Setting them up to fail?

There has been some excitement about the naming of Nanaia Mahuta as Foreign Minister and Peeni Henare as Defense Minister in the new Labour cabinet. At first glance neither one appears to have much experience or background in the portfolios that they are now responsible for, but Mahuta is the first female (and Maori) Foreign Minister, complete with a moko kauae. Henare, first elected in 2014, has been Minister for Civil Defense during the last year and half. He is also Minister of Whānau Ora. They comprise part of a cabinet that is considered to be one of the most diverse in NZ history and have received global attention as a result.

Mahuta first entered parliament in 1996 on the Labour list, then was elected in 1999 to the Te Tai Hauauru seat (beating Tuku Morgan), then transferred and won the Tainui/Hauraki-Waikato in 2002. She has been re-elected ever since and made a run for the party leadership in 2014. She was Minister for Customs, Youth Development, Local Government and Associate Minister for the Environment from 2005-2008 during the 5th Labour government and prior to her appointment as Foreign Minister was Minister of Local Government and Maori Development in the 6th Labour government (the first of which she retains). While in Opposition she served as the Labour spokesperson for Maori Affairs, Education, Energy and Conservation. She is also Associate Minister of Trade and Export Growth, Environment and Housing.

After 24 years in parliament, Mahuta surely knows her away around the Beehive and the domestic policy scene. But questions remain about her and Henare’s suitability for the positions they have been given. The breakdown of the questions goes something like this:

The symbolism of diversity is a powerful thing. However, beyond its symbolic value diversity in cabinet is a laudable goal only if it is accompanied by substance. The latter is defined as competence, background or experience in the policy areas for which the appointee is responsible, or the ability to learn fast. Diversity without substance is a cynical form of tokenism because it rewards those without merit in order to engage in empty symbolism as a PR tactic. It also sets up the appointees for failure if s/he is out of depth or is unable to overcome resistance from inside and outside of the Ministries for which they are responsible. That in turn serves to reinforce negative stereotypes about the ethnic, religious, racial or other groups to which they belong.

A big problem for ministerial neophytes of any persuasion is that they run the risk of bureaucratic capture by the agencies that they ostensibly oversee. Bureaucratic capture is a phenomenon where career bureaucrats surround a Ministerial appointee with everything from puffery and flattery to stonewalling and sandbagging in order to get the new leader to absorb and accept institutional logics as his or her own. This may include the “baubles” of office: getting to play with big boys toys in the case of Defense, and jetting off to exotic lands in the case of Foreign Affairs. All courtesy of the taxpayer. The syndrome is familiar.

Another problem is bureaucratic resistance or shunning. This phenomenon is when career bureaucrats endeavour to resist policy initiatives and change instigated by the new appointee by diluting or subverting the message within the institutional maze (which the new Minister is unfamiliar with), or simply ignore directives that do not suit or run contrary to their entrenched interests until the initiatives are dropped. This is an all-to-common problem in the intelligence and security field, where cadres of so-called “old boys” work hard to prevent real effective institutional reform from happening so long as they feel that the status quo works for them. The resistance to reform is less visible in Foreign Affairs because of the arc of modern diplomacy (multi-faceted, involving a variety of actors and subjects), but it remains in some institutional niches nevertheless.

In Foreign Affairs and Defence there is the additional problem that newly appointed Ministers must immediately engage with foreign interlocutors. Many of these foreign diplomats and military officials have great experience and often a considerable degree of cynicism when addressing areas of mutual interest. They very often have different cultural backgrounds, different ideological motivations, different economic interests and different ways of conceptualising the international order (say, being realist rather than idealist or constructivist in perspective). Without the shared cultural and ideological referents common to home, Ministerial neophytes thrust onto the world as the senior faces of NZ face formidable challenges unlike those found domestically.

The questions about Mahuta and Henare are therefore driven by concerns about their experience and competence when confronting these realities, and about whether their domestic experience can immediately translate into the skillset required to effectively engage both the internal (bureaucratic) and external (foreign interaction) aspects of their jobs.

Not surprisingly, some of the responses to those asking these questions have been to accuse them of being racist. That could well be true for some people, but the knee jerk, reflexive defensiveness of these reactions simply serves to obscure the reality of tokenism and overlook incompetence in the event that it does occur.

More reasoned rebuttals focus on Mahuta’s long career in parliament and the range of portfolios she has held over the years. Although Henare has a much shorter parliamentary career, he is seen as a competent quick learner in the areas in which he has previously been given responsibility. So the reasoning goes that even if they do not have deep experience in military-security matters and foreign affairs, both Mahuta and Henare are well equipped to rapidly get up to speed on their portfolios.

Beyond that, there is the domestic political side of the appointment equation to consider. Mahuta and Henare represent important Maori constituencies that Labour seeks to retain as a support base. Henare comes from a distinguished military lineage, so the symbolism of his appointment bestows mana on his office and in the eyes of many of his troops. Mahuta, known as “The Princess” in some circles, is Maori royalty. This might prove very useful when engaging Pacific Island nobility on matters of regional and mutual concern, and her familiarity with pomp and circumstance makes her a natural for ceremonial occasions when representing the State.

Other assessments of the appointments are mixed. There is a line of thought that posits that, on the one hand, the Mahuta appointment is a way of getting a long serving, important yet underwhelming MP out of the way via a golden parachute into a glamorous job while on the other hand a young, up-and-coming Maori MP is given his first shot at playing with the Big Boys. If they do not pan out, this reasoning holds, then no harm done because others will be running the show in any event.

That dovetails with the belief that PM Ardern is going to be the de facto Foreign Minister, using the leverage of her global celebrity to advance major NZ initiatives on the world stage while Mahuta works on what a knowledgeable friend of mine calls the “mice and rats” of foreign affairs. Mahuta will also be a visible indigenous symbol of the multicultural and polyethnic nature of NZ society. So, while Ardern does the heavy lifting in things such as climate change, non-proliferation and bilateral relations with the likes of the PRC and US, Mahuta can provide the ceremonial face of NZ diplomatic representation to the global community.

For Henare the issue is simple: translate his generally well-regarded work in Civil Defense into an understanding of the logistics and operational requirements of complex service organisations such as the MoD/NZDF that operate under relatively tight budgetary constraints and with significant institutional shortcomings when it comes to personnel, material and overall force readiness, and which recently have (in the case of the NZDF) suffered some serious incidents of professional and personal misconduct within both senior and junior ranks. That notwithstanding, much of what the NZDF does under MoD policy directives IS civil defense, be it in terms of disaster relief, humanitarian interventions and emergency engineering and transport. So the experience he has gained in his previous portfolio, even if relatively short, should well suit him for his new role. More to the point, none of this will interfere with how the NZDF leadership see and approach the world around them.

The most jaded idea being advanced is that, regardless of whether they are competent or not, both of these politicians will be the subject of bureaucratic capture. Senior managers and careerists in Mfat and MoD and NZDF will in fact run these agencies largely unimpeded by their respective ministers, who will cut ribbons, shake hands and bestow honours instead. A “Yes Minister” scenario will prevail, if you will.

Not all the reaction to these appointments has been negative or questioning. Many at home and abroad are celebrating the diversity represented in the new Cabinet and the individual achievements of Mahuta, Henare and their non-Pakeha, non-straight and/or female colleagues. The era of the straight white male in politics is seen as coming to an end, with NZ leading the way.

Perhaps that is true but it is not for me to say. Along with being called a racist for having broached some of the afore-mentioned questions on social media as well as being labeled a member of the Pakeha international relations and security community (I have to plead guilty to that one), I am loathe to tread further into the minefield that is identity politics in Aotearoa. Moreover, since I focus on matters of international and comparative polities and security, I cannot offer a knowledgeable opinion about appointments made to domestic-focused portfolios or about which of the scenarios outlined above is the closest to the truth. It seems likely that there is a mix of factors and reasons involved in these appointments, both opportunistic and sincere.

All I can hope for is that both of the new ministers are not being set up to fail and that even if their learning curves are steep, that they succeed in gaining command of the important instruments of State that they have been directed to lead. Time will tell.

9 thoughts on “Setting them up to fail?

  1. Hey in light of this, is it possible for you to do an review of how well Winston Peters did in his job as Foreign Minister same with Ron Mark as Defense Minister?
    Both of their jobs is more out of sight and out of mind compare to media known domestic jobs like Transport.

  2. Justin:

    Let me start with the reasons Winston and Ron were chosen.
    Winston was given Foreign Affairs by Helen Clark in order to get him out of the way when it came to domestic politics–in other words, the baubles of office. Jacinda Ardern did a similar thing but was not in as strong position as Clark was at the start of her last term so had to suffer through the old codger’s corruption allegations and his control of things like the Fisheries portfolio. You see how that went. Ron Mark represented a natural coalition choice given his background and the fact that there is absolutely no one on Labour’s side who have a military or security related background even remotely akin to that of an Army mechanic (or whatever it was that Mark did during his service years). Henare’s family name association with the Maori Battalion is as close as Labour can get these days, so with Mark gone the options for MinDef were limited.

    As for their performances. It is generally agreed that Winston did well. He loved the job and charmed his way through elite foreign policy circles. He even had some impact on NZ foreign policy in spite of attempts to get him to keep to the Labour Party line.

    Ron was always going to be a easy bureaucratic capture by the NZDF. He was one of them, would have liked to progress higher when in the ranks, and was not about to say “no” when they came with their hands out. But he did have the SAS “Hit and Run” scandal to deal with (he did not interfere with the Royal Commission investigation into Operation Burnham) and he did seem to realise that there were major issues within the organization itself. He could not do much about institutional matters in the MoD and NZDF given the low priority given to Defense in Labour circles, but he was competent insofar as understanding his role (his wearing of the upside-down medal rack notwithstanding).

  3. “his wearing of the upside-down medal rack notwithstanding”

    This sounded unbelievable to me so I had to check it, it seems he actually wore foreign medals (Omani) ahead of his NZ ones. A curious error that one (and technically illegal), but not as glaring as wearing medals upside down.

  4. Nanaia Mahuta was also Associate Minister for Trade and Export. So has experience in an international portfolio.

  5. Jennifer:

    Yes, I mentioned that in the second paragraph. The questions remain as to whether she actually did/learned anything significant in that role and whether 3 years in the job prepared her for the wider responsibilities of leadership of NZ diplomatic affairs (unless one holds the Tim Groser view that diplomacy is in fact reducible to trade). Let’s hope so.

  6. I know you and I have been around this mulberry bush a few times, Pablo, but I will say it again – to require ministers to have professional experience is to institutionalise bureaucratic capture. The risk of a minister being dominated by civil servants is that they will follow a civil service agenda, not their electorally mandated agenda. This risk is much higher, however, if the minister is a civil servant. Ron Mark is a perfect example of this – he had extensive relevant experience, in fact more than most Defense Ministers I can think of, but it did not prevent bureaucratic capture, quite the reverse. Conversely Phil Goff, the last Labour Prime Minister, did a good job despite no particular experience in the military field.

    Many successful foreign ministers have had non-diplomatic backgrounds. Many successful defense ministers have had non-military backgrounds. Your theory, that ministers with pre-existing service credentials escape bureaucratic capture, just is not supported by the evidence of the last thirty years, and your remedy, of required credentials, does not solve the problem (as we have seen with Ron Mark).

  7. Gorkem:

    I accept your point but also believe that a couple of examples do not make for a conclusive case either way. In any event you missed the part where I wrote that along with or instead of experience an appointee must have the ability to learn fast. If the latter is the case with Mahuta and Henare, then the critics of their appointments will be proven wrong. Unless, as in the case of the retrograde author banned by Mighty Ape, the objections centre on things other than competence or experience.

  8. Thanks for acknowledging my point Pablo.

    To me the best insurance against bureaucratic capture is a minister from outside the bureaucracy who has the intellectual capacity and political self-confidence not to get sucked in. In a NZ context, Goff, Tapsell and Don McKinnon (just to give the Tories their due) have done this successfully.

    As you say, Mahuta is an effective political operator. Does she have the intellectual self-confidence to navigate the bureaucracy and use it as a source of expertise without being captured by its agenda? It is possible, but we cannot really say for sure. But a promotion to a senior ministerial role is always something of a gamble, just like any other promotion to seniority – you never really know how somebody will perform.

    Mahuta may not be a great foreign minister, or even a good one, and the point is well made that the Prime Minister is always effectively a co-foreign minister. But even if she turns out to be the wrong person, it doesn’t mean it was wrong to try. Although looking at Labour’s current bench, other than Andrew Little (who is sorely needed in health), there really isn’t anybody who is potentially a good fit.

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