Hehir on a Sub-Prime Minister


Accordingly, some prime ministers have held enough power to operate like dictators (Muldoon). Others have operated more like the chairman of the board (John Key). And, from time to time, you get a prime minister with very little authority at all. Like, perhaps,

Consider the manner in which Winston Peters and Shane Jones continue to demonstrate that they are not really accountable to the person in whose cabinet they serve.  

After some outrage a while ago – I forget which one exactly – the prime minister made a big show of asking Jones to take a copy of the cabinet manual with him to read while he was on holiday in Thailand. A seemingly not chastened Jones hit back at his critics. Then he went on holiday and got himself shooting one of the assault weapons that were being banned following the March 15 terror attacks. 

Jones has recently made comments about the volume of Indians enrolled in tertiary study here has “ruined” those institutions. The prime minister has tepidly made clear her disagreement with that reprehensible statement but has refused to call them racist. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jones has since demonstrated very regard for his prime minister’s admonition. 

In terms of disciplining Jones, Ardern seems to be maintaining that her hands are tied because he is not a member of the Labour Party. But the arrangements between Labour and NZ First are a matter for them. It is not clear why, in terms of her public accountability, the public should be happy with Ardern’s cries of powerlessness.  

The Cabinet Manual, a fairly authoritative summary of the constitutional customs and traditions that underpin our political system, is clear on this point. It notes that the appointment and dismissal of government ministers is a power that belongs to the prime minister alone, for example. It also states that “[u]ltimately, Ministers are accountable to the Prime Minister for their behaviour.” 

As I said earlier, the powers of the office of prime minister ebb and flow over the years. It could be that we are now entering into an era nearer the ebb. One of Jacinda Ardern’s contributions to our constitutional evolution could well be the addition of the following qualifier to the above Cabinet Manual statement: “except when a Minister belongs to a different party, in which case he or she is accountable to no-one.” 

The Race Relations Commissioner and James Shaw have both said that Jones is being racist. But Jacinda Ardern’s view is that it is fine for one of her Cabinet Ministers to be racist so long as they are not in her party.

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