thursday. He talked up the prospect for more infrastructure investment in Auckland, and he has foreshadowed the potential for income tax threshold tweaks elsewhere.

6. Steven vs Phil over transport

Another feature of Joyce's comments ahead of the Budget on May 25 will be the ongoing and escalating fight between the Government and the Auckland Council over infrastructure spending and funding, particularly around transport.

Joyce upped the ante on Saturday in The Nation interview by accusing Auckland Council of planning to reduce spending on transport.

"Unfortunately, at the moment anyway, the way the budget is set up for Auckland Council, they’re looking at actually reducing their expenditure on transport over the next few years," Joyce said.

"And I think it’s important that Aucklanders have that discussion, because you’ve got central government, which includes taxpayers everywhere else over the country putting more money in, and looks like, on the face of it, a bit of a lower contribution by Auckland Council," he said, adding he wanted councillors and Mayor Phil Goff to look at spending more on transport.

Joyce's push-back at the Auckland Council is shaping up as one of the pressure points ahead of the election, with frustration growing among voters over the finger pointing going on between Auckland and Wellington over who should fund the infrastructure necessary to cope with record high net migration and an growing housing shortage of at least 40,000.

The Government's refusal to consider a regional fuel tax leaves the Council in position of having to contemplate a double-digit rates increase just months before the election.

Newsroom's Co-Editor Tim Murphy takes a look at this stand-off between Wellington and Auckland in this comment piece on National loading a bullet in its Auckland roulette pistol.

"The transport challenges are too great to allow a Joyce-style political blinking game. And rates aren't the place to be paying for transport infrastructure in the medium term," Tim writes.

"On almost every big transport issue, the prime example being the City Rail Link, this administration has ended up accepting Auckland's need after years of bluster," he writes.

"Why must Aucklanders, whose city contributes so much to the Government's revenue, go through another round? One way or another, they will soon be ready to cry "enough". Could it be on polling day, September 23?"

ACT Leader and Epsom MP David Seymour has also focused in recent days on the escalating tensions between Joyce and Goff.

"Aucklanders cannot afford to keep losing years of infrastructure development to fights between Steven Joyce and Phil Goff," Seymour said, calling on the Government to share half its GST receipts on construction activity with the Council in exchange for the Council getting out of non-core activities.

7. Today we welcome Sam

We're very pleased to note that former Fairfax Media political reporter Sam Sachdeva joins Newsroom's team in the Parliamentary Press Gallery from today.

Sam will be our Foreign Affairs and Trade Editor and will focus on these areas, along with defence and security. He will be writing for both Newsroom Pro and Newsroom and joins myself, sub-editor Lynn Grieveson and National Affairs Editor Shane Cowlishaw in our Gallery office.

Sam is contactable at sam.sachdeva@newsroom.co.nz

Foreign affairs and trade have taken on an extra topicality and importance in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, as was evident overnight in America's decision to impose countervailing duties of up to 24 percent on Canadian lumber imports. This followed a Canadian decision on importing US dairy products.

"Canada has made business for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other border states very difficult. We will not stand for this. Watch!" Trump tweeted overnight.

Also overnight, Japan appointed a deputy foreign minister as chief negotiator for the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact in another sign the TPP minus one deal promoted by Todd McClay is well and truly back on track. See more on that from the Japan Times.

8. One fun thing

President Donald J Trump will complete his first 100 days in office this weekend, a milestone he trumpeted (sorry I couldn't resist) as a candidate, but is now keen to downplay, given his various failures to pass health care legislation and make his travel bans operative.

CNN's Jake Tapper has compiled a four-minute montage comparing Trump's promises with his achievements. It's well worth a watch, particularly on the eve of a potential US Government shutdown this weekend because Trump wants the Congress to approve some funds to build his wall on the Mexican border - that he said Mexico would pay for (but isn't).